By Kanishkaa Balachandran
Balloke. Try pointing out this place on the India map. This nondescript village in Punjab, with a population of just 800, made up of the farming community, has an unlikely connection with American basketball. Satnam Singh Bhamara, a lad from one of the farming families of Balloke, broke barriers to become the first India-born player to get selected to the NBA Draft.
Satnam’s rise from obscurity to the doorstep of the most prized basketball league in the world is now the subject of the Netflix documentary One in a Billion.
Satnam’s journey from a Ludhiana academy to the Dallas Mavericks is also special because he has no predecessors of the like in Indian basketball. The story of American sports scouts visiting India to tap into its 1.2 billion population is not a novelty anymore. There’s the true story of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two young boys from Lucknow who created history in the professional baseball circuit after winning a talent hunt in India for pitchers. It inspired a Disney film, Million Dollar Arm. The roaring success of Chinese basketball sensation Yao Ming convinced the NBA that there was much to be discovered in India, thus paving the way for the likes of Satnam to dream of opportunities his father could never have dared to.
A young, towering Balbir Singh aspired to take up basketball to put his massive 7 ft 3i n frame to best use, but his father would have none of it. As a teenager, Balbir was forced to accept that he would be confined to the fields. When his middle son, Satnam, acquired the same physical attributes, he promptly introduced him to basketball. In a post-2000 India, it wasn’t ludicrous anymore to consider sport as a means of escaping rural poverty.
One in a Billion begins with Satnam’s homecoming. He tells the interviewer of his rustic origins and his father’s simple advice: “You do three things. Basketball, study, go sleep”. He speaks in broken English in a slow, measured pace, to sound as coherent as he possibly can. When Satnam moved to the IMG Academy in Florida – where he bagged a scholarship along with seven other Indians – his English vocabulary didn’t go beyond the word “sorry”.
When Troy Justice, the NBA’s representative in India, calls basketball as the “perfect sport for India” – a spectator sport that would blend seamlessly with entertainment side-shows – you wonder why it took this long for the scouts to explore this market.
Satnam’s family doesn’t belong to the “burgeoning middle class” the NBA was intending to tap into. Nevertheless, the sight of a 7 ft 2 in Satnam, with no semblance of an ego, convinced Justice that he could easily be coached provided he had the best of facilities, and foremost, size 18 shoes, that were not available in India. Satnam’s makeshift shoes, put together by a cobbler, soon made way for a brand new pair sourced from America. Such charming anecdotes, including some recalled by his coach and early mentors at the Ludhiana basketball academy where Satnam lived, make for a heart-warming intro.
The human element makes Satnam’s story all the more endearing. His poor communication skills, especially during the first two years in Florida, not only alienated him from his peer group but also made it tough for coaches to give him basic instructions. He worked hard at his English lessons, and after acquiring a moderate level of fluency, his confidence soared, and for a change there were ideas exchanged with coaches, replacing his earlier blank stare.
The men who shaped Satnam’s growth as a player and person in America couldn’t stop gushing about his humility and willingness to learn, despite all obstacles. Their views are balanced by pointing out Satnam’s technical flaws, some that may work against him during selection for the Draft. However, a lot of the conversations between Satnam and his mentors seem rather contrived and scripted, as if the filmmakers were trying too hard to take the viewer through the journey.
Curious omissions include Satnam’s performances with the Indian national team in the Asian Championships. Did he impart his learning from IMG to his fellow teammates? How did Indian training methods differ from the American routine he was so used to? It also failed to mention the UBA Pro Basketball League, the first of its kind in Indian men’s basketball, which had its inaugural season in 2015.
One in a Billion is careful not to come across as patronizing towards India. The plain, hard fact to accept is that a basketball culture is distinctly lacking in India, that it needs urgent intervention from international giants like the NBA to promote the game and messiahs in the form of scouts to ship talented players like Satnam to other countries to further their game. The grants received by the Basketball Federation of India are inadequate to push the game and groom its own talent. The subject of the apathy for sports in India, apart from cricket, is a vast topic.But this one doesn’t digress too far from its central subject.
The documentary does well to cover Satnam’s restrained nervous energy in the weeks leading to the 2015 NBA Draft in New York. The emotions are palpable when he gets picked at the last minute by the Dallas Mavericks. What sets Satnam apart from other young hopefuls in the draft is the country he represents. With no basketball icons to look up to, he knows it’s all up to him to set that precedent. Though he is yet to play an NBA game, he is, at least, the first in a billion to make it this far.
(The featured image at the top shows the 7 ft 2 in Satnam Singh Bhamara with the Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar)