Kings owner Vivek Ranadive has made it a mission of his to help the NBA expand into the India market and Thomas' trip is one of the many examples of what the team has done to help this effort.
I caught up with Karan Madhok, who writes about the NBA in India for his blog Hoopistani, NBA.com/India and SLAM. Madhok became interested in basketball because he attended "a rare high school in India where basketball was more important than Cricket." He started his blog five years ago.
Vivek Ranadive is planning a trip with new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to India sometime in the near future. How do you see Silver carrying the torch for David Stern in terms of expanding the NBA brand into India?
Stern was clear that spreading the NBA (and the game of basketball) internationally was a priority for him. He saw an opportunity in China, Africa, etc. and did a great job of promoting the NBA in these markets. He came to India late, but showed definite interest in making it the next frontier.
Silver made it clear early that he hopes to emulate some of the lessons from China into India and help make it the NBA's next big step. I'm hoping to see more interaction between the new NBA Commissioner and India (Stern only came once, only a few months before stepping down) and a revitalized energy into the India project. As a first step, I hope that Silver comes through with his suggestions of opening an NBA Academy in India similar to China, and helping grow the game in the grassroots.
Talk a little bit about what David Stern did for the effort to expand the league into India.
The NBA have been sending coaches and promoters in India for seven to eight years now. I appreciated that, initially, instead of coming out with a splash and promoting the NBA brand, these coaches went to the grassroots in India to work with real young basketball talent and pass on their knowledge to Indian basketball coaches. The league's presence then began to grow exponentially online through social media and with a game-changing TV deal with channel Sony SIX, who now shows up to 14 live games a week in the regular season. The NBA has held various kinds of events now, both at the grassroots level as well as events in big cities that combine basketball and entertainment to make the news and raise awareness.
As you know, they finally opened their first office in the country - in Mumbai - in 2011. The NBA has sent a number of players to India in the past few years, and Stern himself made an iconic visit two years ago. The visit reemphasized Stern's focus not just on the basketball side of things, but also on the growing number of NBA Cares charity partnerships in India.
Isaiah Thomas is currently in India for a week. It is being described as a promotional tour to grow the game of basketball and fans of the league in India. How big of a deal is it for kids in India to see players on the biggest stage in the world coming through?
It depends on the kids. The sad truth is that most young basketball fans/players in India couldn't differentiate an Isiah Thomas from an Isaiah Thomas. For them, NBA basketball is mostly about the biggest name superstars, like LeBron, Kobe, Durant, etc. But the good news is that a lot of these young people are eager to learn more and are a huge fanbase potentially in the waiting for the NBA.
For the smaller number of more knowledgeable fans of the game in India, yes, Isaiah's visit is a pretty big deal. We as Indians consider ourselves to be so detached and far from our basketball idols, so to see one of them in the flesh, or to know that they are in our country even if we don't get to see them, is always an exciting prospect.
The Kings have done a lot to promote the culture of India this season, including launching a website in Hindi. Is something like that happening with an NBA team something you would have ever imagined happening when you first started writing about the league on Hoopistani?
When I started my blog some five years ago, I honestly thought that the first major breakthrough - whenever it happens - would be an Indian player in the NBA. But the Ranadive/ownership story has been a pleasant, unexpected surprise. From the time he became a minority stakeholder in the Warriors, it has been interesting to see how he and other Indians/South Asians have been involved with the league, outside of merely playing for the league. It is definitely an exciting time and we are proud to feel that "one of us," so to say, is now an NBA team owner.
The Kings have talked about playing a preseason game in India in the future. One of the problems, obviously, will be building an NBA-capable arena in the country. Have you heard of any progress in that area and what do you think needs to take place for that to happen?
I wrote about this in great length when Ranadive first floated the idea of a potential exhibition game in India. India is still several steps behind an NBA-capable arena. There are other Asian countries (like China, Philippines) with far better arenas than in India that are used for their domestic leagues, and even in these countries, only a small handful of those arenas live up to NBA standards. India has been building new basketball stadiums in recent years, but I believe we are still not anywhere close to handling the infrastructure of an NBA exhibition game.
Another challenge is getting actual basketball courts for kids to play on in India. Since the NBA opened its league office in 2011, do you think there has been progress in that area?
I've said this various times: with our without the NBA in India, Indian kids definitely have the access to basketball. Most half-decent schools and colleges have a basketball court and many kids, at some point in their lives, will have the opportunity (if they wish) to bounce a basketball. What is missing is the motivation, especially once these kids grow a little older and have to focus on "serious" matters like their education.
But the NBA is making progress in one very significant way: they have partnered with the Reliance Foundation (India's largest conglomerate) to launch a massive junior basketball program for Indian schools through which they hope to reach hundreds of coaches and hundreds of thousands of young players. If the vision of the program is successful, we could see basketball become a more popular recreation option for the kids involved.
Rumors about the Basketball Federation of India developing a basketball league in India have been around for a while now. And you wrote a letter in February calling on the Federation to make this happen. What is the latest on the development of such a league?
I feel that the IMG-Reliance, the sponsors of the Basketball Federation of India, had prioritized the start of the Indian Soccer League (ISL), which is finally set to launch sometime later this year. I think the basketball league will follow the model of the ISL and should be launched a year from now.
Are there any Indians at the collegiate level right now that have shown the potential to become an NBA player?
Not yet. India still hasn't produced a player capable of playing at the NCAA Division 1 level. Or, even if those players existed, they weren't given a chance early enough and many of them were too old and their potential was lost. The first step is to see if we can have talents good enough to make it either to D1 or to European Leagues. An exception, of course, is Satnam Singh Bhamara out in Florida: we'll see what happens with him at the collegiate level in a few months from now.
Is having an Indian-born player make it into the NBA the single biggest thing that needs to happen?
It's one of the two big things for me. The other is to see the launch of a working pro league that makes India's best players into professionals and finally makes basketball into a viable career option. If an Indian makes it to the NBA and, domestically, there is a basketball league where players can have the opportunity to hone their skills, I think together it will ultimately help change the mindsets of many Indians towards the sport.
Ranadive has predicted that basketball will be huge, but probably still second to Cricket, in India in 10 years or so. Do you see this as a real possibility?
I agree with Ranadive that basketball is going to be huge in India in 10 years. But I don't think we should compare it to cricket: the real second-place "battle" would be between basketball and football/soccer. Parts of India already have an old and obsessive history with football. I think India is primed to become a major football market, and I will be happy if basketball's popularity is able to get competitive with that of football's - which, if marketed right, I think is a real possibility.
Here are some photos from Isaiah Thomas' trip to India.