January 22, 2011

Giant Expectations: Satnam Singh Bhamara



It almost seems like Satnam Singh Bhamara is asking to be doubted.

When you’re a teenager from India, 15 years and one month old, already grown to the size of a 7-1 monster, the first reaction is wonder and awe, the second is doubt. People wonder what could go wrong; they wonder what the catch is. When you’re blessed with a unique inside-outside skill set, nimble feet, soft hands and a developing shooting touch, people instead wonder what your weaknesses are. When you begin training at the IMG Basketball academy, which has featured the likes of Kobe, Vince Carter, Chauncey Billups, Joakim Noah and Kevin Martin, the doubters say that it sounds too good to be true.

When you’re the son of a poor farmer in India, a boy from a village separated a long dirt road away from the rest of civilization, who picked up his first basketball less than five years ago, you’re asking for the questionable looks. When you’re the biggest basketball hope (literally and figuratively) for India — a country desperate to make a mark in the basketball world — you’re likely to receive a cynical shrug of the shoulders. “India isn’t there yet,” they say. “The kid isn’t there.”

Not yet. But he might be. If you haven’t yet heard about him, it’s time to converge your respective focuses (or foci) on Satnam Singh Bhamara, the 15-year-old, 7-1 Indian giant, currently on a scholarship at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL and attending the Pendleton High School. He is currently in the first year of a potentially four-year scholarship until he graduates from high school.

India has been slowly growing as a basketball market, and Bhamara’s potential might be a zenith of a variety of different efforts taking place to grow the game back home.

Rewind to a year ago: The 14-year-old Bhamara was already a formidable 6-11. Back then, during India’s National Basketball Championship, a yearly tournament pitting the best state teams of India against each other, Bhamara was a wide-eyed spectator, too young to participate, watching as a man-child in a man’s world.

A year later, I meet him at the same championship in New Delhi. This time, he’s back as a famous young man in the country’s basketball circles, garnering attention from other players, media and fans. He’s a spectator again, but only because he has a limited time back in India before he flies back to school in the States. A prominent Indian referee sees him and remembers: “Satnam used to help us set up the scorers’ tables last year. We had nicknamed him Chhotu (Little One). Look at him now!”

“You can still call me Chhotu!” Bhamara jokingly interjects.

But there is nothing ‘little’ about Bhamara, not in height, nor in hype. The first time I met him was back in July 2010, when Bhamara was among 50 other under-14s who were chosen by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) to appear for IMG scholarship tryouts. IMG, a US-based international sports and media management company, have been investing heavily into sports in India. A year ago, they formed an alliance with Reliance Industries, India’s largest and richest private sector company, and the powerhouse duo of IMG-Reliance signed various sponsorship deals with Indian sports federation. Most notably, IMG-Reliance signed a 30-year agreement with the BFI to assist, finance and promote the growth of basketball in India.

One of their first steps was to choose eight Indian youngsters among the 50 best for scholarship at the IMG Academy. From the moment he walked into the tryouts in New Delhi, Bhamara was a shoo-in.

His fascinating story begins in a little village in India’s north-western state of Punjab: Ballo Ke Village, District Barnala, population 463. The son of a 7-foot farmer, Bhamara spent his early childhood helping out his father on the farm and growing up to 5-9 when he was just 10 years old. It was then that one of his father’s friends recommended that he take the tall youngster to Ludhiana, a nearby town and a major basketball hub of the country. Somewhere lost in translation, Bhamara thought that he was going to play volleyball. He didn’t know a thing about the game when he first stepped on court.

Four years and nearly 15 inches later, he had grown into one of the finest young players in the country. After blazing his way through the Punjab inter-school and junior leagues, Bhamara began to collect his international credentials. He represented India in the FIBA Asia U16 Championships at Malaysia in November 2009. Back home, he took Punjab to the gold medal of the National Youth Championships at Trichy (Tamil Nadu, in South India) in June. He was recommended by the BFI to be part of a three-player contingent of Indian youngsters sent to Singapore for NBA’s Basketball Without Borders (Asia) camp.

It was no surprise then that he was picked by IMG’s Basketball Director Andy Borman and coach Dan Barto for the scholarship. Bhamara was at the perfect age and with the perfect potential skill set, ready to be molded into a basketball monster. To play at the highest level, Bhamara cannot count successes in small Indian championships or Asian tournaments; he had to train with and compete against the best.

But more than a basketball adventure for the youngster, it has been a strange change of lifestyle, too. Bhamara and the rest of the Indian youngsters made their first trip to North America, going to school in a whole new academic system, learning hoops in a way never been taught to them before, focusing more than ever on weight training and fitness, taking extra classes to learn English (seven of the eight, including Bhamara, were virtually alien to the language), getting used to live in a residential school far away from home, and getting used to not eating their Moms’ home-cooked Indian meals.

Four months later, Bhamara makes his first visit back home — he was always built with the body shape of an ideal center, blessed with both height and muscle — but he came back looking even fitter and leaner than ever, thanks to the intense training and exercise regimen that he had gone through with his coaches at IMG. He was given a superstar’s welcome in his little village, when hundreds showed up to catch a glimpse of him coming back home.

And then he was back at the National Championship as a minor celebrity, back at the same event he had been errand-boy a year ago.

“I have changed and improved a lot over the past four months,” says Satnam, “but I want to improve even more. I want be an example for other Indian players so they can come forward and see what is necessary to be a complete player. They need to know the importance of building strength to help improve their game.”

Indian athletes, particularly the basketball players, have faced one major criticism in the past: They may have the shooting and running skills, but their athletic ability and strength leaves much more to be desired. More than basketball, the coaches at IMG have focused their early interest in making sure that Bhamara gets into shape to hang with the toughest. Bhamara has followed suit, becoming a gym rat, working on everything from exercises to help improve his forward and lateral speed, jumping ability, shoulder exercises, and lifting weights to get into tougher shape.

But his basketball training hasn’t been left behind. Bhamara notes how his current regime involves focusing on movement — a lot of movement — so that his size can be complemented with speed to make a momentum nightmare for opponents. Bhamara, who is part of IMG’s youth team, doesn’t hesitate to talk about how his improving inside game and movement has helped his team get some big results.

“My game is basketball,” he says. “The media in America has asked me why I don’t play other games, but I’m only interested in basketball. This is the game that has given me everything I have, taken me from a village to a good education in America. I love playing this game and owe everything to it. That’s why I keep working hard to improve.”

Satnam says that there are two players he looks ‘up’ to, even though both of them are shorter than him. One of them is Punjab State and Indian Senior team star Jagdeep Singh. The other, curiously, is Kobe Bryant.

You can credit (or blame) the over-Lakerisation that NBA audiences in India have been subjected to in the past. Over the last decade, most games NBA games broadcasted in India have involved either the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs and whichever franchise LeBron James shares his talents with. I ask him, Why, despite the difference in size and gameplay, does he idolize the Black Mamba? He answers, “Kobe plays like he has no problems on court; he works hard, but he dominates smoothly, with ease. That is the kind of mentality I want to have.”

And this is exactly the kind of mentality that India, and all those holding a stake for the development of basketball in India, are hoping that Bhamara develops. In an interview with an Indian newspaper a few weeks ago, Harish Sharma, the Secretary-General of the BFI, said, “He is a great prospect. I am sure he will do what Yao Ming did for China. Indian basketball will change in case one of our boys makes it to the NBA.”

And although one talented, tall, teenager alone cannot change the basketball culture in India, the NBA will be hoping that with an idol to look up to, young Indians, just like young Chinese a decade ago, will start believing in basketball. The game is never going to challenge India’s premier game, cricket, but for basketball to score even a minor percentage of the market in a 1.2 billion population will be a heavy number.

Troy Justice, who has been the director of basketball operations of the NBA in India, has been working with Indian talent for several years now, and has kept a keen eye on Bhamara’s ascension. “He is blessed with three things that, combined, have made him into a very special prospect globally — a young age, his height, and his skill set,” said Justice. “He has natural basketball instincts, a strong work ethic, and has become a focused student of the game. I have enjoyed working with him and look forward to seeing his growth as a person and player over the next few years.

“I think he has tremendous potential and a bright future in basketball.”

But Bhamara is adamant that his focus is on the present before anything else. “I’m not thinking too far ahead right now,” he says, “I’m in IMG’s youth team, so I want to play well enough to play for the juniors. After that, I will think about qualifying for the Senior team, and after that, I can think further.”

“If I get a chance to, of course I want to play in the NBA.” Bhamara adds, “If I can make it there, I will be able to do more for other Indians dreaming of making it to the NBA. But I will have no problem if it doesn’t work out. I will come back to India to play for Punjab and contribute to the Indian national basketball system.”

“Right now, I’m only concerned with improving my own game. After five years, we’ll see what happens. Right now, my priority is working on my strength — I know I’ll be playing tougher competition and have two or three players guarding me, and I have to get stronger to face that.”

Bhamara is still too young, and perhaps, still too unaware, to fully understand the implications of his rise as a basketball star. Just like China, who have gone hysterical about hoops over the past decade, India will eventually become a serious basketball market. It is a question of who and when — Yao may have been the biggest star, but he wasn’t the first Chinese to make it to the League (that honor goes to Wang Zhizhi). Bhamara’s potential improvement will determine if he can even make it to that level, much less survive once he gets there.

Right now, he’s just a 15-year-old, except that he’s blessed with a little more size, a little more talent, and a little better training support than the rest of us. He carries a load of expectations a little heavier than the rest of us, too.

So go ahead and doubt him all you want: not good enough, too much hype, too weak, too slow, too soft, too foreign. I doubt if Satnam Singh Bhamara will hear any of it: Right now, he’s just a kid addicted to hoops. And all he wants to do is get better.

Right now, he’s just a 15-year-old, except that he’s blessed with a little more size, a little more talent, and a little better training support than the rest of us. He carries a load of expectations a little heavier than the rest of us, too.

So go ahead and doubt him all you want.

This article was first published on SLAMOnline.com on January 13th, 2011.

3 comments:

  1. Gr8 one... Kudos...

    Hope he will come up to the expectation... all the best.. cheers

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  2. Great Satnam video! http://blip.tv/file/4641129

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  3. I'm betting on Satnam. He definitely has the gift of size, he has a strong work ethic, he is getting top notch coaching, and he seems like he is doing what he needs to do, particularly with strength training. Just look at the frame on this kid. Put some muscle on him, and he will be a force. I'll be following his progress with interest. Hope to see him in a Celtics uniform some day.

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