February 21, 2013

How India invaded the NBA All Star Weekend

No, there are no Indian players in the NBA, much less than players with the elite talent to make it amongst the world’s best that played the NBA All Star Game on February 17th. But the Indian presence at the world’s largest annual NBA gala got bigger than ever at Houston 2013.

As SLAM Magazine veteran Lang Whitaker noted in his GQcolumn a few days ago, the “All-Star is about basketball, but it's really the biggest industry convention for people who cover the NBA.” Let me add to that point that the weekend (or half a week) is the biggest industry convention for anyone and everyone even loosely connected to the league. Having covered the craziness, excitement, and the superstar overload first hand at the All StarWeekend in Los Angeles two years ago, I can attest that – even though the official events at the Weekend may not be of anything more than exhibition value – it is still the ultimate basketball festival, the centre of the NBA universe.

And with NBA’s interest growing in India (and other Asian/international markets), it was inevitable that India’s interest would grow reciprocally for the NBA…

This year, the NBA held for the first time the ‘Sprite Uncontainable Game’: 22 amateur ‘undiscovered talents’ between the ages of 14-30 were chosen from nine countries around the world to win an all-access trip to the All Star Weekend and play in the ‘Uncontainable Game’. Two young Indian players – Bopanna Pardhana Nanaiah (22) and Akilan Pari (23) – won NBA India’s national3x3 tournament last year and were the lucky two chosen for this event. Thousands of players from Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Mumbai took part in the NBA 3x events last year, with the Finals held in Mumbai in October.

Players from Canada, China, Estonia, Lithuania, Mexico, Philippines, Puerto Rico, and the United States added flavour to the final international rosters.

Nanaiah (from Kodagu in Karnataka) and Pari (from Pollachi in Tamil Nadu) were divided into ‘Team Intense’ and ‘Team Sudden’ respectively. They were lucky enough to be in the presence of some great NBA players: Team Intense was ‘coached’ by Kobe Bryant, Andrea Bargnani, and Al Horford; while LeBron James, Omri Casspi, and Serge Ibaka were the coaches of Team Sudden.

There were many more familiar faces at Houston last week. NBA India’s Senior Director of Basketball Operations Troy Justice and his young padawan for NBA coaching in India Eban Hyams also soaked in the non-stop action at the weekend. Justice even conducted an NBA Fit clinic with legendary point guard (and my childhood favourite) Gary Payton!

For the past few years, the NBA has invited top representatives of basketball federations from around the world to the All Star Weekend, and India was represented until recent years by former Basketball Federation of India (BFI) CEO Harish Sharma. Sharma passed away last year, but the presence of the federation at NBA’s biggest ‘industry convention’ continues.

And of course, those following the NBA from back home in India would’ve noticed a continuing increase of mainstream media coverage live from the league into Indian daily newspapers, our TV channels, and our webpages. NBA fans in India had their most in-depth look at All Star events ever this year, as both Sony SIX and CNN IBN were on-site, gathering footage and conducting interviews of the weekend’s events.

The Times Group (behind the Times of India newspaper and Times Now) has a digital partnership with the NBA, and have been sending correspondents to cover the league on-site for years. This year, Saibal Bose was there feeding back daily stories from the events. On Saturday, Bose reported that the NBA Commissioner David Stern considers India  a ‘potential basketball giant’, and about how he would like to emulate the success of the IPL to help grow NBA in India. On Sunday, Bose spoke to superstar Kobe Bryant about potentially coming to India, to which Kobe replied: “I am working on my cricket skills.”

I couldn't be in Houston this year, but NBA.com/India handed the baton to fellow hoops-geek Jonathan Rego to cover the Weekend through his Fan Blog daily. Rego’s blog is an entertaining read, following his journey as he met the game’s biggest stars, reported on little-but-important things that the television audiences may have missed, and put into words the indescribable experience of being immersed in the fantastic world of the NBA for the first time!

Beware NBA: the floodgates have opened. And the Indians are coming!

(Now can we get a player good enough to actually play in the league? Please pretty please?) 

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