Mumbai: In India to promote the NBA's boldest leap in the Indian market " the NBA India Games featuring the Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers " league commissioner Adam Silver has made his boldest prediction yet: he believes an Indian will break into the NBA within the next five years.
"I'd say you can expect an Indian player breaking into the NBA within the next five years. That's the development cycle I would hope with the work we're doing at the NBA India Academy. I know that even in my lifetime we won't be able to compete with cricket," he told Network18 in an exclusive interaction on Friday.
The interest for the NBA in China is often a parallel that gets drawn each time talk veers to the league's popularity in India. However, one of the biggest factors behind NBA becoming China's favourite sport was the emergence of Yao Ming, who was drafted by the Houston Rockets in 2002. Two years later, the league hosted the first NBA China Games, with Ming-led Rockets taking on Sacramento Kings. The league has never looked back since then with games in Chinese cities becoming a regular feature of the NBA calendar.
Silver agreed that the fact that there was no serious Indian player close to breaking into the roster of an NBA team at the moment was an "issue".
"But it's an issue we can address. Historically, we were a little too reliant on the system that existed in India to develop players. We have now come to the understanding that we have to play a more active role in the development of Indian players, which is why we launched the NBA India Academy a few years ago. We realised that we need to take the best male and female players when they are younger and help develop them. Yes, part of it is that you need to have special physical gifts to be a good basketball player," he said before adding, "25 percent of our league consists of players who are born outside of the USA. We just haven't had any serious Indian players yet. That's the next phase in our development."
Satnam Singh had become the first Indian-born basketball player to be drafted in the NBA, in 2015, as he was picked by Dallas Mavericks. The player, however, was subsequently acquired by Texas Legends, the D-League affiliate of the Mavericks.
Silver stated that the league made "real progress" in India over the last few years, which had culminated into the first-ever NBA India Games.
"I think the state of basketball (in India) is fantastic. With the Junior NBA program " which we started right before I became the commissioner " we have created with the Reliance Foundation, our original expectation was to reach three million young people. But we've reached 10 million youngsters. The NBA Finals last season were seen on TV by nearly a 100 million people. So we're seeing real growth. Our sport is readymade for hand-held devices. It lends itself for digital media " the sights, sounds, the highlights. We think it can really capture young people. So we're seeing real progress. Bringing two NBA teams here to play live was an important next step. We'll see what happens beyond that."
While Silver did not commit to bringing two more teams to India next season, he revealed that they were in talks with developers to build more multi-purpose arenas in India, which would be critical to the game coming to Indian shores more frequently in the future.
"I do see the NBA India Games becoming a regular part of the NBA calendar, but I'm just not sure exactly when that will start. What's happened with China over the last 15 years is that they've developed the infrastructure arena-wise. This doesn't quite exist in India. The Dome in Mumbai (which will host both the NBA India Games) is a fairly small building, which can house 5,000 people or so. Typically, teams in USA and Canada play in venues which have capacities of over 18,000 or 20,000 fans. But I've had some interesting discussions with developers in India. We're very much looking at that opportunity. As we see that arena infrastructure become a reality, you'll see more games here. We're also in a position to partner with some of those arena developers, where we can say if you build it, we will come and we will commit a certain number of games. That's really how it developed in China."
Silver also pointed out that many teams were in the fray to be the first-ever teams to come to India, and that the other teams would be watching the two games between Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers with keen interest.
"I do see more teams coming to India (in the future). These two weren't the only two teams on my mind. But Vivek Ranadive insisted that his team be one of the two to start with. And given that Herb Simon (the owner of Pacers) is the longest standing NBA owner he got first dibs! Many other teams are watching what we are doing here. We're a small league at the end of the day and the players will return home and tell the stories at the end of the day. I know this is just the beginning and many more team will want to come to India (in the future)."