Satnam Singh Bhamara, the first Indian-born player to be drafted into the NBA, believes basketball will ‘pick up’ in India and has rejoined the Indian team for the 2017 FIBA Asia Championships.
At 7’2”, Satnam ‘Chhotu’ Singh Bhamara towers at least a foot above the tallest person at an event held at Lower Parel, Mumbai. The Baloke boy is stretching to shake off the kinks in his muscles, presumably developed after stooping repeatedly for selfies with frenzied fans and sitting for too long.
When I approach him, my diary and pen give away my agenda, but instead of sighing, Satnam’s face lights up. The 22-year-old seems eager for a heart-to-heart, and I discover why soon enough. The boy never tires of speaking about the incredible leaps he has made - literally and figuratively - as a kind of reassurance. For sometimes, he has trouble believing it all himself.
But now, as 'Chhotu' returns after a seven-year dream run in the United States, his childhood memories are getting a lot more vivid for the Dallas Maverick alumnus and hopeful.
Belonging to a small village in Punjab, Baloke (also known as Ballo Ke), Satnam was among the tallest people in his village when he was all of nine years old. For his father Balbir Singh, the second tallest man in the village, this could only mean four things.
Serendipity. Unfinished business. Basketball. Destiny.
After all, Balbir Singh, the son of a miller and wheat farmer, was once the tallest basketball hopeful in his village, but his father wouldn’t hear of it. When his own son, Satnam, seemed to have the right built for the game, Balbir’s hopes rose.
“I’m from a small village; it was my father’s dream to see me play basketball. When I found success, it was his dream come true - and mine as well,” Satnam recounts.
Satnam was initiated into the sport at a makeshift court created by his father. He thought that he was going to learn volleyball, and was rather bemused with the stopgap hoop. He struggled, but the urgency in his father’s eyes kept him going.
“For the first six months, I did not like it. But I kept playing. I realised that I was good at the sport and won a gold medal at a state-level tournament. That had me hooked.”
The rush Balbir felt was not just pride, it was redemption. However, the proud father wanted to see Satnam shine in the global spotlight and took him to the Ludhiana Basketball Academy (LBA), where talented 14 to 18-year-olds were trained.
Satnam trained under Dr Shankar Subramaniam, former Punjab basketball coach and Sports Authority of India director.
Chhotu, or the “little one” as he was called, stood at 6’11” then, and trained tirelessly in his size 18 shoes.
He was soon picked by some scouts for the Indian youth national basketball team, who were to play at the 2009 FIBA Asia Under-16 Championship in Malaysia in a few weeks. The team may have placed seventh from the bottom, but the experience set Satnam on a new track.
“Singapore Malaysia, Vietnam came calling in the next couple of years. In my world, nobody had been so far,” he says.
Naturally, Satnam aspired to be the best he could be. Soon, he was in awe of Kobe Bryant’s talent and celebrity status and dreaming NBA dreams. Around the same time, another development across the seven seas set in motion a series of events that would conspire to bring him closer to his dream.
Heidi Ueberroth, the new President of NBA International, hired Troy Justice to be the NBA's first Director of Basketball Operations in India and tap local talent.
Four months later, sports marketing company IMG Reliance decided to award full scholarships to Indian aspirants to study and train at the IMG Basketball Academy, the institution that created Kobe Bryant among others. Four boys and four girls under 13 years of age were to be selected.
Players aged between 14 and 24 years at the Ludhiana academy had been alerted a month in advance for the NBA Mahindra Challenge.
When the day came, Satnam, in his repeatedly mended shoes, looked nervous but showed off his potential, garnering Troy’s attention. The subsequent victory of the Punjab youth team at a national championship sealed his fate.
“He can be the chosen one for basketball in India,” Troy had said of him, at the time.
Satnam was chosen by the Basketball Federation of India for an NBA 'Basketball Without Borders' camp in Singapore. Noticed by Harish Sharma, the head of the BFI, he was invited to play at an all-star game against a team that constituted players from the Indian national team. His stellar performance made him the obvious choice – the fact that he was a year over the qualifying age led Harish to make a stronger case for Chhotu. For he believed Satnam could be 'India's Yao Ming'.
Satnam was one of 29 student-athletes to have won this opportunity, but he felt like one in a billion.
“Today, 10-20 million kids play basketball and dream of playing for the NBA. I am one in a billion. My coaches told me ‘you have to improve your English, though,’ ” he recalls.
Satnam held up his end of the deal and within weeks was able to understand basketball court jargon and communicate during practice.
“That was my biggest challenge. When I went, I couldn’t speak English or understand it. My teachers worked very hard on me. Initially, they would show me demos to explain something to me,” he says.
“It took me three years to pick up English. By then, my game had gotten a lot better too, so I had both going for me,” he adds.
Satnam also made a comeback in the Indian national basketball team at the 2011 and 2013 FIBA Asia Championships. In the 2014-15 season, he averaged 9.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in less than 20 minutes per game for IMG, the No. 2 ranked team in the country, as detailed by an old Sports Illustrated article. But his English remained a deterrent and even prevented him from receiving a scholarship to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
So, in April 2015, Satnam declared for the 2015 NBA draft.
The rest, as they say, is history.
On June 25, 2015, he became the first Indian player to be drafted into the 2015 NBA draft, initiated into the Dallas Mavericks as their 52nd overall pick. Singh plays the centre position. But that isn’t the only first he has to his credit – he’s the first player since the 2005 NBA draft to enter without playing in college, overseas professionally, or in the NBA Development League; the first player from high school to be drafted since the league announced age restrictions; and the first player to be drafted directly from high school.
He first played for the 2015 NBA Summer League and was subsequently acquired by the Texas Legends, the D-League affiliate of the Mavericks, in November 2015. In his professional debut, he scored 4 points, 3 rebounds and 1 assist in 9 minutes in a game they lost to the Austin Spurs.
“It was such a great experience at NBA. My first basket felt amazing,” Satnam says.
In all, he appeared in nine games (two starts) in 2015-16, averaging 1.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in 7.9 minutes. In October 2017, he was acquired by the Legends again, and finally re-joined the Dallas Mavericks for the 2017 NBA Summer League. He played in eight out of the 42 for the Texas Legends, and played one against the Phoenix Suns for the Dallas Mavericks in the Summer session.
But sitting on the sidelines was not without anxiety.
“My coaches tell me to be patient. They say it is essential to play for some of the other leagues and work on my game.”
Satnam was with the Dallas Mavericks for three years; his contract expires at the close of the year.
“I hope I go back. I want to play more than 9-10 games a year now. But I also want to play for an India team. That is why I have returned,” he says.
In India for three months now, Satnam is full of hope about the basketball scene in India.
“It is much better than it was in the past five years. It didn’t happen overnight - bringing NBA and DLeague players back here has not been easy but it has been happening. There is a big opportunity,” he says.
Satnam rejoined the Indian national team for the 2017 FIBA Asia Championship, and intends to stick around for a while. However, he’s also open to rejoining the Mavericks.
Competing with India’s most popular sport, cricket, doesn’t deter Satnam.
“Cricket and basketball are so different. In cricket, you just stand and if the ball comes, hey, you’re lucky. Basketball is elbows in your mouth, backs broken - something keeps happening. I’ve had surgery on everything from my nose to my knees. Both sports can co-exist,” he says.
Positive that basketball “will pick up”, Satnam concludes: “That’s why I’m here. To get better at my game, and to better the game here in India.”