Just half an hour before the start of National Basketball Association first pre-season game in India between Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings, NBA commissioner Adam Silver arrived at a packed media conference room at the NSCI Indoor Stadium on Friday.
During his introduction, Silver recalled a story from 2014 where Vivek Ranadive, owner of the Sacramento Kings, persuaded him to travel to Mumbai just before he was set to begin his term as NBA commissioner. Silver flew down to Mumbai with a delegation of Sacramento Kings officials that included Vlade Divac and a group from the NBA, including deputy commissioner Mark Tatum.
During that trip, Ranadive brought up the idea to conduct the first-ever NBA games in Mumbai and Silver hastily agreed. “Of course, as all new commissioners do, you say yes to anything that an NBA (team) owner asks of you. New on the job, I said, absolutely,” Silver chuckled.
“And here we are now five years later.”
Over the years, many sports have tried to establish themselves in the Indian market but very few have succeeded, including the UBA Pro Basketball League, which was established in 2015. But it came to a halt two years later after the Basketball Federation of India slapped a ban, deeming it as an unauthorised competition.
122 players, coaches and staff members were barred from taking part in any competitions conducted in India or abroad despite the league being affiliated with the International Basketball Federation.
However, Silver was optimistic that India could have could have it’s own NBA League in the near future, a decision that was under “serious consideration”.
He revealed having a discussion with Ranadive on the formation of a 12-team franchise league in India. They plan on following the footsteps of the Basketball Africa League (beginning in March 2020) where NBA hosted its first-ever exhibition game in the continent in 2015.
Silver expected the league to be launched in India with a time-frame of five years but called for better arena infrastructure to host many events in the future. For this weekend’s game itself, NBA brought along a scoreboard, seats, lock rooms and a bunch of other items from the USA.
“We expect to see more [NBA] teams in the future. One of the things we need, though, is more of an arena infrastructure,” Silver said during the presser.
“This [NSCI] is a fantastic facility but it’s relatively small by NBA standards,” he added.
“It is historic to have these two games here, but in the larger scope of developing a business, it’s a very small step. You have to go into it knowing that this is going to be a long-term project. As I said earlier, it requires an arena infrastructure if we’re serious about a league,” Silver asserted.
The first NBA overseas game was conducted in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1978 and since then the basketball league has traveled all over the world with over 200 games being played in nearly 20 countries.
Looking for NBA star from India
The NBA has already been expanding its roots in India with the help of it’s junior programs and activities. In 2017, the NBA even launched its own academy.
“One of our two most immediate goals is to see the development of some top-tier talent coming out of India and where we would again see players coming into the NBA and Women’s NBA. There’s also an enormous pool of young women playing the game as well,” Silver stated.
India could learn from China – once a budding nation in the sport that has made significant progress in the last two decades. However, the rise of basketball in world’s most populated nation was largely down to the prominence of star Yao Ming, whose big break arrived when he was signed by the NBA franchise Houston Rockets after spending five seasons with Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
“The China experiment started slowly, but over the last 10 years, it’s grown into major development. I think the system is set and we could almost duplicate it here and maybe in Africa and other places,” said Indiana Pacers owner Simon Herb who has been with the NBA China board since its inception in 2008.
Asked about sustaining the NBA model, Silver explained the ongoing NBA India Games were historic but still a “small step” towards the long-term plan.
“As [Herb] Simon was saying earlier, I think we put both feet on the ground in China and we meant it. We made a financial investment. And this is not for the faint of heart. I think it’s why we’ve been very cautious in terms of our approach in India,” he said.
So far, around 30 players have moved to NBA from CBA, with former Toronto Raptors point guard Jeremy Lin among the latest names to join the Chinese league roster.
In contrast, the only Indian to be drafted in the NBA is Satnam Singh, who was snapped by the Dallas Mavericks in 2015. However, he eventually joined the Texas Legends, the D-League affiliate of the Mavericks. Previously, Canadian Sim Bhullar became the first player of Indian descent to feature in the NBA when he played for the Kings in 2014.
Sending a message to local players aspiring to play in the NBA someday, Silver concluded: “My experience almost from 28 years now in the NBA, is that the best players are the hardest-working players. It’s tried and true. It’s one of the things we talk about in terms of the values of our game, and one of those values is hard work. And I think that’s lost on a lot of the young players out there.”
As India looks to make rapid strides as a basketball nation, finding the next Ming perhaps seems like the big step for now.