On the walls of a basketball court near the Indian capital of New Delhi, hang massive posters of NBA superstars Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry and James Harden, for they are there as a form of inspiration for inspiring basketballer’s. Along the court paving, the children run drills in their youth basketball uniforms at a practice session of the NBA academy that officially opened in the Greater Noida suburban area on Tuesday.
And while the 21 teenagers go through the fundamentals of passing and shooting, they cannot resist looking at the images above them and hope of one day possibly joining their idols. Reviewing them is Coach Jacques Vandescure, a previous global player for Belgium who consequently worked as a talent scout in Africa for the San Antonio Spurs NBA group. Vandescure hasn’t remained in India for too long, however he believes in the children he is supervising. “I have witnessed miracles in the game of basketball. And I think you can see miracles over here. The potential in this country is limitless,” he says.
Clearly the NBA thinks so too. The academy in India is one of five they have or prepare to set up throughout the world. It follows the launch of academies in Hangzhou, Jinan and Urumqi in China and Thiès in Senegal. They also prepare to release a global academy in Canberra, Australia. It’s perhaps a testimony to the endeavour’s significance that NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum is here too. Tatum is confident about the Indian academy’s potential. “This initiative is not about finding more sponsors or marketing partners. It’s about developing elite basketball prospects,” he states.
Prospecting and establishing skilled athletes in India might not appear the smartest choice. The sport inhabits little importance in a cricket-obsessed nation. Unlike other nations where NBA has actually opened academies, Indians have found it hard to breach the NBA barrier. While Satnam Singh Bhamara made history when he was chosen by the Dallas Mavericks in the 2015 NBA draft, he has been relegated to the D-League (NBA’s main minors). Palpreet Singh too was selected by the Long Island Nets in the D-League draft in 2016 but was subsequently waived.
This is a truth Tatum confesses. Which is why, he makes it clear that the NBA will not be the only target for the 21 at the domestic academy “It isn’t about whether you make the NBA or you don’t,” Tatum says. “Some of the kids may play Division 1 or 2 or 3 college basketball in the NCAA. Others might play in the European League or the development league. We could even take others to compete against teams from our academies in China and Australia. There are multiple paths. We hope the training we provide here will help these kids reach their full potential as players, whatever that might be.”
“This is a long term plan,” adds Yannick Colaco, managing director of NBA India. Throughout the next 5 years, Colaco states he expects to see a hundred students in basketball uniforms train at the academy.
The seed of the idea had actually been planted around the time Satnam was initiated into the NBA with the company spending a year and a half studying the infrastructure around New Delhi before ultimately going in.
Undoubtedly, the program has actually done well in picking the best players to wear NBA basketball jerseys from across the nation. Thousands of players stood for trials across the country while others were found from their efforts in the national age tournaments. A couple of those picked are basketball pedigree with their mums and dads having competed worldwide, having had them in youth basketball uniforms from before they could remember, while others are the first in the family to play the sport. The sheer range of shapes and sizes are mindboggling too. The smallest of the bunch is 17-year old Manoj Sisodiya is 5”9, while Amaan Sandhu, who stands 6”9 at 13 years of age and is both the tallest and youngest in the camp.
“India is almost like a continent,” exclaims coach Vandescure. “India has so much diversity in body types. You have tall and thick kids, and you have the tall and skinny kids who can jump. You have smaller guys who can shoot. It’s definitely an advantage.”
If there’s something typical to the youngsters though, it is their wide-eyed wonder at their environments. While the dormitory, health club studio, snack bar, enjoying the pool surrounds and vibrantly lit basketball hall might not appear particularly ostentatious, it’s an entirely different world from the one most of the campers here have actually known. “When I first had to come to the academy, they sent me by plane. It was so exciting,” says 13-year-old Mohammad Ibrahim Ali, a LeBron James fan. The 6”1 tall son of a fast food supplier was one of two kids chosen from the 400 who showed up for trials in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. “When I first started to play basketball at school, there was no one who really knew the sport. We learned most of what we did just by watching YouTube videos. Over here there are coaches who know so much about basketball. I find there is so much to learn,” he states.
That’s an observation made by technical director Ray Farrell too. “What stands out is their desire to be here. Even if it isn’t easy to communicate with them, their desire to learn is obvious. It takes a huge commitment to leave your family and be here,” says Farrell, who has previously performed camps in Iraq, Haiti and Mexico. Undoubtedly everybody is here as they want to be.
Shaurya Kohli, 15, has actually attended 12 schools however is certain this will be his final one. Kohli missed out on the selection trials in New Delhi but persuaded his father to let him request another round in Kolkata, where he made the cut. At the camp, Kohli is proud to be continuing a household custom. “He learned basketball from his brother and he learned it from his father,” says mom Anupam. “And before that his grandfather used to play for the Delhi University team. Coming to the Academy is an incredible opportunity for him. In fact before he came here, his grandfather gave him his University blazer,” she says. Indian University grade basketball though is far from the aggressive, ruthless play Kohli will have to find out if he is to be successful.
Coach Vandescure thinks it he will learn. His self-confidence originates from personal experience. Seeing a player who may one day stand up the other luminaries up on the wall of the basketball hall – a young Cameroonian who took part in a Basketball without Borders camp in Johannesburg named Joel Embiid. He is an example of a real basketball miracle Vandescure says. Joel was a third pick at the 2016 NBA draft and one of the star novices that year, averaging 20.5 points a game for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Vandescure also keeps in mind a different variation of Embiid. “I saw Joel Embiid when he was 18 and back then he could not strike a layup cleanly. And now look where he is,” he says with a smile. “There are heroes are all around us. There could be a Joel Embiid here too.”