2017 is turning out to be a landmark year for Indian basketball.
Amritpal Singh, the captain of the men’s national team, has signed with the Sydney Kings, a team in Australia’s national basketball league, the NBL. The contract will make Amritpal the first Indian to play basketball for a professional club in Australia. The 26-year-old centre, Amritpal first caught the attention of the Kings after he impressed them during the NBL Draft Combine (open tryouts) in April.
The news has naturally come as a shot in the arm to Indian basketball. “I’m just very happy for Amritpal,” says Himamshu Dabir, a basketball consultant with the Basketball Federation of India and other organisations. “He’s done a lot for Indian basketball. Out of the main three players on the national team – Amjyot, Vishesh and him – he gets less fanfare. But he is a great player and even better person.”
Scouting the right talent
It all started with an Australian coach named Damian Cotter who was brought in to conduct a three-day camp to assess the talent in the Indian national men’s team. Cotter helped bridge the gap his Australian counterparts had in understanding the levels in India.
“Cotter felt our top three players – Amjyot, Vishesh and Amritpal – had a shot at the NBL,” said Vishnu Ravi Shankar, Amritpal’s manager and founder of Pursuit India, a sports talent management company that arranged Cotter’s visit. “He was especially confident about Amritpal. He felt he could compete in the NBL, if not dominate in Australia’s second division. This gave us the confidence to reach out the NBL and request them to include these three players and forward Yadwinder Singh in the tryouts.”
Pursuit India was started with the objective to find and create the right kind of international opportunities for Indian basketball players. “We knew our top Indian players had the talent to succeed in international professional leagues. Cotter’s trip helped confirm our opinion.”
At the tryouts, Amritpal impressed scouts with his efforts, both at the offensive and defensive end of the floor. His ability to snag rebounds by finding the right spot, instead of simply towering over everyone, impressed the Sydney Kings. The Kings who had just two top-20 rebounders last season, were looking to solidify their presence near the basket and saw in Amritpal, the potential to play backup to University of Kentucky star Isaac Humphries at the centre position.
‘An all-round great kid’
The Kings called him to a rookie camp in June and eventually decided to give Amritpal a longer run. He was an instrumental part of the Kings’ roster at the Atlas Challenge tournament in China, where the seven footer almost averaged a double-double and helped his team topple Lithuania in the championship game, scoring 17 points and pulling down 16 rebounds.
“They were also impressed by his personality off the court as well,” says Shankar. “He is down-to-earth, willing to learn, and put in the work. Just an all-round great kid. This helped boost his chances with the Kings.”
After the tournament in China, the Kings wasted no time in drawing up the contract and making the signing of Amritpal official.
Amritpal vs Satnam Singh
Amritpal first shot into national conscience when he, along with fellow international teammate Amjyot Singh, secured a professional contract to play in Japan’s National Basketball Development League. The Indian cagers first got a chance to earn their stripes on a summer league roster in the offseason. Impressed by their performance, the reigning champions, Tokyo Excellence, handed them professional contracts for the 2015-‘16 season. The “twin towers” showed their gratitude by leading the team to the title, and in the bargain became local heroes to the passionate fan base the team commanded.
Whether they like it or not, every achievement by an Indian basketball player will be measured against Satnam Singh’s. The 21-year-old created history when he became the first Indian to be drafted by an NBA team – the Dallas Mavericks – in 2015. He was then sent to the Mavericks’ D-League team in the hopes that he would eventually develop into an NBA level player.
But while he continues to put in the work, not only has he struggled to remain on the court in the D-League (now named the G-League), but he has yet to see the court in a meaningful regular season NBA game.
“For me personally, [Amritpal’s signing] is more important,” says Dabir. “Amritpal has a chance to play and make an impact on the team. What Satnam did was huge for basketball, but it was understood that he would take time to develop. Also, the NBA is notorious for being impatient with young talent. Amritpal has played at similar levels in Asia, and we know he has the ability to compete at this level, even if it is off the bench.”
Amritpal had to contend for minutes against Satnam Singh in the recently concluded FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon. Coach Phil Weber, however, decided to go with speed, agility and leadership over star power. “Satnam gained a lot of weight since he got into the camp,” said Weber in an interview with The Field, “His speed is an issue...he has to be able to get up and down the court.” Those vital minutes at the centre position went to Amritpal, who made the best of the opportunity finishing with per game averages of 11.0 points and a team leading 8.7 rebounds.
Amritpal could be the trailblazer
Basketball players usually peak between the ages of 24-30. That also accounts for them starting at an early age, usually between 8-12. Considering he started playing basketball relatively late at the age of 19, it can be argued that Amritpal is just entering the peak of his career, making the timing of the Kings’ contract near perfect. Since his stint in the Japanese league, Amritpal’s body and mind have seen significant improvement, preparing him for the NBL challenge ahead.
“It’s going to be very different from the Japanese league stint,” says Shankar. “The quality of basketball is much higher. Starting with the coaching staff. The Kings’ coach Andrew Gaze is an NBL Champion, MVP, and the NBL All-Time scoring and assists leader. He is also an NBA Champion with the 2000 San Antonio Spurs and has served as assistant coach at the NBA Summer League. Getting to learn from someone like Gaze is incredible.”
Amritpal will also be up against some stiff competition. Australia, recently crowned FIBA Asia Champions, are among the best basketball playing countries, finishing fourth at the 2016 Rio Olympics. This makes the Australian league a hotbed of talent; loaded with players who have experience playing at the best European leagues and in the NBA. The exposure he will get is tremendous.
Has Indian basketball reached a tipping point?
Over the past two years, Indian basketball has been marred with the commotion created by two warring factions claiming administrative authority over Indian basketball. All that changed in July when the FIBA recognised faction led by K Govindraj, receive both an affiliation with the Indian Olympic Association and recognition from the Sports Ministry. The endorsements are a welcome relief for Govindraj and his team who, against all the odds, landed India two prestigious FIBA tournaments this year: the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup held in July, and the FIBA Under-16 Women’s Asia Championship, both hosted in the newly renovated Sree Kanteerva Stadium in Bangalore.
With the squabble laid to rest, global tournaments held in our backyard and the slow and steady rise of Indian players globally, there is a sense that basketball in India is at a tipping point.
“It [Amritpal’s contract] will have big implications,” says Dabir. “There’s a huge Indian market in Australia, and with the new rules in NBL where there is a designated spot on rosters for an Asian import, this will open up the market for other players now and in the future. Additionally, he’ll help change the narratives of the Indian basketball players in Australia, so even the clubs and institutions focused on the grassroots development and outs training will start to consider India as a viable market for talent seriously.”
Shankar agrees “It’s going to be a path breaker. This has the potential to change the perception of international teams, coaches, scouts and agents have about Indian basketball. Initially, when we reached out with cold calls and cold emails, we got very few replies. With Amritpal’s contract, we expect that to change.”
Time will tell if Amritpal will make a big enough impact to go the pressures that come with carrying the reputation of a billion people on your shoulders. Everything he has done thus far – from the stint in Japan, to leading Team India, to securing an NBL contract – indicates that he is on the brink of even greater things. All we can hope for is that his achievements do not get lost at the cost of more popular sports and that his story becomes an inspiration to the generation coming right behind him.
“All these years, parents dissuaded kids from pursuing non-cricket sports like basketball,” says Shankar. “These were not viable career options. Now, here comes a guy with a humble background from a small village, making more than the average Australian does in a year. That’s good money to play basketball. Kids and parents will look at his story and wonder how could someone who started playing at 19 find this kind of a contract.”
Shankar wraps it up by reminding us that this is just the start. “Amritpal has opened up possibilities. He has blazed a trail. It is up to us to follow that path and create more such stories.”
Here is hoping we do.