April 9, 2015

The Birth of Mahatma Grande

After years of climbing up the ranks, from High School to College to the D-League, 7-5 Canadian giant Sim Bhullar finally saw his NBA dream becoming a reality: he was signed to a 10-day contract by the Sacramento Kings last week and made his first appearance in 16.1 seconds of action against the Timberwolves last night. It was a nice moment that a only a handful of basketball players ever get to experience: the feeling of putting on an NBA jersey, stepping on an NBA court, and finding his name permanently enshrined in the box scores of NBA history.

But of course, you know the story by now, and you know why Bhullar's 16.1 seconds were more significant than most others. With one small step on court, Bhullar took a giant leap for desis worldwide, becoming the first player of Indian-origin to ever play in the NBA. Unlike the usual hungama and tamasha that we Indians like to associate with most of our accomplishments, Bhullar's appearance was largely subdued. His entire debut was only a shade longer than the maximum length of an Instagram video. He touched the ball just once (inbounding it to a teammate), and finished with a box-score of ducks 0-0-0-0-0. A day later, Bhullar scored his first two points in one and half minutes of action in the Kings loss to Utah. And with these humble beginnings, another NBA barrier was broken and a giant was born.

Bhullar's status has soared in recent days, too, with strong performances in the D-League to provide him his foundation and the Kings' contract taking his popularity through the roof. Basketball-loving Indians from India, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and in every nation on every continent on the globe who have long dreamt of the day that one of their own – a desi – would achieve the highest benchmark of the hoop dream and play in the NBA, and in Bhullar, they finally saw that dream achieve reality.

Of course, there is a shade of cynicism amid the optimism, too. The Kings are owned by the NBA's only Indian-born owner, Vivek Ranadive, and thus it has no surprise that the franchise chased him after the draft, assigned him to their affiliate D-League team, and signed him for the NBA (after their own playoff hopes were finished) just in time for the annual Sikh Community Appreciate Night. There have also been voices, such as the excellent Amar on SLC Dunk, who say that the NBA has overstated Bhullar's Indian connection to reach out to the billion-strong population in India instead of focusing on his Canadian basketball roots. It will be up to him to prove that he can be a useful NBA contributor and more than just a publicity stunt - and I believe that he has the skill-set and potential to continue proving his doubters wrong.

Nothing can take away Bhullar's achievements, as he gave his blood, sweat, and tears to the game and made the most of his combination of talent and size to realize his individual hoop dream. The son of Punjabi immigrants to Canada has now played and scored in the NBA. Many more players of Indian-descent - and hopefully of Indian citizenship - will do it after him, but he will always be the first. That first moment on court lasted just 16 seconds, but that's 16 seconds more than you, me, or any other player with some Indian in his blood-stream has ever played.

So let's celebrate the big man's milestone and feast on some butter chicken (like I ever needed an excuse to do that!). Let's get down with the Sikh-Ness! Let's celebrate the birth of Mahatma Grande, the greatest nickname that the giant Canadian-Indian could have possibly asked for (word to @scottostler). Sim Bhullar has finally broken the desi-NBA barrier; hopefully he can inspire many more to follow in his footsteps and bring a lot more masala to our favourite basketball association.

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