Sim Bhullar

Photo Courtesy: NMSU

I’m waiting for the day that this news isn’t a big deal. That a brown-skinned guy with South Asian features gets signed to an NBA team’s Summer League roster, and the rest of the brown-skinned, South Asian world doesn’t freak out about it. I’m waiting for the day when such an announcement is a regular occurrence that doesn’t make us raise our eyebrows or make us scramble to identify the player’s racial feature or heritage. For the day that this relatively minor bit of news doesn’t attract our breathless attention.

But, for the better of the Indian diaspora, this news is indeed a game-changer. And that’s because Sim Bhullar has become the first, the first of a community with one of the largest populations on planet Earth to break a major barrier in the hoops world. In this small step, he has taken a massive stride, and for that, he deserves all the attention that is currently being showered upon him.

The 21-year-old Bhullar is not a small man. At 7-foot-5, he is a giant on the basketball court capable of dwarfing the biggest fellow players even in the world’s ‘tallest’ sport. He wears size-22 shoes on his massive feet, and with each gargantuan step, covers much more of length of the court than his smaller counterparts.

Last week, as the hoops world tuned in to watch the finest young players get drafted into the basketball’s greatest league – the NBA – Bhullar and his size-22s took a very small step forward: Less than a day after being spurned and going undrafted in the NBA, he signed a Summer League contract with the Sacramento Kings.

While most of the serious NBA media showered their concerns on the young superstars on Draft Night or the upcoming stars on the league’s free agency market, Sim Bhullar’s tiny ripple made a massive dent. When the Canadian-born Indian – whose parents moved from Punjab to Toronto 30 years ago – signed the contract with the Kings, he became the NBA’s first-ever player of Indian-descent.

The Summer League offer is still a long way to go before the ‘NBA Dream’ is fully seen into reality and Bhullar actually makes the final cut of the Kings’ (or another team’s) roster. Bhullar will likely have to star at the league in Las Vegas over the next month and perhaps even prove his way up from the NBA’s Development League, but it brings him one step closer to becoming the first desi to ever play in the NBA. And thus, be brings all the desi basketball lovers from around the planet – from Toronto to Jalandhar by way of Birmingham, Houston, and Indore – one step closer to our collective dream.

For those who have closely followed his progress, the story is well-known by now. Sim and his brother Tanveer grew in height and in basketball skill with the same phenomenal acceleration and began to earn some fame in High School. The ‘Giant Bhullars’ moved from Canada to the USA to better develop their skills, playing at the Kiski School in Pennsylvania and the famous Huntington Prep School in West Virginia. For college, Sim was recruited to play for the New Mexico State Aggies in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) in Division 1 of the NCAA. A year later, his 7-foot-5 brother Tanveer followed.

Sim played two successful seasons for New Mexico State. He was named WAC tournament MVP twice, as he led the conference in blocks (3.37 per game) and shooting percentage (64.8) and helped his team reach the NCAA national tournament in both seasons.

But two months ago, the 21-year-old giant decided to forego his final two years of college eligibility and declare for the NBA Draft. Instantly, he captured the imaginations of South Asian basketball fans everywhere, who were hoping that there would be an NBA team out there willing to take a chance on the biggest prospect – vertically, at least – of this year’s draft class. He went undrafted, but disappointment swiftly turned into elation as it was soon announced that he would be joining the Sacramento Kings.

Of course, there is a sense of cynicism among many about this news. Ranking fairly low in the eyes of most scouts among available prospects, Bhullar’s name wasn’t called after complete 60 picks in the first and second rounds of the NBA draft. Despite his size, and abilities, few have been expecting Bhullar to be physically ready to handle the frenetic pace of an NBA game, the highest level of the sport of basketball in the world. And yet, despite his perceived weaknesses, the Kings gave him a chance.

Which should be surprising, but it isn’t. The Kings are owned by Vivek Ranadive, the first and only Indian-born owner in the NBA and the man most aggressively pushing for the sport of basketball to gain popularity back in his homeland. Over the past year, Ranadive’s Kings have hosted Indian-culture nights, launched the NBA’s only Hindi-language website, and his point guard Isaiah Thomas visited Mumbai and Chennai this offseason. The Kings were one of the few teams where Bhullar had a pre-draft workout, and it seemed to be an open secret that they would be among the frontrunners to bring his 7-foot-5 presence to the NBA.

This is where the cynic speaks up, claiming that Bhullar was given a chance by the Kings more for his potential commercial outreach to you and I – the fan of Indian basketball – than for the skills that he can bring for them on the court. In that case, mission accomplished: the Kings and Ranadive, through Sim Bhullar, indeed, now have India’s attention.

But now, it will be up to Bhullar to prove that he is more than just a marketing tool. That he deserves a shot in the NBA for the talent he brings on-court instead of the hype that he brings off of it.

Bhullar will become the tallest active player in the NBA if he signs onto the Kings’ roster for the season. He has a long wingspan and big hands. He’s a great rebounder on both ends of the floor, has a soft scoring touch around the basket, and can absolutely shut down opponents once he gets his positioning on the defensive end of the floor. Although he seems to have lost a lot of weight over the summer, Bhullar still needs to get better conditioned and also work on further developing his post-game. There is a lot of room for improvement in the young man’s game, which is actually a good thing given that he has shown the willingness to improve so drastically in the past two years and can get much better in the future.

Off the court, Bhullar’s effect, like his size, can be massive. If he eventually does become the first Indian-origin person to play in the NBA, he could be in the unique situation to b an inspiration for Indian basketball players everywhere. If he stays with the Kings (or their affiliate D-League team, the Reno Bighorns), expect Ranadive to use Bhullar as a vehicle to boost his outreach to India and fulfil his dreams of making the Sacramento Kings into “India’s home team”.

Several months ago in this column, I had written about the importance for Indian basketball to have role models for the next generation to look up to. India still lacks a home grown basketball star that has captured the imaginations of the fans and the media; Bhullar may be Canadian by nationality, but his cultural heritage and background will not go unnoticed by the country of his roots. Bhullar, to his credit, has embraced his role as a potential role model for the Indian community and has shown a genuine desire to help accelerate the rise of basketball in India.

As a basketball fan and an Indian, I have been elated to hear that there is an NBA team out there – owned by an Indian, no less – who is willing to give a real chance to a basketball player of Indian origin. But it would make me even happier if Bhullar shines on the court and proves that he belongs, so much so that we would be ready to look past the colour of his skin to appreciate his basketball talents. It would be fantastic to see Bhullar’s “Indianness” celebrated because of his play on-court, instead of using his heritage a substitute to fill in the gap and to simply tell an interesting story about a bit player in the NBA’s fringes.

Bhullar is inching closer to breaking one of the last racial barriers in the NBA, and this is why him stepping into a ‘Kings’ jersey for the Summer League is a big deal, why this one small step by this giant is a giant stride for Indian basketball.

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[KARAN MADHOK]