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My biggest problem is finding shoes that fit, says 7’2” desi NBA player

Satnam Singh Bhamara, the first Indian pro basketball player in the US, chats about life as a giant.

hollywood Updated: Jan 15, 2017 10:00 IST
Anesha George
Anesha George
Hindustan Times
A new film, called One in a Billion, traces Satnam Singh Bhamara’s journey. It opens with him returning to the village in Punjab where he grew up (above).

“With great height, comes great responsibility,” quips 7’2” Satnam Singh Bhamara.

The towering Punjabi was only 19 when he became the first Indian ever drafted into the US’s National Basketball Association, and there’s now a movie called One in a Billion on Netflix, about his journey from the tiny village of Ballo Ke in Barnala to USA.

Directed by multi-Emmy award winner Roman Gackowski, the 69-minute film opens with Bhamara, now 21, returning to his roots amid cheering by villagers.

“Going back to the land where I grew up, for the shoot, was a very overwhelming experience, because nothing has really changed. For my people it was a big deal for one of them to go so far and make it big, but for me there was nothing more comforting than to spend time on our farm and tell children stories of my travels,” Bhamara says.

Already 5’9” by the time he was 10 years old, he remembers some people making fun of his height, and others being intimidated by it. “More importantly, there were a few farsighted people in my life who understood how to make the most of this gift,” he says. It was his father’s friend who suggested that the boy try his luck at basketball, and that’s how he ended up in the Ludhiana Basketball Academy.

‘We felt this was a story that had to be told. In many ways, Satnam is a true pioneer,’ says director and multi-Emmy awardee Roman Gackowski.

“To be honest, I hated the first four months of basketball training, because I had had absolutely no knowledge or interest in the game before that point,” he recalls. It was his father who ‘came to his rescue’. “My dad is 7’3”and he told me he would have jumped at an opportunity to play a sport, had he ever got one. Those words got me thinking,” Bhamara says. “He was ecstatic to see me grow muscular and tall like him and always told me that I had to make it big. He felt like he was living his dreams through me and that made me want to strive further.”

While his height was aptly used to his advantage, one of his biggest battles was trying to get shoes in the right size. “I’ve had two shoes sewn together to fit my huge feet and I have even gone to the extent of practising barefoot,” he says.

Drafted into the IMG Academy, a residential sports school in Florida,after getting a scholarship in2010, Bhamara found himself several oceans away from home at 14, with not even a working knowledge of English, and homesickness hit hard. Again, it was his father who came to the rescue.

“In all my phone calls to him, he would say, ‘Study hard, play enthusiastically and sleep well’,” Bhamara says. “My first coach, Mr Nate Sluis, also went to great lengths to make me feel comfortable, even using gestures and single-word commands to teach me nuances of the game.”

Watch the man in action here

Shy and reticent at first, he wondered if he would ever fit in. “Basketball requires immense coordination, and I couldn’t even communicate with my teammates. ‘Sorry’ was the only English word I knew back then, and I used generously on the court,” he says, laughing.

Successive injuries kept him off the field and he began to worry he was losing the plot. “It’s easy to lose focus in such times, but for me there was just so much love and faith invested in me by my family and my coaches there was no question of backing out,” says Bhamara.

The decision to create One in a Billion was made by film producer Michael Ratner and director Gackowski after research into Bhamara’s journey and personality. “We both felt it was a story that needed to be told. In many ways, Satnam was a true pioneer,” Gackowski says. “And yet the core of the story was the young man himself.”

Currently, Bhamara is readying to play in the D League. “As of now I have just two goals, to continue my quest of improving myself and to make basketball a household game in India,” he says.

Watch the trailer for One in a Billion here

First Published: Jan 14, 2017 19:43 IST