Mumbai’s Gateway of India lit up with the logo of the NBA to commemorate the first ever NBA preseason games in India, on September 28, 2019. 

MUMBAI — Over the last weekend of September, a visitor to the Gateway of India in the evening would have seen the city’s iconic landmark lit up in varying patterns of red, white and blue. Someone passing close to the Bandra-Worli Sealink bridge on the evening of October 2 and 3 will likely have witnessed a floating basketball court close to the shoreline. A report in The Times of India on October 3 detailed the efforts of a 14-year-old boy who convinced his parents to spend Rs. 75,000 on a ticket for a basketball game.

The first two are part of the NBA’s efforts to promote the NBA India Games, two preseason games between the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers in the city on October 4 and 5, the first NBA games of any kind to be played in India. The third is perhaps a measure of the impact of those efforts.

The games are the latest – and most substantial – of the NBA’s efforts to popularise the sport in the country. Kevin Durant visited India in July 2017, less than two months after being named Finals MVP in Golden State Warriors’ run to the NBA title. But a visit from two full teams is obviously a much bigger deal, says NBA’s Vice President of Global Business Operations Diane Gotua, who has been in the city for about seven months now overseeing planning for the games. “We want to take over Mumbai. Not just Mumbai, we want the whole country to be talking about these games,” she says.

The goals

The lofty, highly specific nature of the NBA’s goals makes them difficult to assess, but it’s hard to argue they’ve lacked in effort. Lighting up the gateway in the colours of its logo and a floating basketball court are the kind of things that get people talking, and these efforts are in addition to the usual array of advertising through newspapers, hoardings across the city, and on the Internet — specifically on social media. Where the NBA is aiming for the greatest impact, Gotua says, is in hoping to inspire and encourage children to pick up the sport.

Aside from clinics — one of which was for girls with WNBA legend Ebony Hoffman in attendance — the biggest of these children-focused efforts is the first game itself, which will be attended by 3000 children from schools in the Reliance Junior NBA program.

Gotua says that’s what she’s most excited about. “I’m sure when they started to go through the program, who would’ve thought they would get the opportunity to catch an NBA game live, right? It’s like a dream come true for a lot of these boys and girls.” The players and executives of the visiting teams agree.

Vlade Divac, general manager of the Kings, said that while the games will be a great bonding experience for the Kings, they are also “a great opportunity to promote the game and give hope to all those basketball players who are dreaming to be a part of the NBA.” Kevin Pritchard, president of basketball preparations for the Pacers, also spoke of strengthening team bonding and fine-tuning preparations for the upcoming season through the games. Describing the Pacers and the Kings as ‘pioneers’, he stressed it was more important, however, to demonstrate, especially to the kids, the principles of basketball, principles he believes they can use for the rest of their lives.

Among the players, the Kings’ Harrison Barnes is among the few who have been to India before. Barnes, an NBA champion with the Warriors in 2015, visited India earlier, travelling to Mumbai, visiting the academy in Delhi and seeing the Taj Mahal. He said playing in front of the kids would mean a lot to him. “Just to see those kids, the excitement they have in seeing NBA players up close and personal, it’s a big moment. I think you have to take a step back and appreciate all the places basketball has taken us, what the game has done for so many people.”

The Pacers’ Doug McDermott plans to capitalize on the Barnes’ experience of the country. “I want to see the buildings, the architecture and get some authentic Indian food. I’m going to try and sneak away Harrison from the Kings for some time so we can go and explore the city a little.”

Making the games a reality

Barnes, a self-confessed ‘fan’ of Indian food, was able to enjoy his India visit partly due to advice from Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, who became the first, and only, Indian-born majority owner of an NBA team in 2013. Ranadive expressed a desire for the NBA to host preseason games in India soon after, and again in December 2014, when he travelled to India with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. According to Gotua, the “seeds of these games were planted during that trip.”

Gotua says that ‘serious planning’ for the games began in the past two years. “A couple of trips were made by the respective staff of the Kings and the Pacers. The NBA league staff also came several times to do proper diligence. Finally, the announcement came in December 2018.”

The trend of NBA teams playing each other overseas, which began in the early ’80s, is part of the NBA’s strategy as a global league, Diane says. “We have played over 200 global games around the world in over 20 countries. It’s very important for us to have the opportunity to bring the live NBA game experience to our fans. Only 1% of our fans around the world have the opportunity to watch an NBA game live. So imagine us bringing that full spectacle here.”

Comparisons with China

Arguably the greatest impact of that full spectacle has been in China, a market similar to India.

Of course, the boost the NBA received in China had much to do with Yao Ming. The first preseason games held in China in 2004, between the Kings and the Houston Rockets, marked a homecoming of sorts for Yao, who was selected by the Rockets as the first overall pick of the 2002 NBA draft. “We were fortunate that Yao Ming was drafted No. 1 in 2002, that was a huge catalyst and turning point for our business there,” Gotua says.

India has had the likes of Sim Bhullar and Satnam Singh Bhamara but it doesn’t yet have a player of Yao’s stature. When Durant visited India, he said India could do with its own Yao.

While Gotua agrees India could benefit from having a star player, she believes the timing for the NBA India Games is ‘opportune’. NBA games have been broadcast live in India since 2011, with over 350 games live on TV currently (on Sony ESPN) — about a fifth of them also available with Hindi commentary.

Gotua cites this accessibility of the NBA as an important factor. “What also makes India unique is the rapidly changing media landscape. With data rates being as cheap as they are and fans having the ability to watch and consume our games easily is a huge game changer. Those dynamics work heavily in our favour.”

The NBA is making an effort towards finding India’s Yao. “Finding that ‘star’ player is still key to our strategy and that’s why we opened up our NBA Academy (in New Delhi) in May 2017 because we do see that as a critical piece of our overall plan here,” Gotua says.

She cites the examples of Princepal Singh, who transitioned to the NBA’s Global Academy in Australia, and Sanjana Ramesh, who became the second Indian-born woman to receive a Division I women’s basketball scholarship, as proof the academy is already delivering results. Finding a star player is the long-term goal of the academy but interim goals must be met to get there, of course.

“Our medium-term vision is for a number of these kids to get into colleges in the US, have them play college basketball and from there step into the NBA. The ultimate goal is to give these kids the opportunity to play at a very high level, that’s how you get better, when you’re competing with much tougher competition,” says Gotua.