Inside the NBA’s Play for India

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PRASHANT PANJIAR / LIVEWIRE FOR TIME

National and state level girls' basketball team hopefuls practice at the Sports Authority of India basketball court in New Delhi, India.

NBA commissioner David Stern has already executed a beautiful pivot move into China, where, thanks in part to Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, hoops is hotter than Sichuan cooking. There's still work to be done in Europe, even though it is now a source of many NBA players, including seven Frenchmen and six Slovenes. Before the season, the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns played exhibition games in Germany, a challenging NBA country, as part of a four-team, five-country full-court press of Europe —Italy, Spain, France and Russia were also hosts of training camps and games.

But there's a new frontier that the commissioner finds riveting. "You must think I'm nuts," Stern says, "because we're also spending a fair amount of time scoping out India."

Expanding to the world's second most populous market hardly seems loony. After all, no American sports league has exported its brand better than the NBA, which sells more than $750 million in merchandise overseas annually. Its games are broadcast in 215 countries. And India offers a growing, tech-savvy economy with a billion potential consumers — 60% of whom are below age 30 — who could sop up NBA merchandise and follow their favorite players on NBA.com.

Despite India's stunning market potential, Stern knows that it is no layup and, as a sports market, may be among the least global. First, he is up against wicket competition, firmly planted in the country's psyche. "Cricket is our religion," says Harish Sharma, secretary-general of India's national basketball federation, of India's premier pastime. "Basketball is just another sport." In India, even soccer pales by comparison with cricket.

To build interest in basketball, Stern is starting at the grass-roots level. "We have the potential, and we have the ability," says K.K. Chansoria, head coach of India's men's and women's basketball teams. "What we lack is the infrastructure." China had seven-footers wandering the countryside and a government so dedicated to hoops it put backboards in most cities. In India, basketball facilities are sparse and mostly substandard. India's national women's team often practices on a cracked concrete court, adjacent to a scrubby field, in New Delhi. The government places less emphasis on sports growth, and trumpeting the country's hoops tradition is like bragging about America's team-handball stars. "I can't tell you there's a groundswell calling for the NBA in India," Stern admits.

Another deterrent is India's lack of a big-time pro league. "My dad would prefer that we study," says Divya Singh, 24, who plays on the national team with four of her sisters. "What's the point of spending all your time playing basketball if you can't get a job?" Corporate and government-sponsored teams often give players clerical jobs. Singh, for example, files and answers phones for MTM Telecom. Players earn benchwarmer salaries: Singh makes about $3,500 a year, and male players earn about $4,800, far less than the $15,000 for an entry-level IT pro and a microbe compared with the $360,000 in salary, plus hundreds of thousands more in endorsements, a top cricketer can earn.

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