“My father told me, Satnam, you have only three things...basketball, study and go sleep,” recalls a seven-foot two-inch sportsman in a village in Punjab’s Ludhiana district.
Satnam Singh Bhamara more than fulfilled his father’s wishes. Easily the most famous resident of Ballo Ke (population 800), Bhamara was the first Indian player to be drafted into the National Basketball Association in the United States of America in 2015. The Netflix documentary One in a Billion, despite its clichés and problems, is an absorbing chronicle of Bhamara’s remarkable journey.
The 69-minute film opens with a moving sequence of Bhamara visiting his village after a gap of several years. He had been drafted into the Dallas Mavericks team and had returned home a hero. We hear from the basketball player, his father, and his neighbours in “Indian” (you’d think someone would bother checking this stuff before putting it in to the documentary but alas, no).
At this point, Roman Gackowski’s documentary is still in its infancy, and you hope that this might be one of those white-saviour films with an Indian protagonist that will avoid the usual hyperbole.
That hope is short-lived as an assortment of NBA officials, including commissioner Adam Silver, sound very excited about “a huge untapped market”, “a burgeoning middle class” and “talent pool”. Coaching staff, officials and team owners Mark Cuban and Vivek Ranadive talk up Bhamara as the basketball god’s gift to Indian civilisation and speak of him as an Indian equivalent of China’s Yao Ming, carrying a billion hopes on his shoulders.
The comparison is erroneous. Ming was born in Shanghai to basketball players and played the sport throughout his formative years. Bhamara was born in 1995 in Ballo Ke to a farmer and a housewife, and discovered the sport only when he was 14 years old. Ming played Chinese professional basketball since he was 17 before being signed up by the NBA’s Houston Rockets at 22. Satnam trained at the IMG Reliance academy for five years before he was picked up by Dallas Mavericks, and he couldn’t speak proper English until he was 17.
Crashing the boards
One in a Billion is Bhamara’s story, no matter what spin is applied on it. It is the journey of an amazing individual whose inner fire not only saw him beat the odds and barriers but absolutely dunk them. The documentary is rescued by Satnam’s candidness and his story, with his five-year stint at IMG Reliance’s academy in Florida accounting for a majority of the narrative.
Bhamara’s struggle is real, and Indian basketball journalist Karan Madhok is a voice of sanity amidst the cheerleading. Madhok traces the challenges faced by Indian basketball players and acts as a bridge between Bhamara and viewers who may not be familiar with the sport’s set-up in India.
There is little to show from Bhamara’s time at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy, apart from Teja Singh Dhaliwal, senior Vice President of Basketball Federation of India, who recalls the youngster’s “discovery”. This revelation is hilariously interspersed with footage that shows the academy’s hole-ridden roof. You begin to wonder about the game’s dismal state in India, given that the facility is quoted as one of the best in the country by Troy Justice, NBA’s senior director of international basketball operations.
Several moments hit home for viewers: 14-year old Bhamara being forced to play with a size-19 shoe sewn together from two other shoes (size 18 shoes were the largest available ones in India at the time), his loneliness during his first six months in the US, and his struggles with English for his first three years in Florida. The only words he could say at the time were, “Sorry, coach.”
The Punjabi sportsman’s lighthearted nature off court and his immense work ethic on it and in the gym make you want to root for him. Bhamara comes across as a shy, young man in a foreign land, far away from his family and coming to grips with linguistic and cultural barriers. When he first landed up in the US, he walked around with his head bowed.
Thankfully, Bhamara’s coaches at IMG Reliance offer an honest assessment of Bhamara as a “work in progress”. They also talk about a serious and dedicated individual who is willing to “run through a wall for you”. Even though most viewers will be aware of the conclusion, Bhamara’s tears after years of hard work and sacrifice culminating in a NBA draft pick cannot help but evoke a warm feeling for the big guy inside.