The 2017 NBA Finals have just got over. But unless, you are a follower of the sport, you probably did not know it. In India, sports coverage has been dominated by the football Champions League final and the cricket ICC Champions Trophy, rendering NBA basketball minuscule.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were beaten 1-4 by the Golden State Warriors on Monday in a historically one-sided series. It wasn’t an especially competitive final, but keeping in mind the high stakes, it was still exceptional basketball. Arguably, the best NBA player ever matched up against the greatest scorer of the generation – a battle of epic proportions. Unfortunately though, in India, LeBron James versus Kevin Durant was hardly a marquee event.
In a country obsessed with cricket, basketball comes at the fag end of sports when ranked by popularity. That is surprising because, if you think about it, even the smallest of schools have a rundown cement basketball court. Why that doesn’t translate into basketball being a major crowd puller at the national scale is a topic for a later time – but nevertheless being a basketball fan in India is a fairly lonely affair.
Where’s the coverage?
As a Washington Post article reported in 2016, a mere 5 million in 1.2 billion people play basketball in the country. Compare that to the teeming millions playing cricket in narrow alleys and dusty maidans or the increasing number of kids attracted to the flamboyant brand of football embodied by the Ronaldos and the Messis of the current generation and the number seems extraordinarily small.
It is no surprise then that while we have a glut of cricket and football leagues, basketball has none of that flashiness. That reflects in the limited coverage on television as well – Sony SIX broadcasts some of the games but can’t show them all, mainly because there isn’t that kind of a dedicated audience in the country. Print media allocates all of a 5x3 column to report developments and, aside from the NBA Finals, news channels ignore basketball altogether. So where does that leave a casual basketball fan?
The Internet has revolutionised how we consume media – so be it with basketball-related news. One of the first things I do every morning on my way to work is watch the NBA Starters show on YouTube – a well-produced show encapsulating the entirety of the league, from memes to marquee events.
A spate of NBA related shows have sprung up in recent times, some debating the all-existing Greatest of All Time topic, others breaking down every element of the game and the hoopla surrounding it. These shows and many others have become accessible in our internet-obsessed country, this accessibility made easier by increasing net speeds – the introduction of Jio being a shot in the arm for fans like me.
Connected via the Internet
In typical American fashion, every meme-worthy moment is relayed, every smash dunk replayed and every newsworthy moment splashed across social media. While, not a lot of this trickles down to India, these shows helps the casual basketball fans in the country keep in touch with what can truly be described as NBA fever for the better part of the year. The Internet also allows room for long-form articles covering niche issues and intricacies of the sport – for the more involved and serious fans.
But, fandom cannot be only about digesting information, neither can it be about accumulating knowledge of the game. The lack of fans in the country is the biggest contributor to the low profile of the sport. Venture into a pub, or a college common room on the day of a Manchester derby, or any regular cricket game featuring India, and it’s a packed house. Will basketball games ever draw crowds like these? (An obvious issue is the telecast time). Most sport-loving teenagers will rattle off the entire squad of their favourite football team, but will they ever be able to do the same for our national basketball side?
Basketball has yet to take off as a sport in India. Sure, in groups and pockets, there are faithful followers of the sport. Delhi University has a thriving basketball culture. Sports festivals across the country attract crowds for basketball games – more often than not, centred around the rumours of a visiting player with vicious dunking skills.
But, outside this age group, this interest falls in time and space – exponentially. What India needs is a generational talent like Yao Ming to bring the game to the masses – out of circles and into our homes. Satnam Singh has gotten the ball rolling but we are yet far away from being captured by basketball frenzy.
Leagues for kabbadi, badminton and hockey have contributed in popularising their respective sports. Maybe a similar league for basketball, even the 3x3 version, can kickstart things in India. While, there have been talks and deals to launch such a professional league in India, nothing concrete beyond school and college level has materialised.
Or perhaps, we just have to accept that basketball may well never invade our imagination as cricket or football does. Yet, loyalists will keep on finding more and more efficient ways of staying in touch and fans will continue to wind up alarm clocks in anticipation of catching a game of basketball. At 5.30 am, there won’t be chants of Hala Madrid or poetic couplets denouncing Pakistan. Amidst the creaking crickets, there will be the swoosh of a Stephan Curry three pointer – the best sound in all of sport. Being a NBA basketball fan in India is, more than anything, a lonely affair.