In ESPN The Magazine, Mark Winegardner tells the story of Satnam Singh Bhamara, a 7’1″, 14-year-old basketball prodigy who could become India’s version of Yao Ming. At 14, Satnam Bhamara dwarfed even the biggest NBA big men when they were his age. John Loomis
By the spring of 2010, Satnam, now 14, was almost as tall as his father. His shoulders and torso had broadened. His voice had grown deeper. Then one day, back on the blacktop outdoor court at the Ludhiana sports academy, the head coach blew his whistle and halted practice. He ordered his players, who ranged in age from 14 to 24, to line up along the baseline, shortest to tallest, and stand at attention. Satnam, a head taller than the very tall boy beside him, glanced down at his shoes. He’d had a village cobbler slice the sides of a pair of running shoes and refashion them to accommodate Satnam’s feet, which had kept growing and were now sticking out the ripped sides of the shoes. For a month, his coach had been talking about the important American from the NBA who was coming to watch them play. It was a notion so fantastical that Satnam hadn’t expected it would ever really happen. Suddenly it was real. And here Satnam stood, a shaggy-haired giant in these inadequate shoes.
The American was a bald and florid man, trim but on the front slope of middle age, rumpled and bleary, minutes removed from stepping off the all-night train from Mumbai. The academy’s coach explained that this man, Mr. Troy Justice, was the NBA’s first director of basketball operations in India. He’d be running big tournaments and training players, the coach said, and spreading the culture of basketball throughout the nation.
Justice, more than anything, was looking forward to getting to his hotel and catching a nap. But the sight of Satnam brought him out of his fog. Satnam felt the man’s eyes on him. The coach asked whether Justice wanted to run the rest of the practice and seemed surprised when the American agreed. The boys broke rank and queued up in front of Justice, each in turn bending over and touching the visitor’s feet before they took the court. Satnam was last in line.
“For your blessings,” the academy’s coach said, explaining the gesture.
Justice put the players into a three-man weave drill. Satnam’s skill set was, to be generous, limited. He hustled and shot surprisingly well, but he couldn’t handle the ball or reliably catch it. He shied away from physical contact, clearly worried he might hurt someone, although his footwork was so bad he might have been a bigger threat to hurt himself.
“How old is that kid?” Justice asked the coach.
“He is 14.”
Justice shook his head. “I need his real age.”
“That is his real age. He is 14. His father is 7’3″.” An exaggeration, a few inches for effect, but it got Justice’s attention. The boy wasn’t the product of a tumor on his pituitary gland, and he was so young for his size that his flaws on the court all suddenly seemed fixable.
“Do you mind if I take Satnam off to the side to work on his footwork?” Justice asked the coach.
Satnam spoke no English. In Punjabi, the coach told him to go work on footwork with the American. The boy, mortified, nonetheless obeyed. That was how he was raised. One obeys. He willed himself to forget about his shoes. He focused on what the American, who spoke no Punjabi, was trying to teach. Justice wasn’t sure he’d ever coached anyone who was more present. Afterward, a reporter asked about the giant young Punjabi. “He can be the chosen one for basketball in India,” Justice said.
Three months later, in June 2010, Satnam, still 14, led Punjab’s state youth team to a national championship. Right after that, the Basketball Federation of India chose him and two others to send to the NBA Basketball Without Borders camp, which was held that year in Singapore — where Satnam got to meet several NBA players and coaches and be showcased as one of the 44 best basketball prospects from Asia. He was the youngest player there.
Soon, Harish Sharma, the head of the BFI, invited Satnam to play at an all-star game against senior players, most of whom were on the Indian national team. Sharma was impressed by Satnam’s talent and character, but he wondered why a boy like that would want such long, shaggy hair.
“Sir, I have huge ears, and I can’t afford to leave them uncovered,” Satnam said.
“It doesn’t matter how long your ears are,” Sharma said. “It’s how good you are as a basketballer that matters.”
The next time Sharma saw him — hours later — Satnam had cut his hair short. He was also holding his own against the best senior players in India.
It was about then that officials from the newly formed IMGR met with Sharma to ask for help in identifying prospects for the scholarships. It hadn’t dawned on them to consider anyone from last year’s junior national team, since all, no doubt, were 16 or 17 by now. The scholarships were for kids 13 and under. Sharma’s first suggestion was a boy of 14.
Too old, they told him.
“This boy, you will want to see,” Sharma insisted. “I’ve told people many times, he can become India’s Yao Ming.”
And so it was that Satnam became one of 50 players chosen to try out, in July 2010, for eight scholarships. He tried to explain this to his parents, but hebarely understood it himself. Something about the chance to better himself by going to America among the big buildings, fast cars and all types of people. Where he would get an education and be trained for basketball along with other young student-athletes from all over the world in what must be a legendary place, seeing as it was where Kobe once trained. All expenses paid.
His mother could not imagine it or even believe it. She would miss him too much. More than words. But Balbir did not hesitate. If this is what the important people in the game of basketball think is best for you, then go. You are a levelheaded boy with God in his heart, he said, and we want you to be guided by the best teachers and make your way in the world. We want you to do what you love. Balbir embraced his son. The whole family, he said, would make the seven-hour trip to New Delhi to cheer him on.
Days later, outside the Sanskriti School, a charter bus carrying the scholarship hopefuls rolled up. The doors opened. The IMG coaches watched. A whole bunch of little people — and one guy standing head and shoulders above everyone else — emerged from the bus. At that point, for all practical purposes, there were only seven scholarships still up for grabs.
Satnam proved not only to be the tallest and strongest player there but also the most coachable. Raw, yes, but with no deep-seated bad habits to break. Afterward, the coaches met Satnam’s parents. Clearly, Satnam was Balbir’s son — and not just because they were both over seven feet or because when either gave a handshake, his hand seemed to go halfway up your arm. It was the feeling the coaches got from Balbir. Despite the language barrier, he looked them in the eye when he talked. He smiled, and it felt genuine. That was the word for it: genuine. You could feel it — father and son alike.
Next stop: the great unknown.
By August 2010, before he could fully comprehend it, Satnam was 8,000 miles away in Florida, immersed in an elite young-jock version of a Benettoncommercial and loving all the new food he got to eat. His parents were hooking up the new computer they had bought so they could watch their son’s games on YouTube and talk to him on Skype.
Whenever Satnam called home — his night, their early morning — stray villagers would wander into the house to stick their heads in front of the screen and wave.
Because of the scholarship (and IMG Reliance’s public-relations might), almost every major Indian media outlet did a story about the Americans’ discovery of the Indian prodigy — with nary a word of how he’d been on the national youth team they’d ignored the year before but, always, with some mention of Yao Ming.
In August, when Satnam first hit the courts at IMG, his English was nonexistent and so, the coaches thought, was his coordination. He’d barely done any strength training other than farm work.
At first, the coaches had to bend the English-only rule on the practice court. They feared he might hurt himself just running up and down the floor. But he was a quick learner. Within weeks, he knew enough English to get through any practice. And the physical improvement came even faster. He was running the court well and lifting weights like a man. He began to develop a decent lefthanded shot. He started to lose his fear of hurting people if he really banged the boards and used his size.
Satnam seemed unfazed by culture shock — perhaps because of his native, cheerful groundedness, perhaps because of the well-funded, insular bubble that is the IMG Academies, which provides him and his fellow transplants, among other supports, with a full-time chaperone/translator. Or, maybe, it was just magic. Read More
The fairy tale ending is now in sight as Satnam Singh Bhamra becomes the first India-born player to enter NBA draft.