The NBA sets foot in India for the first time this week as basketball struggles in a country where cricketers are treated like gods and the ancient sport of kabaddi is a hot television property.
Stars from the Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers will play pre-season games in Mumbai on Friday and Saturday to boost a desperate campaign to improve the sport’s popularity in South Asia.
So far the efforts have gained little traction, even though US President Donald Trump talked up the event at a rally with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Texas last week.
“Very soon India will have access to another world-class American product — NBA basketball. Wow!” Trump told the packed stadium.
A professional league called the United Basketball Alliance (UBA) started in 2015, but ended abruptly two years later.
The NBA set up an academy in New Delhi for 21 players in 2017, one of seven across the globe. It now has 23 students as part of the expansion that brings the Kings and the Pacers to India.
They will also be playing in China, where the sports has a huge following, and Japan.
But in India which has a population of 1.3 billion, there are just 4,000 players registered for official tournaments. That is three times more than a decade ago, according to the national federation.
No Indian player has ever taken part in an NBA game and former players and sports experts believe it could be a long time before any breakthrough is made.
Cricket and kabaddi — a rough and tumble contact sport like tag — built their television riches from years of grassroots work while basketball is regarded as an “elitist” sport trying to impose itself with star appeal, according to marketing and branding specialist Harish Bijoor.
“Basketball remains niche,” he said. “If there are 60 students in a class there are possibly two who play basketball,” he said.
“The reinvention of basketball from the bottom up is important, not top-down.
“You cannot have an elitist tag to basketball. You should have a popular tag.”
Ashok Sharma, a former commissioner for world governing body FIBA, praised the NBA for bringing their stars to help the sport’s profile in India.
But he said the international and Indian federations had to work together “to nurture talent” and create stars of their own.
“Something is amiss and it’s the players who are suffering. Basketball making a mark as a popular sport in India is a long way off,” said Sharma.
A former Indian national player told AFP, on condition of anonymity: “Sadly non-sports guys are running the sport in India. They are very unprofessional and have only made basketball rot.”
Satnam Singh was India’s first player to be drafted into the NBA when the Dallas Mavericks picked him in 2015. But he was traded without playing and is now in Canada.
NBA academy technical director Scott Flemming believes the sport is slowly finding space to grow in India.
“It is cricket mania here in India but I feel sports like basketball are coming up,” the former Indian team coach told AFP.
“Since I came in 2012 as a national coach I have really seen basketball grow.”
Flemming said his academy is scouting for a potential NBA star but Indian players need to “dream bigger”.
“Rather than just getting a job in their local region we are getting them to a college in the US, which means they not only have to be great players but really good students too.”
A player in the NBA academy, Harshwardhan Tomar, standing 2.03m tall, said the sport is shunned by media and fans.
“If they see a basketball player, they say oh we are not interested in talking to him,” said the 18-year-old, who played cricket before switching to basketball.
“I have played for the national team five or six times and nobody knows me. For cricket, one time in the national team and you are like a star. And it disappoints me.”