Where is basketball player Satnam Bhamara now?
He cooks a mean chicken biryani, or at least that’s what Satnam Singh Bhamara, the 7 foot 2 inch basketball player, claims. Living on his own since he was 17 has made him add that trick up his sleeves. He vouches by the praise from his cousins and friends in California. In a foreign land, it means a lot. Not that Satnam, now 24, is a stranger to accolades. But now he has seen the other side of the coin too, and has learnt to value the present.
“Before coming to the US, I never entered the kitchen. But now I am an expert. I can’t order food all the time. I don’t want to wait for anybody. I know I should not waste time,” Satnam says over the phone.
Time is indeed at a premium for Satnam. Since May, he has been training at the Sacramento Kings basketball facility in California. He is without a team now, but is hoping to cut a deal soon. Till mid-May, he played for St John’s Edge, a team in the National Basketball League, a lower rung competition in Canada. But he is not in the team’s ‘protected players’ list for the 2019-20 season.
It was Satnam’s latest stop in a journey that has seen the boy from Ballo Ke village in Punjab touch a peak when he became the first Indian to be picked in an NBA draft in 2015, and then going into near oblivion two years later when his contract was not renewed.
He found himself without a regular place in even the Indian team.
The young basketball player who caused a sensation with his size and potential, and even had a Netflix documentary—‘One in a billion’—made on him in 2017, drifted in nowhere land.
“I failed that time (getting dropped by Dallas Mavericks from their NBA roster) because I did not have the right talent. Simple,” he says. “If a player gets picked from the NCAA (College basketball in US) he has enough chance to make it to the main team, even the top-10 from NBA drafts has a very good chance. The players in the top 30 can have a shot too. But after that, you can understand what happens to the next players. I was the 52nd draft.”
In the 2015-16 season, the Centre position player got 19 games but started in just two, in the NBA’s minor D-league for Mavericks’ affiliates Texas Legends and averaged 1.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in 7.9 minutes per game. The next season he did not start any game. He was used in eight, but got only 5.4 minutes per game.
And that was the end of Satnam’s much-hyped NBA entry.
“I don’t get angry now on how things happened after that. I have accepted it,” he says. “I consider the two years in NBA as my college years. Also, the four-and- half years at the IMG Academy in Florida before that, those were my learning days.”
But Teja Singh Dhaliwal, secretary general of Punjab Basket Association, who saw Satnam transcend the boundaries of the Ludhiana Basketball Academy as a child and step into the world of the NBA says, “he should have completed his education. I don’t think he has done his college. He is a pioneer for Indian basketball but all his life he can’t play the game. He is a hard worker but was dropped after two seasons. His speed is slow compared to his height. He is at the crossroads of his career. We are worried about the boy.”
By the time Satnam was picked for a scholarship at the IMG Academy in 2010, when he was just 15 but already a giant, the NBA had begun basketball operations in India and was looking to make inroads. The Punjab teenager was their best advertisement. There were murmurs that India’s untapped market gave Satnam’s case a push in the NBA draft.
Troy Justice directed the NBA basketball operations in India then and played a crucial role in his journey to the US. “Anyone who has been drafted into the NBA or signed as a free agent earns that achievement based on merit and performance,” Justice said over e-mail. He is currently NBA’s associate vice-president of international grass-root operations.
“From the start, Satnam had incredible hand-eye coordination and a natural shooting touch, especially for a big man.”
For all the possibilities that Satnam had shown early in his career, his exit from NBA changed everything. He was back in Ballo ke in 2017 with his path unclear. The 2019 FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers in 2018 gave Satnam an opportunity in the Indian team, with several senior players omitted on disciplinary grounds. He earned 14.5 points per game and 7.5 rebounds, the highest among all Indian players. His height made up for his lack of speed and footwork.
“I have not seen much of Satnam. But at the Asian qualifiers and 2018 Commonwealth Games he was good,” says Rajender Singh, India national coach at the World Cup qualifiers. “He has good height for a centre player. His greatest advantage is he is still 24 and has seen so much.”
Satnam wants to be seen. The NBA exit had taught him a hard lesson—sitting on the bench, even at the top echelons of the game, doesn’t do much for a sporting career.
“When I was back in Punjab, I used to think how to use my physique to boost my dream. There was lot of expectation riding on me. I needed to play in competitions to have the edge. I was done with being the backup option,” Satnam says.
He joined the UBA pro Basketball League in India in 2018 and got the support of the Virat Kohli foundation. It was the foundation that got him in touch with leagues in Australia as well as Canada. Satnam was approached by the Australian Basketball League to be a development player.
“I would have got good money but development player means that mostly I would be training with the main team (and not playing). I had already been doing that in the NBA, so I was not inclined,” Satnam says.
Then NBL happened. A minor league in Canada, but it suited his requirements.
“I would have got good game time and that’s why I joined here. I was tired of waiting for my chance. I have realized that opportunity will not come to me, I have to go near opportunities,” he says.
Not so cool
Playing in a professional league in Canada might sound like a cool deal for an Indian basketball player but the financial rewards are not that much. The NBL started in 2011, with St. Johns Edge, where Satnam played in the 2018-19 season, being formed in 2017. In its inaugural season it had a salary cap of Can $170,000. (~89.52 lakh approx) for a 12-player roster.
Former head coach of St. John’s Edge Jeff Dunlap said in a press meet: “There are a lot of pro leagues out there, but there still are more than enough players to fill them. The pool is vast. So, it’s been my job to swim in the pool and find the good ones.
“So I have been telling these guys, ‘You come here and let us work with you for five months. We’ll go out and win some games and have some fun, but I’m also going to get you better, for one of two things — that when you come back to me the following year, we’re all better, or you go elsewhere and make more money. But whatever happens, you will be better because we’re going to coach you… we’re really going to coach you.’”
Satnam refused to divulge the exact amount that he received but counts on the experience that he gained in the league.
“In Canada we trained in the morning for close to four hours,” he says. “In the evenings it was either basketball drills or gym. For the last six months I have been involved in the game 24/7. My footwork and offense have improved. The biggest gain has been the motivation to work on my own.”
Satnam played in 38 games for St John’s Edge, who ended up as runners-up, and started in two matches. He had 2.1 points per game and 1.2 rebounds per game. However, his future in the Canada league is unclear too. He is not a ‘protected player’ for the next season that starts in November. Being ‘protected’ means a definite retention of the player by a team.
“I have realised that I will have to fight to the top. There is no other way,” he says. “This is the off-season now after the final ended in May and I have not gone back home. I am training in California. I could have gone back to India but the facility where I am training now has top players. Several NBA players come here.”
For Indian basketball, which has occasionally punched above its weight at the Asian level, Satnam’s NBA entry opened the door for a few more of the best Indian players to enter the foreign scene. After him, Amjyot Singh is playing in the NBA G-League for Wisconsin Herd, an affiliate of the Milwaukee Bucks, while Amritpal Singh played for Australian NBL team Sydney Kings in 2017-18. Another player, Palpreet Singh, was picked by D-League team Long Island Nets in 2016, an affiliate of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, though he did not get a game.
Like Satnam, success has not followed for any of them.
“But I was the first,” Satnam says. He says he is giving it everything he has to ensure that it does not remain his only milestone.
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