The National Basketball Association’s first-ever venture into India was meant to be little more than a compliment to its potential as an upcoming sporting market.
Hosting two pre-season games in Mumbai between teams that aren’t regulars at the business end of the season, the India Games was expected to be just about an exhibition.
The tour was tightly scheduled and the proximity to the season meant that the teams could be pardoned if they took it a little easy especially while playing in front of a crowd that had little exposure to the atmosphere of an NBA game.
Out of the two matches on the tour, only one was open to the general public with the other one reserved for school children, giving the event an even more charitable feel.
However, what panned out at Mumbai’s National Sports Club of India would’ve exceeded expectations of even the NBA bigwigs.
For the players and coaching staff, it certainly did.
“It thought it was an awesome event to be a part of. With so many kids shouting, I felt it was quite incredible, something I haven’t seen too often,” Sacramento Kings’ coach Luke Walton said after the first game on Friday.
For the children, it was all about taking in and enjoying every bit of the good basketball that was on show on the court. Every basket was cheered, irrespective of the side that had scored it.
Basketball is a relentless sport thanks to the shot clock forcing the issue in the game, but that did little to drain the young fans’ energy that matched up to those who were playing on the court.
“It was a different energy out there. The kids were loud – kids are loud anyway. They were really into the game,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan acknowledged.
The young spectators though were hardly partisan. They never planned to, having started the evening with chants of “Let’s go Pacers… let’s go Kings”. They made sure both teams felt their love, spurring them on to play a better game. Eventually, that worked.
The crowd portrayed classic neutral behaviour rooting for the game to stay in balance.
“When the Pacers were trailing it seemed like the fans were rooting for the Pacers. And when we were trailing, they started rooting for us,” said Kings’ Buddy Hield, whose team were at the receiving end of the supporters’ love for a close game when the stadium began erupting at every Pacers’ point as they closed in on a fine comeback.
“The crowd’s energy rubbed onto the players. That’s why we had such an intense game. At a point it seemed like a playoff game not just because the players were fighting, but the crowd made it feel like a knockout match,” McMillan stated.
A thrilling one-point win for the Pacers in overtime was perhaps the just reward for them.
The second day saw the decibels drop-down markedly as child-like exuberance was replaced by the restraint of adulthood. But that also seemed to have brought with it a sense of know-how and a greater appreciation of the players’ game.
Like the noise from the stands, the players too dropped in intensity in the second encounter having played just 24 hours before as the game became about less incessant running and more about sublime skills.
The deafening cheers of the opening day gave way for oohs and aahs as the crowd more aware of the players and their strengths, drooled in their swift, silky and clever moves.
Individual players were recognised and acknowledged by the crowd with “M-V-P” chants emerging from certain sections of the crowd as soon as Kings’ De’Aaron Fox got hold of the ball. Although the 21-year-old point guard hasn’t won any such award, the chants were a recognition of the talent the player possessed.
Pacers captain Myles Turner also received plenty of love from the crowd.
“It’s humbling for me,” he said about the support he received.
Turner added: “To come to this part of the world where I’ve never played and get a shout out is amazing. This is why we play NBA for. The crowd was great. There were a few players were getting the love from the crowd and it is a game that many won’t forget in a while.”
The same holds true for the fans as well.
“It was exhilarating to see the players and everything that is there in an NBA game in flesh,” said Samdrudh, a college student and an amateur basketball player experiencing his first-ever NBA game live.
An ardent NBA follower, the intensity of the game left him pleasantly surprised.
“The competitiveness of the game was something I didn’t expect considering this is just a pre-season game. But it was so good and both teams gave it their all. It was an unforgettable experience,” he added.
The strenuous travel to India may have left the Kings and Pacers fatigued with the teams heading directly to the airport from the stadium to catch a flight back home on Saturday. But few from their camps seemed to complain too much.
“It was a great trip for us. The hospitality, the culture and the people were simply awesome. The games were great too from the perspective of preparation,” said Walton, whose thoughts were echoed by his opposite number McMillan.
For the fans in Mumbai, the demand is now for a regular season game.
“It was a great opportunity for us to watch a game live and I hope these games come back and hopefully as regular season games,” said Samrudh.
The media too pushed this query to the big bosses of NBA, but any such event remains highly far fetched at this point.
India, thus, may have to do with only pre-season NBA games here, but if they are anything like these in Mumbai, few would complain.