After watching him walk into that tunnel for one last time at the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, I wondered if he should’ve taken that last shot. As I went back to bed I imagined – 6.8 seconds on the clock, ball in his hands.
5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1

*

I can only ponder how many parents watch the NBA with their kids early in the morning. But in my case, I often find myself on the couch analyzing plays with my mom. Both of us love basketball, particularly the NBA, and waking up before dawn has become something of a routine for us.

If our love for the game wasn’t enough, this morning we found another reason to tune into the NBA. A very special reason…

13,000 kilometers away from his erstwhile home, in the city of Sacramento, an Indian, Vivek Ranadivé had started something that will be looked back at as the spark that ignited the fire of desi culture in the NBA.

Welcome to Sac Family

All images credit- Luke Cheng

In India, everything has to do with Bollywood, everything. On the streets of any city here you’ll find auto rickshaws and markets with filmy posters on them. Some of the city boys reading this are right now nodding Naww! But they know it’s true. Growing up, every Indian has watched those Amitabh Bachchan movies and has the dialogues stuck in the back of their heads. That’s probably why those flashy Bollywood posters are doing so well. It is just good business sense!

One such businessman, Kings Owner and Chairman Vivek Ranadivé went to MIT and Harvard and put up a huge Bollywood poster on something we already loved the most, the NBA. He called it the ‘Bollywood Night’ where fans from all over the world are invited to participate and celebrate Indian culture and traditions. Mumbai-born Ranadivé himself has orchestrated these nights. Since the first Kings Bollywood night in 2014, Kings and Ranadivé have come a long way. The Kings association had the Sleep Train Arena transformed into a mini-India with their bright colorful decorations, Indian cuisine and endless entertainment for fans. Bollywood songs blared away on speakers to which dancers performed perfectly synchronized routines. Ranadivé’s daughter Anjali, who is also a huge fan of these celebrations, was one of the many Indian origin entertainers of the evening. Even the Kings’ players seemed to enjoy this beautiful celebration of culture wearing practice T-shirts with ‘Kings’ written on the front in Devanagari script.

Sacramento Kings' majority owner Mr Vivek Ranadive being interviewed during the 2016 Bollywood Night. Image credit- Luke Cheng.

Sacramento Kings’ majority owner Mr Vivek Ranadive being interviewed during the 2016 Bollywood Night. Image credit- Luke Cheng.

*

Back to the morning of 8th January 2016. While my dad and sister were hurrying off to their work, mom and I were eagerly waiting for the 3rd Annual Bollywood Night to start. What came after was something I’ll never forget. It went “Bhaiyo aur beheno ab dil tham ke baitiega, hum prastut karte hai aaj raat ke paanch pramukh khilaadi” (Brothers and sisters, how hold your hearts, we present to you the starting five players of the evening)

Kentucky se aaye hue, 7ft lamba, Ji haan 7ft lamba, DeMarcus Cousins” (From Kentucky, the 7ft Center, DeMarcus Cousins).

Mehendi

Image credit- Luke Cheng.

Mother loved the idea, the colours, their Indian attire, the mehendi and especially the Bollywood music to which Americans were dancing. It had my mom laughing so hard. I still remember the look on my dad’s face when he heard the whole idea of this. He said “21st century” and left for office.

More than anything, Ranadivé believed in the Kings and believed in the NBA’s willingness to embrace the culture and celebrate the traditions that belonged to him and his country. You see, he is that self-made man, a once-kid who had dared to follow his dreams. He helped Kings implement the forward-looking “NBA 3.0” philosophy and focused on making the Kings the premier sports franchise of the 21st century.

Ranadive’s moves seems to have had an impact on my dad. He now knows there’s a DeMarcus Cousins, 7ft tall from Kentucky who plays for the Kings. He’ll now want to sit and watch the next Bollywood Night when it comes.

*

As a kid growing up in India, I spent most of my childhood playing football on the beach, or cricket in the streets of my colony. Basketball was alien to me until I turned 13. Of course, I always knew there’s a sport involving a big orange ball and two baskets, but little did I know back then that 7 years down the road, basketball would define my life. I started playing for my school house team just to fill up the spot, and also to test how hard chucking a ball into a 10 foot high hoop could be. Turns out, the game is a brilliantly orchestrated master piece. I came back home and started watching games and training clips. Soon enough, I began following Kobe, and that changed my life at once, forever. The most memorable was the 2009-10 season when Kobe struggled through his injuries, making ridiculous game winners…that final game seven win over Boston to win his 5th NBA championship was the best moment in basketball history for me.

His mentality, the Black Mambaness, the fierce competition that he constantly had with himself and the hunger to win despite everything, taught me a lot more about life than any book. It didn’t stop there: watching him fight through Achilles injury and putting up numbers in his 20th season of the game taught me resilience. Not just Kobe, but the game itself has inspired me to respect, to lead, to help, and to love something so obsessively that you never let go of it.

It’s no news that every kid who has ever played basketball respects Kobe for his greatness. Especially in India, it’s something about Kobe that seems to always motivate the kids here. Walk down to any park in your locality and I guarantee you’ll find a young kid sizing up his defender, putting up that half spin fade-away jumper shouting “Kobe!”

It’s a similar tale in my house. In the beginning, my mom was tired of me shooting rolled up handkerchiefs and socks into the washing machine, but it was just a matter of time before, recalling her high school days when she played basketball, she sat down with me to watch Kobe destroy his defenders. Mom was just as upset as me when we first read Kobe’s letter of retirement, except I cried while she tried to cheer me up saying he had two more months of games left.

Kobe one last time in Sacramento.

Kobe one last time in Sacramento. Image credit- Luke Cheng

*

All of this brings us back to the final moments after the game between Lakers and Kings on the 8th of January 2016, when Kobe shook hands with Rudy Gay and started walking towards the tunnel.

Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but both mom and I swear we saw him do a namasté to the crowd right before he exited. We searched everywhere on the internet but no media seems to have captured that moment of magic except for us. May be that’s why the gesture was so special.

On a night conceived by an Indian owner and punctuated by a departing legend, the reverberations were being felt by a mother and son in a far off land.

It was a namasté that had finally ushered India into the NBA family.

***

Adarsh Rao
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