In a cricket-obsessed country like India, where cricketers are treated as semi-gods, it's a tremendous achievement if someone makes name in a lesser-popular sport like basketball. But Satnam Singh is no ordinary athlete. Fighting against all odds, the athlete from Punjab not only managed to make an impact in the sport just in India, but also globally.
Satnam created history when he became the first Indian player to be drafted into the U.S.A's National Basketball Association (NBA) in 2015.
In an email interview with Suyash Srivastava of Zee News.com, Satnam spoke about his journey from Punjab to the United States and how he plans to popularize the sport in India. Following are excerpts from the interview.
Whenever we think about you, the first thing which comes to mind is your towering height. Tell us something about the challenges you faced as a kid?
I always stood out in front of kids of my age due to my extraordinary height. When I was young and used to go out to play, people used to say - 'you are so big and still you play.' But they never realized that it is just my appearance due to my height that makes me look big. From inside and even mentally, I was like a normal kid like them who liked to play and have fun. When I started playing basketball, I didn't really face any major difficulty except for finding proper shoe of my size. Otherwise, mostly I had to work and concentrate on my hand and body movement while practicing the game. I had an advantage being tall but I had to train my body well to make the right use of it.
How did basketball happen? Were you passionate about the sport or someone motivated you to take it up considering your height?
The thought of basketball had never crossed my mind. Once, one of my my father's friend suggested that I should play basketball as my height was an added advantage for the sport. My father advised me to give it a shot and that is when basketball happened to me. I have always obeyed my father and respected his decisions. Initially I wasn't too keen about it, now I am absolutely in love with the sport. I still have to excel and get better at it though.
You are a role model for several aspiring athletes in the country. Tell us something about your journey from Punjab to the United States.
I am so humbled because I might have done something right to inspire so many people. My journey has not been that smooth but it has been a good learning experience. The best part of my journey from Punjab to United States was that I just went with the flow and believed in my father and coaches. I never knew how to even hold a basketball when I started playing the game. I used to wear two shoes stitched into one as I never found the shoe of my size. That made it a bit uncomfortable while practicing the game. The biggest hurdle when I came to the USA was the language barrier. I didn't know English and my coaches used to find it difficult to explain me. However, I was lucky enough to have been trained by the coaches, who were not just talented and knowledgeable, but humble and helpful too. They always motivated me and guided me at each step. They did their best to introduce me to NBA teams and their owners. It made me believe in myself even more. It motivated me further to deliver my best and live up-to the trust they had in me. I must say, the journey was a memorable one and a new experience altogether which I shall cherish forever.
You were also recently seen doing drills at a recent WWE performance Center tryout. Are you planning to follow into the footsteps of The Great Khali?
I am not thinking about any other sport yet except for basketball. I just went to watch the WWE drill and was suggested to give it a shot given my extraordinary height and athletic body that is required for WWE. That is all about my stint at WWE and there is nothing more to it.
Considering that basketball demands a lot of practice, what is your daily routine like?
Since I am mostly preparing for the matches, my entire day revolves around exercising at the gym and practicing the game. I get up between 7am-8am in the morning have breakfast and go for my practice sessions from 10am to 12 pm. After practice, I head over to have my lunch, relax for some time and come back for practice. I exercise 2-3 times in a day. Apart from this, whenever I have some free time, I love to watch movies.
Tell us something about your family and the kind of support they gave you?
I have an ideal and simple family that has always motivated me and pushed me to reach greater heights. There have been times when I felt low, but my family's support has always been the biggest motivating factor. I am very close to my father and whatever I am today is because of him. It was he who made me believe that I could play a sport which is unique, at least in India. At the age of 10, I left the house for further training. I used to miss my family a lot because initially things were difficult for me and I felt like coming back. But my parents always stood by me and their words of wisdom gave me the strength to work hard and move forward.
How much did your family support you initially since it's a cricket-obsessed country. Did you ever think of switching to some other sport, or your focus was entirely to do well in basketball?
From the beginning, I focused on basketball only. My family, specially my father was a great pillar of support in my entire journey. Seeing my dedication towards the sport and to make things easier for me, my father built a basketball ring for me at our place. I used to practice basketball at home too after coming back from the sports academy.
When you were away from home training, tell us about the people who kept you motivated and played a major role in making you what you are today?
Being away from home was a difficult phase for me. That was the time that I found support from my coaches, team mates and teachers at the academy. They understood where I came from and helped me wherever they could. My classmates used to help me with studies, teachers helped me with the language and coaches; despite the language barrier initially, trained me with passion. My coach used to enact and show me the moves seeing which I would do the same and learn.
Tell us something about your documentary - One In A Billion.
The documentary has covered my journey exceptionally well. After watching it, I relived all the moments once again and it was a wonderful and emotional experience. From the entire filming process to watching the final documentary, I was excited and looked forward to the response it receives. I am thankful to director Roman Gackowski and film's producer Michael D. Ratner to have considered making a documentary on my journey. It has received a positive response and inspired every single person who has watched it. It is not just about the sport and the aspiring players that it inspired , but in general too, the way my life's struggle has been clearly depicted in the movie, motivates everyone to achieve something in their life by fighting all odds.
While the world has heard of Michael Jordan, Lebron James and Stephen Curry, you have put our country on the global map as well. How do you see basketball, as a sport in India and what are your plans to popularize it?
As a sport, basketball has a long way to go as it's been only few years since the sport has started gaining prominence in India. If you see basketball in the US, people have incredible love for it. I think with time, people will relate to it and acknowledge the sport in the future. And I sincerely hope that my humble efforts boost those changes. The government should take necessary steps to promote the game and provide better infrastructure and facilities so that the aspiring talent in India gets the best training. Once I have made a mark in basketball, I would like to come back to India and start a sports academy that would have all the sports and education related facilities like my academy here in the US. I would like to replicate the generosity of my coaches and impart my knowledge and training to the aspiring sports players in India. I would also want to provide international sports scholarship to the students of my academy, which would further help India have its name established on the global map in the field of sports through this talent lot.
4 Indian Men players to tryout at the NBL Australia - 8 days ago
Four senior members of the Indian national basketball team - Amjyot Singh Gill, Amritpal Singh, Yadwinder Singh, and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, have been invited by the National Basketball League (NBL) - the professional basketball league of Australia, to participate in the NBL Draft combine for the upcoming season 2017-18. The combine is set to take place on the 17th and 18th of April at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre. A total of 80 players are expected to participate in the combine. [read more]
Four senior members of the Indian national basketball team - Amjyot Singh Gill, Amritpal Singh, Yadwinder Singh, and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, have been invited by the National Basketball League (NBL) - the professional basketball league of Australia, to participate in the NBL Draft combine for the upcoming season 2017-18.
The combine is set to take place on the 17th and 18th of April at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre. A total of 80 players are expected to participate in the combine. These will include returning US college players, South East Australian Basketball League (SEABL) players, Australian state league players, and members of Australia's national U18 and U20's teams. It is an opportunity for coaches and scouts of different NBL teams to gauge the talent at hand and sign the players they believe could help their team.
As standard practice, players participating in the NBL Draft Combine must pay an entry fee of AUD $250. However, this fee has been waived off for all the invited Indian players. The waiver of fees for the Indian contingent by the NBL is just another sign that the NBL has serious intentions to enter the Indian market. Last year, the NBL signed a historic deal with VEQTA to stream NBL games live in India.
Under the new rules of the NBL, the players belonging to the countries of the FIBA Asia zone would be given a separate spot that would not take up any of the three spots reserved for the foreign players. This move has been made to attract the top Asian talents and ensure that they consider the NBL as a serious destination to ply their trade.
The Indian players' participation in the NBL Draft Combine was made possible by Pursuit India and its Australian partner Danny Kordahi. Pursuit, which had previously worked with Kordahi and arranged the visit of Australian coach Damian Cotter to the national men's camp, has been working behind-the-scenes for months to identify suitable playing opportunities across the globe.
'It's the biggest platform our players have had so far to showcase their talent. The NBL is a highly competitive international league and it's a fantastic opportunity for our top Indian players to gauge their skill levels. Whatever the outcome, they will benefit a great deal from the experience itself,' says Mr. Vishnu Ravi Shankar, head of Pursuit India.
I was in the check-in line at the New Delhi airport one afternoon when I heard some commotion from the far end. From the distance, I couldn't identify the cause of the hysteria that followed: men and women screaming in jubilation, forgetting their usual travel routine to chase down a celebrity. It didn't take long for the message to reach the lady behind my check-in counter: Virat Kohli, the Indian cricket captain and nationwide heartthrob, had graced the airport with his presence. He to... [read more]
I was in the check-in line at the New Delhi airport one afternoon when I heard some commotion from the far end. From the distance, I couldn't identify the cause of the hysteria that followed: men and women screaming in jubilation, forgetting their usual travel routine to chase down a celebrity.
It didn't take long for the message to reach the lady behind my check-in counter: Virat Kohli, the Indian cricket captain and nationwide heartthrob, had graced the airport with his presence. He took a different flight to a different destination, and I never got to see him in person. But the hysteria, the undeniable electricity in the air, made the moment memorable.
After a temporary pause for bedlam, normal schedule ensued.
The basketball star who no one recognised.
Winters in Delhi are always colder than one expects them to be, and it's at midnight on a chilly November evening when I end up sharing travel plans with another Indian sports captain. It's platform 16 by Ajmeri Gate at New Delhi Railway Station, open to all elements of the environment and the populace, where I ran into the most-accomplished basketball star in the country: Vishesh Bhriguvanshi. The shooting-guard was taking the same overnight five-and-a-half-hour journey on the Nanda Devi Express with me to Dehradun; by sheer coincidence, we had even bought tickets for the same AC three-tier compartment.
Bhriguvanshi and I also share a hometown - Varanasi - and I've known him from his early days of becoming an Under-18 Most Valuable Player of the international Basketball Without Borders camp in New Delhi in 2008 till he became team India's captain and most-steady presence at the international stage. Bhriguvanshi was by himself, unbothered and undisturbed in a quiet corner waiting for the train to pull up. I was the only one to recognise him: my reaction to this chance meeting was with hugs and selfies, tweets and Instagram posts.
I spoke loudly as we chatted in the train that night, hoping that fellow travellers would understand and appreciate the unknown celebrity among them. But of course, no one was interested; outside the niche basketball obsessives in India, Bhriguvanshi is largely an unknown figure. He was dressed in a simple green shirt, carried an old sports backpack, and wore his trademark full-beard over his face, and nothing expect for his slightly taller height - six-foot-four - made him stand out. That height which had been Bhriguvanshi's gift on the basketball court for nearly a decade was unfortunately a curse on the train: his foremost concern that night was hoping for a berth where his legs would fit without having to buckle in his knees all night.
Bhriguvanshi smiled at my attempts to get him attention. Even for a leading basketball star like him, anonymity in India isn't an exception, it's the norm.
Lots of plans but no hype Basketball has big plans for India. The Basketball Federation of India calls it the fastest-growing sport in the country. Earlier this year, the Managing Director of NBA India Yannick Colaco told me that the American league is investing big on basketball in India and has aims for it to become the 'clear number two sport' in the country. Those invested in basketball are hoping that India follows China's blueprint, where the success of superstar names like Yao Ming and a domestic league have made the country the world's largest market for the sport.
And yet, despite these efforts, the average Indian has little knowledge of the achievements of India's national teams or recognise star names like Bhriguvanshi, Amjyot Singh Gill, Amritpal Singh, and more. The most popular Indian basketballer in recent years has been Satnam Singh, a seven-foot giant from Punjab who was recruited to play high school basketball in the USA and became the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA in 2015. Since then, the 21-year-old has played in the NBA's Development League and became the subject of the Netflix documentary One in a Billion.
But Satnam, taking time to focus on his career overseas, hasn't been part of India's national team since 2013. He hasn't been responsible for the team's rapid rise at the Asian level over the past few years: India, ranked outside the top 50 in the FIBA World Basketball Rankings, have defeated Asia's top team China twice in international competitions, won the Lusofonia Games gold at home in Goa, and secured their best international performance in twenty-seven years with a seventh-place finish at the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge in Iran.
It helps to be tall and athletic in basketball, and a lot of credit for India's success can be attributed to the never-ending supply of big talented players scouted from Punjab in recent years. Satnam Singh got drafted to the NBA. Palpreet Singh Brar was drafted to the D-League. Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh became two of the continent's most respected bigs and found success in professional leagues in Japan.
And then there's Bhriguvanshi, the smaller (in relative basketball sense) player from Uttar Pradesh who used technical skills and leadership to overachieve in the land of giants and by 25, become one the country's most-important players.
A difficult pathway to to the top for Bhriguvanshi
Bhriguvanshi was born in Varanasi in 1991, the son of educationalists: his father was a biology teacher at the Udai Pratap College and his mother a school principal. Vishesh, however, found a different calling: by the time he became a teenager, the Sports Authority of India brought in coach Amarjeet Singh to head the basketball programme at the UP College. Under Singh's tutelage, the UP College turned into an unlikely nursery for Indian basketball, producing the talented Singh Sisters (Divya, Prashanti, Akanksha, and Prashanti), all who played for India, and other international players like Trideep Rai and Arjun Singh.
Bhriguvanshi became emblematic of Varanasi's golden era, finding domestic and international success as a teenager, earning national captaincy by the time he was 19, and soon becoming a stalwart for the national team.
Success wasn't an easy road coming from a conservative city like Varanasi, as another Varanasi-born India captain Trideep Rai told me in an interview recently. 'The biggest challenge playing in Varanasi in 90s was not having enough role models, not only for ourselves but also for our parents,' Rai said. 'And being a boy in that region you have to be careful for career choice as one is not only answerable to parents but also to whole society.'
Bhriguvanshi confirms battling through family expectations. 'First there was pressure from my family, they wanted me to study more and focus on my academics. But I had to take a risk. You need to take a risk in life. For me, it was a mixture of hard-work and luck.'
Bhriguvanshi basketball's skills earned him a job with Western Railways, where, like most other national athletes in India, he had to play two roles. On court he was a shooting guard, capable of creating for himself and others. Off the court, he was a railway ticket checker, posted in Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh where he led this double life, working four hours a day checking tickets at the Ratlam Junction.
'It was fun back then,' Bhriguvanshi said. 'I was only 18 or 19 years old and had a lot of energy.'
Bhriguvanshi helped India won a 3x3 basketball gold medal at the 2008 Asian Beach Games and has played in every major FIBA Asia Championship for India since. He won three consecutive national champions domestically with Indian Railways. In 2011, he was hired by Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and shifted to Dehradun, where he began to represent them and the Uttarakhand team. With Uttarakhand, Bhriguvanshi won three more nationals. Now in the prime of his career, he has found respect and admirers across the continent for his domestic and international performances.
Bhriguvanshi is a do-everything kind of player, able to play any perimeter position on the court with ease, excel as a ball-handler, a shooter, and in his explosive drives to the basket. His combination of intelligence, skills, and experience has him standing heads and shoulders above his competition; Bhriguvanshi is usually the best player in any domestic event he takes part in.
'My sense of the game has improved a lot,' Bhriguvanshi said of his on-court evolution. 'I have learnt how to beat the opponent mentally. I play with a mentality where losing is out of the question.'
Juggling a complicated calendar
A male basketball superstar in the United States has a streamlined schedule. Six months of regular season NBA basketball, followed by, if they are lucky, two months of the playoffs. During the summer, the cream of the crop occasionally get to represent their country at major international competitions. Otherwise, they rest, recuperate, and prepare for the next season.
But in India, where there is no full-time professional league, most of the top players are semi-professionals whose annual calendars are complicated jigsaw pieces, brought together with an ambition to maximise basketball opportunities as much as possible. For Bhriguvanshi, life is spent on the road: in September, he led India to a historically-successful performance at the FIBA Asia Challenge in Iran.
Later that month, he headed to Maldives to play in a short professional league and win the title for the 'T-Rex' team. In October, he was in an ONGC jersey playing at the FIBA Asia Champions Cup in China. In December, he carried India to a best-ever third-place finish at Hong Kong's Super Kung Sheung Cup and was named the tournament's best shooter. In January, he helped Uttarakhand win the Senior Nationals gold in Puducherry.
In February and March, he played his first season at the UBA Basketball League for the Bengaluru Beasts in Chennai and Goa, where he was named the league's Most Valuable Player and led his team to the final. Back with ONGC, he helped them win a fifth-consecutive gold medal at the Federation Cup as MVP in Coimbatore. Next, he is heading to Mizoram for a two-week 'Super League'. He will go to Australia for the National Basketball League tryouts in the summer. When he gets back to India, he will join India's national camp - most-likely at NIS Patiala - for the FIBA Asia Cup in August in Lebanon. And so on and so forth.
Unlike the Railways, ONGC doesn't require its sports recruits to actually contribute to office work until they retire. Bhriguvanshi is officially an HR Executive with them in Dehradun but only needs to show up to office for 'important work'. The focus, thankfully for him, remains completely on basketball, where ONGC has some of the best facilities and coaching available in the country.
But even with this complete dedication to the game, basketball fame is a rare thing. His greatest fan following is on Facebook, where he recently got his page verified. His recent stint with the UBA - which is broadcast live on Ten Sports - gave his fans nationwide a chance to watch his dominance instead of simply hear of its legend.
'Vishesh is a big star in the umbrella of Indian basketball, but 'big' is relative,' said Jamie Alter, sports editor at The Times of India. 'He is not recognised on the street, in malls or at airports. How many people know him within the basketball following that India has? A sportsperson like Vishesh, for all his success on the court, is going to be recognised only when he's visible far more than he is today. With the advent of the UBA there is at least the chance for a different audience to tune in.'
'To drive more attention to the likes of Vishesh, there needs to be an improvement in the standard of Indian basketball, more FIBA events in the country, and more games need to be televised,' Alter added. 'But since it's not a lucrative sport, advertisers won't flock and hence channels won't be interested. People are going to be attracted to someone and something they see a lot of.'
'My motivation is to play well for India' Bhriguvanshi was at the airport in Mumbai a few weeks ago, transiting in his many travels after playing in the UBA Basketball League Finals in Goa en route to the Federation Cup in Coimbatore. He sat alone as usual, unrecognised and undisturbed, until an elderly gentleman approached him in the airlines lounge.
'He told me that he had seen me play on Ten Sports for the UBA and wanted to compliment my game,' Bhriguvanshi recalls. 'This never used to happen before, but now, there are many more moments of recognition when I travel. I was surprised: he didn't look like someone who followed Indian basketball!'
Athletes like Bhriguvanshi who choose non-cricket sports as a career have become familiar with public anonymity. In sports that don't bring the visibility and lucrative opportunities, there is little that these athletes can control beyond their own motivations. And Bhriguvanshi's direction, as always, points towards the national jersey.
'My motivation is to play well for India,' he says. 'As long as I'm playing, I want to bring a good standing for the country.'
On 18th March 2017, the most watched event on the CBS network on American television was a basketball game with more than 7 million viewers. That was three times more than the next watched show, the film Fast Five and four times more viewers than another basketball game airing at the same time on the ABC television network. What is interesting was that the second game was between Lebron James and his champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the powerful Los Angeles Clippers, packed with stars lik... [read more]
On 18th March 2017, the most watched event on the CBS network on American television was a basketball game with more than 7 million viewers. That was three times more than the next watched show, the film Fast Five and four times more viewers than another basketball game airing at the same time on the ABC television network. What is interesting was that the second game was between Lebron James and his champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the powerful Los Angeles Clippers, packed with stars like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, while the ratings leading game was contested by college players from Texas Southern University and North Carolina.
In effect, the best and highest paid basketball players in the world took a back seat for a game involving teenage amateurs off which very few would ever make a professional NBA team. And therein lies a story that has defined the American sporting juggernaut, the strength and popularity of college sport in their country.
In 1936, Jesse Owens may have come to the attention of the world during the Munich Olympics. But he was already a star in America after setting three world records during an Inter University meet where he was representing Ohio State. John McEnroe was a star at Stanford before turning pro. In fact, Stanford University students and alumni won 27 medals in the 2016 Rio Olympics, just ahead of the University of California at Berkley and the University of Southern California with 22 and 21 apiece. In effect college sport works as the main feeder system for both Olympic and professional sport. Why does it work so well in the USA? The strong alumni networks definitely work. But the appeal often extends beyond the immediate alumni. Notre Dame's fabled football programme, the Fighting Irish also has huge support among the almost 40 million American who claim Irish heritage. Similarly, the North Carolina basketball programme, which has produced stars like Michael Jordan and Vince Carter has supporters in almost every state in America and in many markets abroad.
While the more successful University programmes usually make millions of dollars from television deals for their games, it is also a great opportunity for the athletes. For some, it is a finishing school with a really good coach to hone their skills. There are more than thirty coaches who earn more than a million dollars in the college basketball circuit and Mike Krzyzewski, Duke's legendary coach makes more than seven million dollars annually. Any player would love to take his game to the next level under coach 'K'.
The other big reason for playing college ball is the national exposure. A reasonably well known school gives an athlete a chance to strut his skills in front of millions of fans and the pro scouts. And that could be the difference between getting picked or ignored by the professional teams.
But all this money is fuelled by the viewers. And the reason why college sport is so big in America comes from its core proposition, amateur athletes competing for just the glory of their institution. And it does not hurt that a player has just a few chances at glory as the system does not allow anyone to represent a university for more than four years.
Indian college tournaments like cricket's Rohington Baria once saw the biggest names participate. Sunil Gavaskar played for Mumbai University in the 1967 finals, Kapil Dev got a triple century for Chandigarh University in the seventies and Sanjay Manjrekar dominated with five centuries in the early nineties. More recently, age group tournaments have become the tournaments of choice as the players try and stay within the state system. But age group tournament create no new support bases for a sport and just serve as selection games.
Few support an U-17 or U-19 team, but there are many who would support a St. Xaviers Mumbai or a Loyola College Chennai team. And the hugely reduced cost of production and the option for live streaming means that just 5,000 dedicated viewers can make it worth telecasting a college match. And while the University Cricket League in 2013 may have been a bit too ambitious, there are compelling reasons to look at building a strong college sports network. This could be the next big thing in Indian sport.
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