A 7-foot-2 farm boy who became the first Indian-born player drafted in the NBA said Tuesday that his achievement could open doors for basketball in the world’s second most populous country.
“I was just hoping for my name to be announced so it would do India proud,” Satnam Singh, who was selected by the Dallas Mavericks as the 52nd overall pick, said on a conference call with reporters.
“Earlier, we did not have a player in NBA. Now that's not the case,” the 19-year-old said. “It will popularize the NBA, and basketball will be like cricket in India.”
While that seems terribly optimistic – cricket is a national obsession – NBA officials have had high hopes for Singh since 2010, when he was among a handful of Indian prospects chosen to train at a Bradenton, Fla., basketball academy run by sports management agency IMG.
The league sees India as its biggest untapped market, with a rising middle class willing to shell out for big-time sports. Indian fans have flocked to glamorous new professional cricket and soccer leagues featuring international stars, but the NBA has struggled to attract an audience here despite years of marketing efforts, including a television deal with Sony Six, a major sports network.
Although Singh is not projected to have the type of influence on the NBA of Yao Ming -- the center who drove basketball’s explosive growth in China -- he could attract a following in Texas, home to a large Indian diaspora.
“There’s a billion new Mavs fans out there right now,” the Mavericks’ voluble owner, Mark Cuban, told reporters after the draft.
Singh, who grew up in a village of a few hundred people in the northern state of Punjab, has been praised by coaches and scouts for his work ethic and being an effective three-point shooter for his size. Nicknamed “Chhotu,” or “little one,” in his village, the 290-pounder wears size 20 shoes that he says were all but impossible to find in India.
His father, Balbir, who is 7-foot-3, had heard of basketball as a teenager but spent his life tending to the family’s cattle farm and flour mill and never played the game.
Singh, whose favorite player is the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, is expected to play for the Mavericks’ summer league team in Las Vegas next month, and then with the franchise’s developmental league affiliate. It could be at least three years before he is considered ready for the NBA.
Earlier this year, Canadian-born Sim Bhullar became the first player of Indian origin to play in an NBA game, making a brief stint with the Sacramento Kings, whose owner, Vivek Ranadive, is an Indian businessman. Bhullar’s family is also from Punjab, and Singh said the two spoke by phone before the draft.
“He wished me luck. We talked in Punjabi,” Singh said. Bhullar told him, “This is just a start. The journey lies ahead.”