Slam dunk Sim

Gopalakrishnan R | Updated on October 10, 2014

Sim Bhullar

At 7ft-5inch, Sim Bhullar is the first Indian-origin player to make it to the NBA

In a watershed moment for basketball in India, Canadian youngster Sim Bhullar became the first Indian-origin player to be signed by a team in the National Basketball Association (NBA), North America’s renowned professional basketball league. Earlier in June, the Sacramento Kings selected the 21-year-old to its summer league programme; and if he impresses this pre-season, he could be among the first South Asians to play in the NBA. At 7ft-5inch, he is already the tallest player currently in the league.

Assuming Bhullar dons an NBA jersey later this October when the 2014-15 season kicks off, it will be the realisation of a long-cherished ‘American Dream’.

Journey to the top

His parents, Avtar and Varinder, migrated from Punjab in the late ’80s in search of better opportunities and a safer environment. Eldest daughter Avneet (23), Sim and youngest Tanveer (19) grew up in Toronto. Like most Canadian children, Sim and Tanveer began by playing floor hockey (similar to ice hockey, except it is played on wooden surfaces). The ‘Bhullar Brothers’ soon shifted allegiance to basketball, where they found immediate success, thanks to their height. To hone their skills, they moved to Huntington Prep School in West Virginia, US. Subsequently, they joined the New Mexico State University on sports scholarships. In those two years, the elder Bhullar led his team in blocks per game and won ‘most valuable player’ awards back to back in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament before declaring his eligibility for the 2014 NBA draft.

Hope or hype?

“I’ve seen Bhullar on TV. He still needs to get fit, lose a few pounds and work on his agility,” says Scott Flemming, head coach of the Indian national men’s basketball team, who has vast coaching experience at the college and senior levels in the US.

Bhullar’s fan following in India will be limited as he is a Canadian citizen and has already represented that country on its junior national team. He, however, considers himself an Indian and Canadian “equally”. “I am in touch with my Punjabi roots, I go to the Gurudwara often and speak Punjabi at home; and since childhood I have been instilled with great Indian values,” he says over the phone.

Observing that India can claim Bhullar only up to a point, Coach Flemming says, “We need to develop players from within our system. Unlike China, India doesn’t have a professional basketball league where players can compete all year long and get more exposure by playing with and against foreigners.”

Basketball in India remains a minor sport, without any noteworthy international success to catapult it to mainstream attention. The Indian national men’s team is currently ranked 61st in the world and the women are 40th. In late 2010, the Basketball Federation of India tied up with sports management conglomerate IMG-Reliance, which boosted funding, foreign trips and better facilities for players and coaches. Subsequently, the Indian team’s international performances have steadily improved, culminating in its first-ever win over 12th-ranked China during the fifth FIBA Asia Cup for Men last month.

“Bhullar’s progress will generate interest, but not like that of Chinese player Yao Ming. Back in 2002, Ming was a number one NBA pick, so there was excitement surrounding him in the US. People in China just fed off that excitement. Bhullar, however, went undrafted and was subsequently signed by Sacramento Kings as a strategic afterthought,” says Jonathan Rego, a basketball expert who has worked with the leading sports management agency CAA KWAN and written articles for

However, there is hope that an Indian-origin player’s entry into the NBA will open doors for other talented youngsters. Chief among these prospects is the 7ft-2inch Satnam Singh Bhamara, an 18-year-old from a remote village in Punjab who was noticed by Troy Justice, NBA’s senior director of international basketball operations, at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy. He was sent on a full sports scholarship to the world-class IMG Academy in Florida, where he has been training for the last four years. Another future NBA prospect is Bhullar’s 19-year-old college-going brother Tanveer, who also stands tall at 7ft-1inch.

Eyeing the Indian market

The strategic benefits of signing an Indian player are immense, especially for a team like Sacramento Kings. The team’s majority owner is Vivek Ranadive, the Indian founder and CEO of TIBCO, a multibillion-dollar software company headquartered in California. Together with Indian-origin minority investor Raj Bhathal, Ranadive acquired the franchise to prevent its relocation to a different State. “Raj and I have both built our lives and business in California, so we felt it was our responsibility to give back something to the State,” says Ranadive.

Since taking charge in March 2013, he has introduced a slew of measures to make the Kings India’s “home team”. Last year, the team launched a Hindi version of its website Subsequently, Ranadive and franchise player DeMarcus Cousins featured in a short video exhorting Indians to vote Cousins into the NBA All Star line-up. Minority owner Shaquille O’Neal was seen padded up, trying his hand at cricket.

Earlier this year, the Kings became the first-ever NBA team to have training jerseys with the team name emblazoned in Hindi. The Kings’ Sleep Train Arena has even witnessed Bollywood-themed nights.

Ranadive makes no bones about his ambition to make basketball the second most followed sport in India after cricket. “Basketball has the potential to become stronger here than football as it is easy to play and can flourish in urban environments. We hope to travel to India later this year and, if the appropriate arenas are built, would love to have the Kings play an exhibition game in the near future.”

Gopalakrishnan R is a basketball writer and the co-creator of >

Published on September 04, 2014

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