My article on GQIndia.com
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend an evening with a few businessmen from China. While the topics of conversation ranged from Macau gambling anecdotes to Sharapova’s comeback and from the sinking Euro to the newest model of Lamborghini parked outside, the one topic that made every Chinese eye on the dinner table sparkle with unrestrained enthusiasm was Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
Now I'm a diehard Lakers fan, but by the end of the evening, it was clear to me that basketball has penetrated the world’s most populated nation. And then I saw what I was not prepared to see: A picture of Kobe, in a traditional purple silk Chinese blouse with enormous print and thick gold borders on his sleeves instead of the yellow/purple jersey I’m so accustomed to, as a wallpaper on one of their phones. Now, I frequently picture Kobe ferociously dunking from halfway across the court in a shiny printed silk blouse and feel severely traumatized.
China’s love affair with basketball began long before most European countries had heard of it. Fast forward to the early 2000s and the NBA (National Basketball Association) had turned out to the most popular sports league in China. China is in fact the largest market for the NBA outside the US, courtesy Yao Ming, the first and only (and now retired) Chinese player to make it to the NBA. On the drive home, thanks to the myriad Indo-China comparisons our media, economists and politicians have conditioned me with over the years, I began to think about basketball in India.
So where does India figure in this story of a nation embracing a new sport professionally? It’s on the verge of it, from all the stories I hear. And it has all the right reasons. Basketball is a fast-paced game that gets the pulse racing and adrenaline pumping; it doesn’t make you linger around for hours as in football or hockey just to witness a goal. And here’s a non-scientific but effective test: Every NBA game I’ve attended, I’ve heard the Indians in the crowd cheer just as loud if not louder than the rest and small as my sample size may be, it tells me that there’s nothing in our DNA that’d forbid us from becoming basketball fans.
To gain a little insight, I caught up with Karan Madhok, who is smack in the middle of all the basketball action in India. The signs of impending change are prominent and the developments are rather encouraging: the NBA increasing its presence and promotional activities in India, a Director of Basketball Operations from the NBA setting up base in Mumbai (bringing along with him coaching clinics and training camps), a multi-city recreational league as a result of the NBA-Mahindra alliance, and a 30-year IMG-Reliance partnership set up to create a surge in infrastructure development across the country. The blueprint has been laid out and the momentum is building up. We could just be a couple of years away from a professional basketball league in India, Madhok says. Now all we need is a player or two from India to make it to the NBA to stimulate our interest and all eyes are on the impossibly tall and talented Bhullar brothers and Satnam Singh.
Obstinate as we may be, we invariably end up making room for the new. Clothes, shoes, crushes, relationships, taste buds. We let go of our reins and watch as the old and the new learn to co-exist in harmony. We’ve already been privy to football fever sweeping over the under-35 demographic in India and its time for the age-old craze to scoot over a bit further.
How long before we see Kobe Bryant sporting an atrocious maharaja outfit at an exhibition game in India? If that doesn’t win Indian hearts and bring them over to the other side, I don’t know what will.