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NBA India’s inaugural game has just set the (basket) ball rolling

Garnering attention from global powerbrokers and celebrities alike, NBA’s initial foray into India was a successful one, and its future holds some promise.

When people speak of sport and India, cricket is usually the first subject that pops up. Over the past few decades, the once leisurely colonial pastime has taken over the nation’s hearts and minds completely, dominating the airwaves and the watercooler conversations.

This was something Mumbai-born US entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive was hoping to change, as owner of the Sacramento Kings, one of the two National Basketball Association (NBA) teams competing in a pair of inaugural NBA India matches. The other team is none other than nine-time division title winners Indiana Pacers.

We have already touched on the initial build-up to the event, as stars from both sides of the globe couldn’t help but get involved in the historic event. From rap sensation Drake handing out the use of his jet to the Sacramento Kings, to Indian reality TV host and judge Ranvijay Singh waxing lyrical about the event ever since he got an up-close-and-personal taste of the action at the Kings’ home stadium Golden1Center, there’s been no shortage of hype and hoopla.

Even US President Donald Trump, obviously pleased to see a sport as American as apple pie get recognition in India, expressed interest about attending the event. “Am I invited Mr Prime Minister? I may come. Be careful, I may come,” he jokingly warned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month during the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Texas.

While Trump wasn’t able to make it down to Mumbai’s NSCI Dome, Friday’s game was contested hotter than the upcoming 2020 American presential race. Both sides played as though it weren’t a mere pre-season friendly, but a playoff decider. The Kings had the edge on the Pacers for most of the match but the contest was decided in the final five minutes. After regulation time ended at 118-118, a lot of back and forth between the two sides kept the spectators guessing. Finally, a sublime lay-up shot by Domantas Sabonis clinched the win for the Pacers.

Friday’s event garnered attention all the way up to the Indian prime minister’s office too, as PM Modi observed how basketball is getting increasingly popular. “I hope more youngsters pursue basketball and also contribute to the Fit India Movement,” he tweeted.

On Saturday however, it was the Pacers who got to stand proud in front of their Indian fans, as they defeated the Kings convincingly with a 130-106 victory, dominating all four quarters.

While the two games no doubt sparked a lot of hope about the future of the NBA in India, the series’ league commissioner Adam Silver stressed on some ground realities. While he believes an Indian player could break into the NBA within as soon as the next five years, it will need a more hands-on approach, including building more multi-purpose arenas in the country to begin with. That, he stressed, would allow the game to grace our shores more often in the future.

Speaking excusively with Network 18, he said, “We have to play a more active role in the development of Indian players, which is why we launched the NBA India Academy a few years ago.”

NBA India has also been working with the Reliance Foundation in creating the Junior NBA programme.

While Silver admitted, “Even in my lifetime we won’t be able to compete with cricket,” that should in no way deter the series from trying to get a foothold in the country.

Last season’s NBA finals were reportedly viewed by close to a 100 million people in the subcontinent, as per Reuters, and the NBA India Facebook page has over 3.1 million followers. While those are no doubt encouraging figures, just like with so many other sports that failed to truly capture the Indian market, it will only command limited attention without a star player from India doing well in the series.

We need look no further than China, where the sport rocketed in popularity once the 7-feet-5-inch Yao Ming was drafted by the Houston Rockets in 2002. It wasn’t long before the first NBA China Games followed in 2004, where Ming’s Rockets faced off against Sacramento Kings. Since then, NBA calendar events have regularly taken place in Chinese cities.

Whether the same transpires in India remains to be seen, but with the kind of behind-the-scenes efforts currently underway, the next few years hold considerable promise that the NBA will be more than just a passing fad on our shores.