Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
Imagine the extraordinarily low odds for any poor American rural kid to be able to make it to the NBA. Those odds need to be multiplied many times over for a rural kid- even a gigantic one- from the state of Punjab in India to achieve the same goal. And yet Satnam Singh Bhamara now stands on the cusp of finding a roster spot in the National Basketball Association. The 7-foot-2 gentle giant was drafted in the second round of the 2015 NBA draft by the Dallas Mavericks, and currently plays in the Developmental League. His epic rise, and the massive challenges he has had to overcome, are well-documented in the documentary film, One in a Billion, available as of this month on Netflix. By no coincidence, Netflix is making major inroads into India.
One in a Billion does a fantastic job of laying out this story of someone who most basketball fans in the United States have not even heard of yet, a story whose ending is not yet written as Singh is just 21 years old. The filmmakers gained access to a diverse bunch of people, including Singh’s family members, youth coaches, trainers, and teammates in both India and the United States, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, and Indian hoops journalist Karan Madhok.
The hero of the story could not possibly be easier to root for, regardless of your interest level in basketball. Satnam’s relentless focus on improvement and positive energy in the face of obstacles, coupled with his desire to make family and country proud above all else is nothing short of inspiring. He had to learn not only basketball but also English at a late age, which caused him major academic troubles in America. The gym where he learned to play the game in India had a leaky roof and pigeons interrupting practices.
Satnam also faced inordinate amounts of homesickness and culture shock coming from a remote North Indian village to Florida for high school, leaving all of his friends and family far behind. In the film even the NBA, which is a giant profit-making machine, shows that it has a bit of heart despite the fact that high-level institutional support for Satnam is very much about tapping the 1.25 billion person India market for money.
There are moments that I really loved. The Indian farm scenes are poignant and sad, despite the upward trajectory of one of the village’s favorite sons. At one point Satnam’s black high school teammates at IMG Academy in Florida joked around with Satnam about dancing and impressing girls, and probed him about what India was like. There are moments where Satnam’s high school coach praises him, and others where he yells at him. Satnam’s workouts, drills, and game footage are also interspersed into the documentary and show his progression. Satnam gets fitted for his first suit and then the draft-day hijinks are very intense, and well-shot. I got chills in the scene where Satnam shook hands with Larry Bird, who runs basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers, my favorite team. Satnam in a Pacers uniform would be My. Dream. Come. True.
“People may look back on that date, and say that was the tipping point for basketball in India,” says Silver about Satnam’s drafting in the film. I tend to agree. India is too big to have just one major sport. It’s possible that at some future date, basketball might one day give cricket a run for its money in India. Personally, I can’t wait for that day to come, and for Singh, the Bhullar brothers, and others to pave the way for more Indians in pro basketball in the NBA and around the world.
In the meanwhile, this movie is the definitive account of how it all started. Credit director Roman Gackowski and the whole crew for that.
Sim Bhullar, we’ve been waiting for you. I have been quite certain for the last 20 years or so that there was an excellent chance I would die without seeing an Indian play an NBA game. I have been proven wrong, with hopefully some years in my life to spare.
The gargantuan Bhullar, a star high school and college basketball player originally from Toronto, has been signed to a 10 day contract with the Sacramento Kings- owned by Indian-American Vivek Ranadive. This is huge for Indians, and not just because Sim is 7’5″ tall, and pretty wide too for our generally anemic and too often sadly malnourished race. In fact Sim’s width exceeds the height of many fully grown Indian men.
There are players in the NBA from around 80 countries since the last decade or so, when international players became commonplace in the NBA. Till now there have been none of Indian descent. Sim was originally a late draft pick for the Kings last year, but was cut before the 2014-15 season began and thus did not truly complete a stint in the NBA yet. He was sent to the developmental league where he did well enough to get called back up to play with the big boys. Sim has been known to have issues regarding speed and conditioning. Some work in the gym, especially with weights and cardio, should help him immensely.
While a 10 day contract is tenuous at best, like a girl who reluctantly decides to go on a date with you only because you are her BFF’s brother, Sim now has a chance to prove that he belongs in the NBA.
There is no question that interest in the NBA, and in basketball in general, will now explode all over India and the Indian diaspora. Farmers in the countryside will start building hoops on their land for the first time, ever. The NBA has been smart in marketing to Indians- and expanding globally in general, helping make it a truly global league unlike any other American sport. In a few years we predict there will be more players of Indian origin joining the league. Sim’s little brother (as in 7’3″ little) Tanveer just may be one of them.
Kill ’em, Sim.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor