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.

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And without a homegrown star to inspire the masses, basketball officials fear that the sport won't gain traction. "[Cricket legend] Sachin Tendulkar is a household name, whereas hardly anyone out there knows me," complains 6-ft. 5-in. Jaishankar Menon, a former standout on the Indian national team. Another foot would surely help him. "What we need now is a Yao Ming," says Sharma, the Indian roundball raja. "Once Yao played in the NBA, the color of China changed. It became a basketball nation. If we have an Indian playing in the NBA, the color of this country will change too."

The NBA, with the help of several marketing partners, is searching for that Indian star. In December the league will dispatch a group of top executives to the subcontinent for its first Indian basketball summit. They will finalize initiatives like coaching clinics, refurbished neighborhood courts and youth- development camps. The NBA is talking to Time Warner (the parent of TIME) about producing hoops-related programming on Pogo TV, the company's Indian children's channel, and to espn Star Sports, a joint venture of Disney and News Corp., about increasing the league's presence on the network's Indian sports channels. The NBA is also in discussions with Nokia about supplying league content on Indian mobile phones.

Knowing that India is an NBA priority, Adidas, which signed an 11-year apparel deal with the league in April, this summer sent Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett on a whirlwind, three-day tour, the first official trip by an NBA player to India. He gave a clinic in Bangalore, cut the ribbon at Adidas stores in New Delhi and Bangalore, and attracted throngs of fans. Adidas released nearly 900 pairs of a $189 limited edition, India-only Garnett basketball shoe, stitched with the country's orange, white and green colors and its iconic symbol, a tiger. Betting in part on a basketball explosion, Reebok, which Adidas purchased last year, recently announced it would more than triple its Indian stores, to 1,100 locations by 2010.

Basketball is slowly creeping into the culture. Several recent Bollywood blockbusters have featured basketball: in Koi ... Mil Gaya (I Have Found Someone), aliens visit the nerdy hero and give him Jordanesque abilities. Once aliens like your sport, you have arrived. Indian cell-phone carriers have featured kids shooting hoops in recent TV spots. "As a business opportunity, the potential is huge," says Anil Kumar, president of SportzIndia Management, a marketing and consulting firm. The key for the NBA, Kumar insists, is TV saturation. "Cricket on the small screen? It's impossible to see the ball. You have to do replays every time. Basketball is a sport made for TV."

Stern remains realistic about his Indian experiment. "With [India's] middle class and some focus on the world's games, basketball is starting to get a little interest and a little traction," he insists. "So we have to be respectful and realize it's going to be small steps up." Given the NBA's global track record, its Indian steps could end up looking like Garnett. Bigger, and quicker, than you think.

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