This talent search is among several initiatives launched in India in recent years by the NBA as it tries to broaden its fan base globally. NBA officials consider the India market key to expanding the brand outside the United States — the “next frontier,” as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called it. Since 2011, the NBA has signed a broadcast deal for games with an Indian sports channel, hosted three-on-three basketball tournaments and fairs, and partnered with the charitable Reliance Foundation for a junior program in schools that has reached 1 million students.
The league’s representatives say the combination of a growing economy, an emerging, globally minded middle class and the country’s young demographic make India a natural target for expansion. India has more than 350 million people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to a U.N. report. “That’s the number that stands out for all of us, “ said Yannick Colaco, a former college player and the managing director of NBA India. “We’re seeing just so much of vibrancy and diversity that we feel a sport like basketball has tremendous potential.”
“India has long been a priority market for us. We don’t expect overnight changes but we are definitely here for the long haul. We are also looking to invest tens of millions of dollars in India. Our focus is to grow the game of basketball in India”, said Yannick Colaco, CEO of NBA in India, while describing his vision for the NBA’s plans in India.
When questioned about the potential TV viewership numbers in India, he said “Our ratings are about 35% of the ratings of the English Premiership, which is the highest watched overseas league in India. I’d say we are doing well for the moment.”
In this sleepy Punjabi village, no one was surprised to see a seven-foot-tall Sikh farmer striding the narrow lanes toward the local Sikh temple on June 25. The farmer, Balbir Singh Bamrah, is a familiar presence in Ballo Ke, and something of a local curiosity. But the other worshipers at the temple, known as a gurudwara, were a bit perplexed by the prayer the guru offered for Balbir Singh’s household. He stood over the farmer, his wife and his daughter, and prayed for peace, prosperity, health — and that Balbir Singh’s son would be drafted. “They didn’t understand what the N.B.A. draft was,” said Sarabjot Kaur, Balbir Singh’s 23-year-old daughter. “They only realized later.”
Balbir Singh, 56, said his son’s success was a fitting cap to a decade of work and training. “Basketball is God’s gift,” he said in a rumbling baritone, while greeting a stream of visitors and answering calls on a cellphone dwarfed by his huge hands. “Everything that’s happened to him, all the acclaim, is from basketball,” he said.
The men at the Ballo Ke shrine offer a different explanation, one reflective of a hard edge in an otherwise rejoicing village. They say the crucial factor was the family’s link to Amarinder Singh, the former chief minister of Punjab State, who visited the village as agriculture minister in the 1980s and struck up a friendship with Balbir Singh, even inviting him and his family to his daughter’s wedding. “It is all because of his favor,” said Mukhtiar Singh, one of the men. Another, Nirmal Singh, said that without that kind of advantage, such a success story is “not just difficult, it’s impossible.”