This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India Sports on October 12, 2017. Click here to read the original piece.
In the climactic moment to the documentary about him “One in a Billion”, Satnam Singh is in New York City, being driven to the 2015 NBA Draft. It is a life-changing convention that turns selected amateur athletes into full professionals in the world’s most-prestigious basketball league. Even at 19, Satnam has already lived numerous lifetimes: with the help of basketball, he has gone from a small, nondescript Punjabi village to an American education and world-class basketball training at the IMG Basketball Academy in Florida.
Now, he is en route to discover his destiny, suited in his sharpest gear, but looking as nervous as you would ever see a seven-foot giant. He is about to find out if years of toil and turmoil will lead him to the ultimate glory: a selection in the NBA, making him the first Indian citizen to be drafted into the league in its seven-decade history.
In the car on the way to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, Satnam talks to the agents and friends and mentions how Yao Ming opened the door for basketball in China. Someone tells him encouragingly, that he, too, has already opened the door. Satnam, in broken English, a language barrier that haunted him in his days at the IMG Academy, responds, “Just opened the lock,” he says with a sly smile. “Not door. Just opened the lock.”
Little did Satnam know that, his words on Draft Day would become a self-prophecy. After being drafted, Satnam spent the next two years with the Maverick’s affiliate team in the NBA’s minor basketball league (NBA G-League) team Texas Legends. He played only 7.1 minutes per game in 27 appearances over two years, averaging just 1.6 points and 1.4 rebounds. The NBA dream and those over-enthused Yao Ming comparisons seemed to loom too far in the horizon.
Satnam was right: by getting drafted, he had only unlocked the possibility of an Indian even making it into the conversation of NBA athletes. The door for him still remained shut.
Earlier this week, frustrated with lack of opportunity and playing time, Satnam told gathered reporters at an event organised by the General Nutrition Centre in Mumbai that he had decided to return to India to develop his game.
“I had a big problem with no playing time at NBA,” Satnam said to India Today. “I would lose my mind.”
Now, he is hoping that India, and added opportunity, will help him showcase his skillset again. With additional competitive time on court, he hopes to improve this game as well as attract the attention of scouts again.
“If I play here, I will get more game time and my game will improve,” he said to The Field. “I just want to play and work on my skills and moves. If I want to improve my game, I will need somebody who I can work with.”
His decision is somewhat surprising, considering that Satnam joined fellow Punjabi baller TJ Sahi to comment last month that there was “no future” for basketball in India and aspiring players should look for opportunities abroad.
The lack of elite-level competition and no full-time professional league has hampered the growth and opportunities for numerous Indian basketball stars, which is why, many of our top current players—Amritpal Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amjyot Singh—are looking for professional opportunities abroad. Satnam, who blazed the trail (while still being the youngest of them all) seems to have taken a step back to his roots.
“Now I have come back to India. I will play for the Indian team,” Satnam said to India Today. “I will work on my game as much as I can. I will play for Punjab, any small tournament. I want playing time. The more I play my game will improve.”
Satnam’s last foray with the Indian national team - at the prestigious FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon in August - didn’t go as well as he would have expected. He was not in ideal game shape and was behind Amritpal, Amjyot, and Arvind Annadurai in the big man rotation. He played less than nine minutes per game and couldn’t help India as they lost all three of their preliminary round games.
If he continues to stay fit, however, he should have no trouble eventually getting playing time in India. He will likely play for Punjab in national tournaments and hopefully find a place for himself in the UBA Basketball League. He will have to evolve his style to fit into the faster pace of the game, which was part of his struggle in breaking into the Texas Legends line-up back in the United States, too.
By returning to India for more playing opportunity, Satnam will be sacrificing the exposure, facilities, and competition that was available to him in the US. Could playing without a fully professionalised league, against inferior opponents, with worse coaching and infrastructure, truly help him find future international opportunities?
From farming in the Ballo Ke village in Punjab to rubbing shoulders with the best in the basketball world, Satnam has already taken Indian basketball further than anyone before him. Indeed, he has unlocked the door to the NBA. Hopefully he - or a successor — will kick it wide open very soon.