Dressed in a dapper, dark blue single-breasted suit, Satnam Singh Bhamara sat anxiously on the crowded floor of the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, New York. A single Thursday evening in late June had the potential to change the 19-year-old’s life forever, and forever make history for Indian Basketball and the NBA.
But nothing was certain. The previous few weeks had turned Satnam from an unknown 7-footer out of High School into a possible late second-round pick. His name had made its way on to the draft boards, but being a potential late second-round pick is too close to being undrafted, too close to a dream deferred. The NBA Draft has only 60 picks, which means only 60 dreams are guaranteed to come true on that night. And as the picks went on, and the teams who had worked out with Satnam chose other players, that number edged closer and closer to 60.
And then, after pick number 52 was announced, nothing was the same again.
Dressed in a plain, striped white shirt and blue jeans, Satnam Singh Bhamara sat anxiously at the former office of the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) near Paharganj in New Delhi. A single basketball workout a few weeks ago had changed the 14-year-old’s life forever, and set into motion a new era for Indian basketball.
But still, there was uncertainty. That day in the BFI office – in the summer of 2010 – was the first time I got to meet and get to know Satnam. Just a month before that meeting, Satnam was one among 50 boys and girls – all under 14 from every corner of India – who were invited to New Delhi by the BFI for trials hosted for IMG Reliance for a potential IMG Academy scholarship programme. The youngsters were chosen based on their performances at that year’s Sub-Junior National Basketball championship.
Satnam was the centrepiece – literally and figuratively – of those trials. While the rest of the players were 13 or younger, a special exception was made for the 14-year-old 7-footer who was played for Punjab’s Youth (U16) team already and had recently led them to a national championship in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. A year earlier, at just 13, he had already played for India at the FIBA Asia U16 Championship in Malaysia.
IMG-Reliance had recently signed a sponsorship deal with the BFI to sponsor the federation events and provide this rare scholarship programme. After the tryouts, IMG’s coach Dan Barto chose four boys and four girls for the scholarship at his basketball academy back in Florida, USA. Unsurprisingly, Satnam was the biggest name among the eight.
So there he was at the BFI office in New Delhi, a few months before his semester of school was due to begin in Bradenton with the IMG Academy. He sat nervously in the office – barely being able to stretch his large legs on a bench in the tiny space – and waited for his paperwork to get cleared. He spoke only in thick Punjabi and needed my help to fill out his English visa form for the United States.
He had been handed a scholarship at one of the top youth sport academies in the world, but back then, he didn’t really know what it meant. In my earlier conversations, he talked with uncertainty about the future. Uncertainty about how he, a boy who grew up in a farming village with less than 700 people and trained at the squalor of the Ludhiana Basketball Academy in Punjab, a boy who was barely familiar with urban India, would now be exposed to a First World nation, exposed to some of the world’s best training facilities, and a culture at a polar opposite to his own. He didn’t know that the way he was educated and coached would change forever.
He had heard whispers – said wistfully rather than confidently – that he had the potential of becoming the first NBA player out of India. He told me that his dream was indeed to play in the NBA one day. His potential had been co-signed early by Troy Justice, the NBA’s Director of Basketball Operations in India back then. Here he was, a boy who played for Punjab’s youth teams and was being forced to pay his dues as a backup over less-talented seniors in the national team being told that he could do what no Indian had done in 60 or 70 years of history of both the NBA and Indian Basketball.
He was anxious about his visa process, sure, as every Indian applying for US visa ever is. But he was calmly confident about his chances with the NBA ‘one day’. No one knew when, or if, that ‘one day’ would ever come. Maybe the confidence was a virtue of his ignorance, of him not yet being aware of the low odds of making the world’s best basketball league, of the combination of hard work, opportunity, and luck that goes into making that dream a reality.
He got that visa, and along with seven other Indian basketball-playing kids, headed off to Florida. And nothing was the same again.
Aside from providing basketball fans with the greatest basketball players, teams, and moments in history, the NBA has also been at the forefront of social change and bringing the world closer through the sport. They featured the league’s first black player (Earl Lloyd) in 1950, drafted the first European players (Fernando Martin and Georgi Glouchkov) in 1985, brought in first Chinese player (Wang Zhi Zhi) in 1999, their first openly gay player (Jason Collins) in 2014, and of course, the first Indian-descent player (Sim Bhullar) earlier this year.
The seven-footed center Wang Zhi Zhi – the first Chinese player in the NBA – was drafted 36th by the Dallas Mavericks in 1999. 16 years later, it was these same Mavericks who were on the clock at the 2015 NBA draft with their second round pick – number 52 – and an Indian seven-footer waiting in the wings to become a part of history.
China always had a long history with basketball and success with the sport in Asia, but the game only became the nation’s favourite as the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) was launched in the mid-90s and Wang’s drafting was followed by Yao Ming going number one to the Houston Rockets in 2002. Yao’s short but successful career thrust the spotlight on China’s billion-plus as they became the largest basketball market on Earth.
The NBA has been wishing for India – another billion-strong nation – to mirror that success, too. Of course, our nation has different complications. Over here, most other sports including basketball exist under cricket’s ever-dominating shadow. The NBA put in its efforts over the last half decade to have a bigger grassroots presence in India, bring NBA superstars closer to fans in the country, and accelerate the availability and broadcast of NBA content to Indians. The NBA had come to India, all that was left was for an Indian to go to the NBA.
Satnam Singh Bhamara – at 14 – came to America a complete stranger to the country’s culture, language, and educational system. He struggled in class and missed his family back in Punjab. But it helped to have the other prospects from India – his friends Sanjeev Kumar, Dinesh Mishra, and Ashiv Jain – to face the early cultural experiences together.
It also helped to have basketball. Satnam improved his game with the coaches at IMG, specifically Coach Barto who had scouted him in India and eventually, Coach Kenny Natt – the former coach of the Sacramento Kings – who had also been the former coach of India’s national squad and had given Satnam his first senior international appearance for India. In 2012, Natt joined the IMG Academy staff as well, and his familiarity with the big Punjabi kid added another positive dimension to the training process.
On court at the academy, Satnam spent the next five years with focus on improving his strength and conditioning as a priority, and eventually making his mark for IMG’s senior team. Back home in India, he continued to return for some domestic championships, playing well for Punjab whenever he got a chance. After Natt gave him the senior debut at the FIBA Asia Championship in 2011, he played for India’s senior national team for a couple of more Asian tournaments. At the FIBA Asia Under-16 tournaments in Vietnam, he made waves by emerging as one of the top youth talents in the continent.
Off court, he improved his English and eventually, began to see a realistic roadmap for his future. As he reached college eligibility, several mid and high level NCAA colleges showed him interest, but his English wasn’t good enough to get him the grades required. So he took a bold risk and declared for the NBA draft. Over the next few weeks, he impressed scouts in pre-draft workouts around the league, and, with confidence in his abilities, he waited for Draft Day.
Karl Anthony-Towns went first to Minnesota, D’Angelo Russell went second to the Lakers. Several hours later, NBA Commissioner announced the last pick of the First Round – Kevin Looney – going 30th to the champion Golden State Warriors.
A few minutes later, deputy commissioner Mark Tatum took over to welcome in the picks for the second round. Turkey’s Cedi Osman was at 31. Josh Richardson went 40th. And as more time passed and the night got older, the numbers inched closer to the end. The Orlando Magic picked Tyler Harvey at 51. With less than 10 more picks to be drafted, it was going to be now or never for Satnam.
Then, Tatum walked out to the stage again. “With the 52nd pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, the Dallas Mavericks select… Satnam Singh…” a section of the crowd erupted, “… From Chawke, India. He last played for IMG Academy.”
Hugs. A draft hat. A handshake with the deputy commissioner. A life transformed.
On draft night, Satnam went from being an unknown international prospect to a player drafted into the NBA within a matter of minutes. But those few minutes were only the crowning glory of the culmination of years of hard work, fortunate opportunities, support from friends, family, and coaches, and many anxious waits.
Those few minutes signified a dream realized, the end of a journey that few in Indian basketball ever saw possible.
Or, they signify the beginning of another journey.
Getting drafted into the NBA and playing in the NBA are two vastly and widely different achievements. Once he signs his first NBA contract, Satnam will be hoping to be named in the Mavericks’ Summer League and earn some minutes in Las Vegas. It is highly likely that he’ll start the regular season in Frisco instead of Dallas, playing for the Mavericks’ affiliate D-League team Texas Legends. Here, he’ll have the opportunity to learn the pace of the professional game, become more confident against better opponents, and further develop physically and technically as a player.
Blessed with his gargantuan 7-foot-2 frame, Satnam has age and size on his side. In the long-term, the best-case scenario for him – if the Mavericks are able to get the most of his potential – would be to eventually secure a steady backup NBA job for several years. Those invested in Indian basketball will be desperately wishing for Satnam to make the leap into earning NBA playing time. Even his smallest steps will leave giant footprints. For a country so anxious for basketball role models, any success for Satnam – no matter how miniscule – will be a positive and influential step forward.
However his journey proceeds, Satnam has already achieved the impossible. The boy from a non-descript Punjabi village has come further than the distance between Ballo Ke and Dallas and jumped higher than his own gargantuan height. On Draft Night, he may have been a relatively unknown giant in a sharp suit; but once he was drafted, his name rung viral across fans in India, and eventually, fans around the world, too.
Dressed in a Royal Blue Mavericks jersey with the name ‘Satnam’ in silver on the back, Satnam Singh Bhamara waits on the bench for his number to be called. With a couple of minutes left in the first quarter, Coach Rick Carlisle looks to the end of the bench and nods at him. Satnam jumps up on his feet, checks in at the scorer’s table, and exchanges dabs with the exiting player on court.
He steps on an NBA court and nothing is ever the same again.
*Cover image: Satnam Singh in a pensive mood during the 65th Senior National Basketball Championship 2014 in Bhilwara, Rajasthan. Photographer: Team Ekalavyas’ Vishnu Ravi Shankar.