NBA star centre Pau Gasol on one of his promotional tours in India.

Pau Gasol is one of the many NBA stars to have visited India in recent years. Image credit: Karan Madhok.

I remember the first time I watched the NBA on TV. It was the mid-90s and I was more interested in watching Duck Tales on Doordarshan than ‘alternative’ games like basketball on Star Sports. The definition of sport used to begin and end with cricket. Although I’d heard of names such as Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, they hardly meant anything to me.

I remember catching a brief glimpse of a regular season game between the Utah Jazz and Orlando Magic, featuring stars like Karl Malone and Penny Hardaway. A few years later, my interest spiked when the Los Angeles Lakers signed this rookie named Kobe Bryant, who was making every basketball fan excited for the future. I began to play basketball more often, and thus, I cared more about the highest level of the game. The names seemed larger than life: Payton. Iverson. O’Neal. Rodman. Miller. Robinson. Garnett, and more. With a friend circle of dedicated fans, my curiosity for the game grew deeper.

I watched the Jazz once more in 1998. This time, they were in the NBA Finals, and by sheer luck, it happened to be the final game in a Bulls uniform for a certain Michael Jordan. I saw the steal, the push-off, and the last shot. The seeds of a love affair had been sowed. A year later, Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby, and Larry Johnson carried the eighth-seeded New York Knicks to an improbable Finals’ appearance, and in the process, the team won me over as the primary object of my affection.

Those who have followed the NBA in India from the early internet or pre-internet days will attest: it wasn’t the easiest love affair to have. We were limited to two or three early morning live games a week. We got our hands on SLAM Magazine occasionally, played NBA Live 99 on our computers, and waited 10 minutes each time on a dial-up network for the old nba.com website to load.

It was all worth it though, because the challenge of access made us treasure the NBA even more. There were no casual fans: you either cared deeply about the NBA or you had never heard about it at all. While many of my friends discussed Sachin and Ganguly or The Undertaker and Kane, I wanted to jump like Vince Carter and pass like Jason Williams.

Fast forward to the present day, and the smaller, more connected new world has made life wonderfully easier for the new Indian NBA fan. The internet has been a boon. Now, even thousands of miles away from Los Angeles or New York, you can follow your favourite players minute-by-minute updates on social media like never before. NBA highlights are only just a couple of YouTube clicks away. The League Pass has made almost any game accessible live through the course of the season every day. There is no bit of news, rumour, or meme that escapes the attention of a fan.

TV broadcasts have improved dramatically, too. From the time of two games a week, Sony SIX and Ten Sports double and tripled that number, and now, we are at the apex of NBA viewing options in India: Last year, Sony SIX signed a deal with the NBA to broadcast an NBA doubleheader nearly every day of the season, showing up to 14 games live weekly. That schedule is likely to continue again this year, making an NBA game as essential part of an Indian breakfast as that cup of masala chai or filter coffee.

Perhaps the biggest step forward over the last half decade is how, instead of the Indian fan constantly reaching out to find the NBA, it’s the NBA that has reached back to find the Indian fan. The NBA’s presence in India has grown steadily over the past six years. Now, the NBA has an India-specific website, an office in Mumbai, and staff dedicated to further help grow their presence in the country. Over the past six years, dozens of NBA players have visited India to hold clinics, take part in charity events, and promote the game.

There was a time when finding an old Michael Jordan poster among scraps in a random stationary shop in Mussoorie was one of the highlights of my year. Those days are long gone. From social media interactivity to regular, easy access to all types of NBA related information, jerseys, and other products, nothing is too out of reach for a fan anymore. The power of the NBA’s most popular teams and superstars have made names of places like San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Cleveland seem almost as familiar as Ranchi, Aurangabad, or Coimbatore. The NBA has taught me – and many other fans – more about North American geography than any school-teachers ever could have.

Once known only among small niche circles, basketball has become one of the fastest-growing sports in India. Viewership of live NBA games – according to NBA India Managing Director Yannick Colaco – went up by over 200 percent last year. NBA India has close to half a million fans in India on Facebook. Everything – from jersey and merchandise sales to celebrity endorsements – is on the upswing in India.

The new Indian NBA fan lives in a world where an Indian (Vivek Ranadive) owns an NBA team (Sacramento Kings). That owner has plans to bring the NBA’s Commissioner for a trip to India next month and is looking forward to hosting India’s first-ever NBA exhibition game.

When I asked Ranadive a few weeks ago about why he felt that India can be a special destination for the NBA and basketball, he replied, “I think that basketball is destined to be the premier sport of the 21st century. It’s a game that can be played by boys, by girls, indoors, outdoors, by one person, a few people, in cities, in villages, in rich countries, poor countries. It doesn’t require a lot of space. I don’t expect it to surpass cricket as the national pastime [in India], but I think it can be a strong number two… I think basketball is perfect for the Indian situation…”

Ranadive’s Kings also made Indo-Canadian Sim Bhullar the first player of Indian descent to sign with an NBA team. Bhullar was cut from the team recently, but his brief flirtation with the NBA opportunity brought even more attention towards the Indian fanbase. Although Bhullar was born and bred in Canada, the NBA and the Kings made sure to highlight him for his Indian heritage, and he was invited by Ranadive to be a part of the ‘India Day’ parade in New York this Independence Day.

It is in this exciting new environment that the new NBA season begins over the pond in North America. Just like it has been over the last few years, I’m expecting another transformative season for NBA fans in India, where the numbers of online followers, TV watchers, merchandise customers, and most importantly, NBA-inspired basketball players in India will all rise.

Indian basketball fervour will never match China, where it is estimated that there are 300 million basketball fans. While it will remain a niche activity here in comparison to cricket or football, NBA basketball is carving out its own unique space in the Indian sport ‘fanosphere’. Rest assured, there is much optimism in the air for Indian NBA fans and the future is much brighter than the past.

If you’re already an old fan of the game, rejoice, for we are at the cusp of the NBA’s golden years in India. If you’re not on the NBA bandwagon, now would be a good time to jump in. Just like the English Premier League (EPL) before it, the NBA is primed to become one of the favourite foreign leagues for more and more mainstream Indian sports fans to follow.

When I look back to 20 years ago, it’s strange to imagine a world where NBA access to me was limited to little more than a couple of games per week, old trading cards and repeat broadcasts of ‘Space Jam’. Today, it gives me immense pleasure to see a large number of Indian fans embracing the game and to see their love affair become into a smoother ride. Like Ranadive said, basketball can be perfect for the Indian situation. I hope that 20 years from now, the NBA would have helped the rise of basketball as a sport across every city and village in our nation.

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[KARAN MADHOK]