This article was first published in my 'Hoopistani' column for The Times of India Sports on February 19, 2018. Click here for the original piece.
When Karnataka’s top basketball official K. Govindraj rose to the helm of presidency of the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), most of the country’s national basketball operations were shifted down to the state’s capital, Bengaluru. India’s national teams began to hold all of their camps and practices in the city. While world-class indoor infrastructure is few and far between in India, the BFI found an ideal venue in Bengaluru’s famous Sree Kantaveera Stadium for domestic and international games.
The arena, in the heart of one of India’s most cosmopolitan cities, passed the International Basketball Association’s (FIBA) requirements and India was rewarded two major international events in 2017: the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup and the FIBA Asia U16 Championship for Women. In July, the venue attracted Asia’s best women’s basketball teams, local fans, and even basketball Hall of Famer Yao Ming for the first of these championships. On the tournament’s final day, the 4,000-seater arena was filled to capacity as India’s senior women’s team won Division B in dramatic fashion. Fans erupted with joy as Shireen Limaye hit a game-winning shot. The tournament had been a success.
Three months later, however, before the U16 version of Asia’s top women’s tournament welcomed basketball contingents back to India, Bengaluru was hit with some of the worst rains in over a century. The rains flooded the city’s crumbling urban infrastructure and seeped out the drainage system. The Kantaveera Stadium, which was built on what was once the ‘Sampige Tank’ flooded after rainwater and sewage inflow in August and then after the rains in mid-October, too. When India’s own U16 women’s team came down to Bengaluru in anticipation of the FIBA Asia U16 Women’s Championship, the famous venue was damaged.
After practices were delayed the disrupted, the stadium was eventually cleaned up and prepared for the tournament. Team India won the U16 tournament’s Division B like their ‘senior’ predecessors, and all was smooth again. In November, the arena hosted an international FIBA World Cup qualifier against Syria. This week, it will host two more qualifiers against Lebanon and Jordan.
But the flooding—which affected what is India’s best public basketball arena—served as a warning sign. Even as the country marches ambitiously forward into the 21st century, many of our facilities still have remnants of the 20th. Most of India’s top players have grown up hooping on outdoor courts, braving laborious hot summers, freezing cold winters, wet monsoons, dangerous cracked cement surfaces, and cricketers setting up wickets on the court. There are some decent indoor facilities like the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai, the Thyagaraj Stadium in New Delhi, the Guru Nanak Stadium in Ludhiana, or Bengaluru’s Sree Kantaveera. But basketball is a low priority sport in the country and its overall infrastructure still lags far behind.
The world’s most lucrative basketball league, however—with intentions to increase their presence in the massive Indian market—feels slightly more ambitious about India’s prospects.
Over in Los Angeles, the world-famous National Basketball Association (NBA) hosted its All Star celebrations over the weekend, a showcase of the finest talent that the North American league has to offer. While no Indian player has ever played in the NBA, the league has been growing its presence in India for the past decade and have sent a number of superstar players to Indian shores to promote the game—including NBA champion and Finals MVP Kevin Durant last summer.
During a press conference on Saturday, the NBA’s commissioner Adam Silver surprised the international media by declaring that the league hopes to bring a preseason game to India.
“We have an excellent relationship with the Reliance Foundation and with other corporate partners in India,” said Silver, “We have an office in Mumbai, and one of the things we're looking at, which we hope to do relatively soon, is bring a preseason game to India. A little is dependent on the arena infrastructure, but we've heard some good news from the market in terms of Delhi and Mumbai about plans of new arenas. So that's something we're hopeful to do.”
Over the years, NBA preseason and regular season games have been held at several other Asian destinations, such as Greater China regions (an annual occurrence for a dozen years), the Philippines, and Japan. It’s not a surprise that, India, which doesn’t have the basketball culture or history of these other countries, was never seriously considered in the past.
But in 2013, Mumbai-born Vivek Ranadive became the first majority Indian-origin owner of an NBA franchise when he purchased the Sacramento Kings, and within a matter of months, began to hold talks with the NBA about bringing a preseason game to India. These plans have been shelved since, but the NBA has been growing its presence in the Indian grassroots and with local corporate partners. On Saturday, Silver further credited Ranadive’s insistence of India as a potential host of a future NBA exhibition game.
“…[Ranadive] was born in Mumbai,” said Silver. “In addition to constantly reminding me about getting an All-Star Game in Sacramento, he says, we really want to play in India. So it’s something that I have a feeling we'll get done in the next few years.”
For NBA fanatics in India, this is incredible news. Growing up as an NBA fan from the 90s, I could have never imagined superstars ever coming to our shores—let alone entire teams taking part in an official NBA (exhibition) game. If the league can pull this off, it would boost the popularity of the sport immensely. Yes, India has the experience of star-power and glitz with Cricket’s IPL; but the NBA—with its extravagant production value and otherworldly talent on the floor—would be an entertainment event on a whole different stratosphere.
Over the past few years, the NBA’s relationship with the Reliance Foundation has created a robust Jr. NBA foundation programme for millions of young players in the grassroots. At the other end of the spectrum, the league launched the NBA India Academy in Greater Noida last year, providing a training ground for two dozen of the nation’s best hopes. The league is ready for the next major step in India.
But is India ready for the league?
Silver’s concerns about arenas in India are real. As much as it might sound like a simplification to compare India to China because of our similar populations, India still lags far behind China in terms of sporting infrastructure. Basketball is perhaps China’s most popular sport, and the country has several international-quality basketball arenas, many are used by the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) teams. A more accurate comparison to India might be the Philippines, but they feature at least one major destination—the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila—that satisfied the NBA’s needs. Plus, the Philippines is the world’s most hoops-obsessed nation, and any “risks” for the NBA in hosting a game there in October 2013 was far overshadows by its rewards.
The Philippines is a developing nation, and basketball—at its rawest, most stripped-down level—is an inexpensive sport. Just like neighbourhood gullie cricket, basketball can be a simple game, only needing a hoop, a bouncy ball, and some willing competitors. This is why, even in India, so many school-kids grow up with close access to the game.
The NBA, however, is not an inexpensive league. It stands as one of the richest leagues in the world with each the average value of each of its thirty teams at a record $1.65 billion. With stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and James Harden, the NBA employs of the world’s richest athletes in its ranks, too.
For a brand of this stature, coming to India is a calculated risk. Viewership for NBA games has skyrocketed over the past few years thanks to the broadcast on Sony SIX, but basketball still hasn’t attracted the country’s mainstream audience. As for live events, basketball is still something that fans are reluctant to pay for. India has no full-time professional basketball league. The UBA has held short leagues in cities like Hyderabad, Goa, and Chennai with free entry for fans. The same is true for the BFI’s national championships.
If the NBA wants to focus on star-power or political clout, they may consider venues in Mumbai or New Delhi, respectively. But the Sree Kantaveera has become India’s “hone court” of sorts in the last few years after being seasoned by numerous FIBA competitions. When the NBA eventually brings that preseason game to India, Bengaluru might have a good chance of becoming the first choice of venue.
It will take a little bit of effort from both sides to make this dream come true, a well-run ‘pick-and-roll’ play where India provides an improved platform for the NBA, and the NBA sets India up for an easy path forward. With time, the rewards in India should outweigh the risk, and if all the forces align in the right direction, that pick-and-roll could turn into a game-winner.