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At 7-feet tall and only 14, Indian basketball player faces high expectations

It was the summer in New Delhi,

in a stagnant gym with two fans trying to create a cross draft. Two American men stood sweating, running Indian teenagers through drills. The floor was concrete and the bleachers were stone but the teens threw themselves around anyway, knowing what was at stake. One coach blew his whistle as the kids shuffled through shooting, passing and defensive drills while the other scanned the clipboard that held a roster with names, heights, weights and cities. The teens, ages 13 to 16, had been handpicked by national scouts from villages and towns throughout the country. They wore new jerseys from the Basketball Federation of India, but the shoes were their own and some were worn through.

The coaches had flown 7,000 miles from the IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton to evaluate the 28 boys and 28 girls over five days. The best would be selected to attend the academy and receive world-class training and education.

Sanjeev Kumar darted around as quick as lightning.

Ashiv Jain wouldn't let his bloody arms and legs scab over before he dove for another loose ball.

Dinesh Kumar Mishra wouldn't back down from anyone, attacking every rebound.

And then there was one 14-year-old boy, taller than the rest.

At 7 feet, 250 pounds, he dunked with ease and moved better than many college athletes of his stature. His hair flopped over his ears and his size 22 shoes seemed like tires. One of the coaches, Andy Borman, IMG Basketball Academy director, had played with future NBA stars at Duke University and could tell that Satnam Singh Bhamara was a rarity, Borman recalled later in describing the scene.

Satnam was a boy the NBA knew a little about, someone with the physical potential to grow into India's version of Yao Ming, the first player to break into the league from China.

Satnam filled out the roster of eight boys and eight girls. Together, they boarded a Delta Air Lines flight for Florida. With them went the sporting aspirations of an entire country.

• • •

While the United States climbs out of recession, India's economy grows at more than 8 percent annually. In November, President Barack Obama visited the country of 1.2 billion and pronounced India an "indispensable partner." He wrapped his arm around Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's shoulder.

Children of Indian immigrants who arrived in the migration waves of the 1960s and 1970s star on American television. They're deadpanning on The Office and Parks and Recreation, and hosting the MTV Movie Awards. Slumdog Millionaire made $377 million and won eight Oscars.

Indians are the "It ethnicity," Ravi Patel, of Fox's Past Life, told Slate last summer.

Successful in the United States in engineering and medicine, and with Indian-American governors elected in Louisiana and South Carolina, Indians have elbowed their way into almost every American niche except one:

Sports.

The NBA has been looking to mine India since at least 2006 when it began holding basketball clinics there. Last year, the NBA signed multiyear partnerships with two media companies to broadcast more NBA games and programing in India. In April, it launched the Mahindra NBA Challenge, which introduced pickup league games for teens and young adults in five cities.

The NBA hopes basketball becomes India's second-favorite sport behind cricket. It estimates that 4 million Indians already play basketball.

"India across the board is really starting to pay attention to athletics," said Troy Justice, NBA director of basketball operations in India. "They're at the point now where they're really looking to grow."

The challenge lies in persuading a culture that puts education first to let kids play basketball.

"It's been difficult for parents to put their kids in situations where they can really focus on sports," Justice said. "But the culture is changing."

• • •

Take Satnam. He grew up in the farm village Ballo Ke in Punjab, a northwestern state that borders Pakistan. His home address has no house number, just a family name. His father is a 7-foot-2 rice farmer.

It was Satnam's job to bring him tea and unleash valves to water the fields. The boy never played cricket — he said the bat was too small — and he would have followed his father into farming if a family friend hadn't intervened.

At 10, Satnam stood 5-foot-9, and the family friend told Satnam's father that his future was on the basketball court. It was a foreign game to Balbir Singh Bhamara, since there were no courts in his village. But he sent his son to the Ludhiana Basketball Academy in Punjab. There, Satnam grew 15 inches and dunked for the first time at 13.

He represented India on an under-16 team in Malaysia last year. Justice noticed him at an NBA-sponsored pickup game.

Justice pulled Satnam aside and taught him low post moves and how to position his body against defenders. Justice called it "Hakeem Olajuwon work," or some back-to-the-basket tricks that made Olajuwon a Hall of Fame NBA center and the first Nigerian-born basketball star.

It's too early to tell if Satnam is the superstar India is searching for. But the country needs someone like him. India lacks a Tiger Woods or a David Beckham — names just as big in the East as in the West.

Mukesh Ambani knows this. The world's fourth-richest man and the chairman of India conglomerate Reliance Industries set out to create a system to identify kids like Satnam and give them world-class coaching.

In March, he partnered with Ted Forstmann, the head of the IMG Worldwide sports marketing and management company. The newly formed IMG Reliance Foundation would find and train Indian kids in soccer, tennis and basketball, and build sports academies in India. It was not just a patriotic venture, but one that could lead to sports franchising and marketing opportunities.

The inaugural crop of 29 kids selected for the IMG program included Satnam, the other basketball players, five tennis players and the entire under-15 Indian national soccer team. They were flown to IMG's 350-acre sports academy and given full scholarships through high school to live, study and train at the same Olympic-style village that has spawned some of sports' greatest stars.

IMG athletes have won 11 Olympic medals — more than half of the 20 India has won overall.

While some of the teens' parents were anxious sending their children across two oceans, they saw the opportunity of a lifetime. Tuition at IMG costs about $60,000 a year and includes tailored collegiate courses. Their children would be coached to succeed on and off the court, running on a structured schedule of classes and practice from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. Even the menu would be scientifically designed.

In jeans, shorts, flip-flops and backpacks, the kids got off their long plane ride in September and boarded a white charter bus for Bradenton.

• • •

In Bradenton, the country's young hopefuls were acclimated to a global campus where more than 1,200 athletes from 80 countries train. They also had to get used to each other. The tennis players were city kids from well-off backgrounds. They knew English and Hindi. Other kids came from rural villages. Two boys didn't know English or Hindi, but only the language of their native states. Satnam spoke Punjabi.

Over on the girls' basketball court, coach Shell Dailey couldn't tell if the girls understood her instructions. Instead of up and down, they shook their heads from side to side. Did that mean yes or no?

She encouraged the quiet girls to let loose and express themselves, since they came from a culture that urged them to be demure in public. She wanted them to take command on the court. Soon the girls were throwing fist bumps, making heart symbols with their hands and sassing each other with words like "sexy."

The boys spent their free time watching Bollywood and Malayalam movies on YouTube. They played Wii and stared at Facebook. Their coaches knew they were coming around the corner because their cell phones boomed with Bhangra pop tunes. The boys fell hard for pizza but also yearned for trips to Sarasota's Gateway of India restaurant to load up on Chicken Tikka Masala, buttered naan and glasses of warm milk like home.

Satnam missed his mother's vangi chawle, a Punjabi dish of pressure-cooked beans. He missed splitting 9 pounds of mutton with his father on big occasions. At IMG, he washed everything down with apple juice and chocolate milk and carried out at least three apples from the cafeteria. "Maybe four," he said.

He called home daily and asked how the crops were faring while his dad told him the events of the day. Each call ended with, "Eat well, study well."

• • •

On the court, Satnam's teammates from North Carolina, Ohio, Germany, Australia, Russia, Colombia and Mexico couldn't resist messing up his floppy black hair. When they gave him a high five, Satnam sometimes wrapped his giant mitts around theirs and held on for awkward lengths of time. In India, hand-holding among boys isn't considered strange.

Every day, Nate VanderSluis, the boys developmental team coach, reminded Satnam to follow through with his wrists when he shoots, and almost every day Satnam forgot. On a day he remembered, he drilled three corner jump shots, walked up and gave his coach a high five.

Satnam's potential is unlimited, VanderSluis said. He played center for Miami University in Ohio, and, at 6-foot-11, VanderSluis, 28, is the first coach who can show Satnam how to use his body on the floor.

The lifting regimen at IMG has slimmed and defined his frame. Now 15, he benches 185 pounds and his practice jersey has three numbers, No. 239, which seems appropriate for such a wide backboard.

During the first game against outside competition, the IMG boys went into the half with Satnam having contributed no points or rebounds. He played not to hurt anyone, and VanderSluis and his teammates jumped on him at halftime and urged him to assert himself.

He finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. IMG won the game and the next five in a row.

"He's in a very unique position," said the NBA's Justice. "The next four years are the critical four years for him because it's going to determine if he can get a U.S. scholarship and what level and where he lands. The one thing I will say is at his age and his size, he has a good natural skill set. He has a great soft touch."

Occasionally, teammate Pepe Baumgarten, 16, of Mexico catches Satnam dribbling the ball up the court as if he were a much smaller and skilled point guard. "He likes to handle the ball, but I don't think it's time yet," Baumgarten said.

Satnam doesn't lack confidence, but he doesn't yet know how to dominate, said VanderSluis. In the past month, he has made strides, going up and finishing with such force opponents end up on the ground.

The NBA is littered with stories of giants who have folded under huge expectations. Injuries crippled the career of Sam Bowie, who was drafted ahead of Michael Jordan in 1984. Inspired international imports such as Gheorge Muresan and Manute Bol were serviceable, but too slow or stiff to be stars. Over the past two NBA seasons, Yao has been limited to five games because of injuries. Countless other giants never made it past college.

No one knows if Satnam will make it.

But so far, his coaches say, he has one fewer enemy than other great hopes. Himself. While some of the other Indian boys say they play for "country" and hang their heads at their own mistakes, Satnam doesn't pressure himself.

He never watched NBA games growing up, and his knowledge of anyone other than Kobe Bryant remains limited. When asked why he plays, he says he wants to impress his coach and family. If he doesn't make it to the NBA, Satnam says, he'll just study. "Because what's left?"

The team ran through another drill at practice, yelling "New York, New York," and Satnam, who has never been to New York, flashed to the top of the key. It was another developmental step of an emerging giant learning to play on a big stage.

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3368.

At 7-feet tall and only 14, Indian basketball player faces high expectations 01/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 24, 2011 1:42am]
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