The 2019 NBA India Games Successfully Established Basketball In A Cricket-Obsessed Country
India, the land of cricket. That label will probably never change, and that’s okay. While football and kabaddi leagues have found some amount of success here, bringing a basketball league seemed doubtful. But the NBA has no evil plans of replacing cricket, or football or even kabaddi. It just wants to have basketball included as one of the many sports India can be home to.
The foray of the NBA into India was steady, smart and calculated. They tested the waters first before diving right in. NBA’s first introduction to India was through its NBA Academy and partnership with the Reliance Foundation. They expanded their audience in the country by making the NBA matches available to Indian fans by broadcasting it on regular sports channels here. A strong social media presence only fastened the process of attracting more people to the sport. According to Vivek Ranadive, Chairman and Governor of Sacramento Kings, he and NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, had intense talks on bringing the league to India. They visited the country a couple of years back and started all the initiatives needed to make this a reality. Silver promised that it’s going to be here and it will be big. He clearly wasn’t wrong and delivered on that promise.
Vivek Ranadive was visibly ecstatic and proud of having the games in the city he was born in. “I am a Mumbaikar and having a pre-season game for my team in Mumbai is one of the most exciting moments of my life. This is the first step in our journey to bring the NBA here. I fully expect this will continue and have more players come out from India and also have more arenas,” he said.
The games saw a host of celebrities come in to support it. Stars like Priyanka Chopra, Farhan Akhtar, Sonam Kapoor, Russell Peters, Bhuvan Bam and Rannvijay Singh were all cheering courtside for their favourite teams. Basketball legends like Jason Williams, Detlef Schrempf, Dikembe Mutombo and Larry Bird were also present to witness the first NBA India Games. The NSCI Dome proved to be a great location to host the games. The crowds and their enthusiasm always remained sky-high. There was not one dull moment during the whole match. While teams went in for timeouts, the entertainment left fans engaged. The elaborate dance performances, comical mascots, and a session of throwing free shirts and balls into the crowd made the audience eagerly wait for more timeouts to come. Fans could even indulge in little basketball-related games at some stalls or grab a bite at the food counters set up throughout the stadium. Moving away from the location and the crowd, the teams and match itself were on the standards of what I expected from a professional NBA game. The nail-biting match was filled with loud dunks, swift lay-ups, half-court buzzer-beating baskets and an intense, unexpected ending. Watching the whole thing unfold with the players bringing their best and the crowd screaming and cheering made me realise that basketball is definitely a sport Indians can grow to love.
But on asking if the game will return or become an annual occurrence, Adam Silver seemed sceptical, and it was for a valid reason. According to Silver, they had to bring a court, scoreboards and even make special locker rooms for the players at NSCI. Having a one-off Indian edition of an NBA match is doable, but making it an annual occurrence requires a whole lot of infrastructure to support it and solid commitment towards making that happen. Both of which India isn’t interested in doing. Simply because they’d rather spend that money on bettering our current cricket stadiums. Which is fair, since that it is still the sport Indians consume the most. Diverting a huge sum of money for basketball seems like a gamble in India. But the NBA isn’t expecting the government to take this decision right now. They are rather focussing on what they can do themselves to better the sport here. Former NBA player, Jason Williams expressed how India can become a hub for basketball. “I noticed kids here have a lot of places to play cricket or even soccer. But basketball does require a proper court and I’ve only seen that available in local YMCAs which poorer kids can’t afford to visit. So I think the most important step should be to create more spaces for all kids to play the game so that they get introduced to it and can spend time perfecting the sport,” he said. The NBA realized that as well and implemented their Legacy Project which will support five under-resourced Municipal schools in Mumbai with technology equipment, trained teachers, a basketball court, and improved infrastructure capacities.
All in all, the first-ever NBA India Games was an absolute success. As a fan and optimist, I hope to see the games return on an even larger scale with bigger names from the league and top-tier teams. India does have the scope to host and make this a success. Perhaps not annually, but bringing a few pre-season games once in a while will help expand its loyal fanbase here. The packed stadium and enthusiastic, screaming fans were a loud roaring reminder that people love this sport and are looking to give it a fair chance in the country.