Satnam Singh Bhamara: Meet the first NBA player from India

  • Manoj Bhagavatula, Hindustan Times, Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 26, 2015 18:19 IST

Satnam Singh Bhamara, the first Indian-born player to be drafted in the NBA League, was introduced to basketball by his father, who is a farmer.

Picked by the Dallas Mavericks in the 2015 NBA Draft, Singh has made history . But, there's a long way to go.

He has never played basketball on any level even close to the NBA. He's played high school basketball for four years and prep school basketball for one.

This draft pick is evidence that despite the rawness of his talent, the NBA believes him ready for the big leagues.

Born in Ballo Ke, a village in Punjab where there are no basketball courts and no cable television, he started playing the game at an early age. At the age of 12, he was sent to the government-funded Ludhiana Basketball Academy, where he spent two years away from home studying and training and honing his basketball skills.

Singh's talent was first noticed at the Ludhiana academy. Troy Justice, the NBA Director of Basketball Operations in India, first met Singh at the NBA Mahindra Challenge, a multi-city, community-based basketball league. "First time I saw him play, he was wearing shoes that were falling apart. The seams had split, and he was coming right out of them," Justice said in an interview to AOL News back in 2010.

"That's all he had. He was growing so fast. We helped him get shoes. I've heard people talk, but we're not sure they know how big he'll get."

In 2010, at age 14, Singh was one of 29 Indian athletes in three sports who moved to the United States to get trained at the renowned IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, as part of a new scholarship programme to promote, develop, and manage sports and entertainment in India. Although the programme was just three months long, such was Singh's talent that the academy was reluctant to let him return to India.

Dan Barto, director of player development at the IMG Basketball Academy, said of Singh at that time, "Satnam is on track to be a very, very good long-term basketball player.

"His biggest weakness now is our biggest strength here when it comes to developing players -- neuromuscular firing -- overall body control. His potential is pretty amazing."

Incredible size

One of Singh's biggest strengths is his size. He is 7'2" tall and weighs 290 pounds (132kg). At 14, he was 7 feet tall, wore a size-22 shoe, and was still growing. His size earned him the ironic nickname of "Chhotu" (little one). His father, Balbir Singh Bhamara, is also 7'2", while his paternal grandmother is 6'9".

When he arrived at IMG, Singh's basketball skills were still 'raw and mechanical', while his hand-eye coordination was good. He had good hands around the basket and moved surprisingly well for someone of his size. Within six weeks there, he started to get stronger and fitter, too.

"We've seen a dramatic change in the six weeks we've had him," Barto said in 2010. "He's shown a real willingness to work, very coachable. He wants to learn. Why do 7-footers sometimes go bad? Because they get bad people around him. That won't happen here. There is a beauty to this kid."

Learning curve

Singh's height and size, his greatest strength, also forms the basis of his weaknesses, which are in the areas of speed and movement. Yet his willigness to work hard is such that many in the NBA are impressed.

Former Sacramento Kings coach Kenny Natt, who has worked with Singh for several years, told the Washington Post, "In the case of Satnam, the general feedback on him has been consistent on both fronts when looking at his strong and weak points. To no surprise to us, nearly all have indicated that his speed, lateral quickness, and reaction time is lacking. However, they have all spoken very highly of Satnam's body size, hand size, physical strength, solid work ethic, crafty inside footwork off post, soft perimeter shooting touch with range, as well as his positive upside as a young player."

Potential for India

"Satnam could one day do the same thing for India that Yao Ming did in China -- put the spotlight on basketball through an entire country," said Justice, who has now seen Singh play on several occasions. "It really could be something."

India now has its first citizen representing it in a league that already boasts 85 international players from 39 countries. Canadian-born Sim Bhullar became the first player of Indian descent when he appeared in three games for the Sacramento Kings earlier this year. Moreover, the NBA's steadily-increasing popularity in the country, in part due to improved coverage on Sony Six, is likely to receive a boost with Singh's inclusion.

Singh is aware of the possibilities. "I feel good about it because in India there are a lot of Indian players who could have a chance to come here and play in college and high schools," Singh said in an interview to the Washington Post during a recent workout with the Washington Wizards. "I think I can open the door for everyone to come here and play. So it's good for India and all the players. It's good for me and my country."

“I think in India, there’s really a lot of pressure on me because I’d be the first player born in India to be drafted into the NBA,” he added. “I’m really excited because I think a lot of people in India play basketball and it would open the door for a lot of people.”

Unreal feeling

"The feeling is of course unreal but it has happened and I feel that my entry will certainly open the doors for many aspiring basketballers in India to dream big," said an elated Singh to a host of Indian journalists on conference call from the US after the draft, according to a PTI report.

"The game will certainly grow in India in the coming years. You see the popularity of cricket now but in future basketball will also be popular back home," he added.

Before the draft, Singh had expressed a desire to take care of his parents, no matter how the draft turned out for him.

“I’m going to give my mom and dad everything because my mom and dad [did a] really good job for me. I needed anything, anytime, they give me,” he said in an interview to USA Today.

Singh now has a chance to do just that.

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