NBA makes a giant leap to the final frontier, India

India’s population of 1.3 billion and its economy, despite the recent slowdown, are just too tempting for any global operation, including NBA, to ignore. Illustration - Eunice Dhivya

For years now the International Cricket Council (ICC) has been trying to crack one riddle. Just how does a sport, played at the highest level by and large by 10 former colonies of Britain, break into two markets — China, for its population and the United States of America, for its dollars. All sort of attempts have been made, from taking matches, both exhibition and serious, to the land of the free and the home of the brave, from getting Chinese schools to play the game to pushing for Olympic recognition, so China adds one more sport to its list of potential medals. Nothing has worked.

But if cricket is trying to travel in one direction, there is a quintessentially American sport, and league, that is travelling in the other direction. The Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers played each other in Mumbai in two pre-season matches, having each travelled in excess of 13,000 kilometres to get there. They’ve already ticked the Taj Mahal box, but while taking in the sights and sounds is all very well, exactly what were the two teams from America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) doing, squaring off against each other in Mumbai?

It would be tempting to think that just as cricket is looking to globalise its game — that’s what the administrators tell the world, even though the number of teams playing in the World Cup has shrunk over the years — basketball is following suit, but the answer is much less exciting. India’s population of 1.3 billion, when last counted and certainly already much higher, and its economy, despite the recent slowdown across industry, are just too tempting for any global operation to ignore.

And, the NBA has one major advantage in that they have already seen something similar in effect, not long ago. Let’s call this the Yao Ming Effect. For those who may not follow basketball as closely, Yao is a 7’ 6” tall former basketball player from China, who became the first non-American player to be the No. 1 draft pick in the NBA when the Houston Rockets picked him up in 2002. Now, being that tall has its obvious advantages in the sport, but it also comes with a propensity for injury and wear and tear that Yao had to deal with all his playing days, right through to his retirement in 2011. By then, however, he was already Hall of Fame material, having averaged 192 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks our game at his peak. More important, however, was the role Yao played in taking the NBA to China.

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