By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS (www.nytimes.com)
Published: July 13, 2008
NEW DELHI (AP) — Could LeBron James or Shaquille O’Neal catch on in the Hindi heartland?
The N.B.A. certainly hopes so as it plans a major push to introduce basketball to India and expand its already formidable global reach into a country with a soaring economy, a growing appetite for Western tastes, and, most important, 1.1 billion potential fans.
The N.B.A. has had tremendous success promoting basketball outside the United States, most notably in China, where the league estimates 300 million people play the sport and the Houston Rockets center Yao Ming is a national icon.
India, a relatively untapped territory, looms as the N.B.A.’s next great challenge.
But it could be a tough sell. The few public basketball courts attract little attention, and terms like slam dunk and alley-oop are met with blank stares.
To help counter that, the N.B.A. held its first event in India last week, a Basketball Without Borders camp that featured charity events and clinics in which N.B.A. players instructed young people.
League executives say they are considering several plans to spread the game, including building courts in remote villages, seeking endorsements from Bollywood stars and bringing N.B.A. players to India for exhibitions.
“We see tremendous growth potential for basketball in India,” Heidi Ueberroth, the N.B.A.’s chief of global marketing, said. “The interest in sports is by no means saturated.”
Indeed, most Indians are deeply interested in sports, but their passion rarely goes beyond cricket, which is followed with almost religious fervor and played by children and adults alike wherever there is room to swing a bat.
The star batsman Sachin Tendulkar is revered, and members of the 1983 World Cup-winning team are regarded as folk heroes.
Gield hockey has been a popular sport, but interest in it seems to be waning.
As Haresh Sharma, the secretary general of the Basketball Federation of India sees it, no other sport competes with the national obsession.
“It’s cricket, then cricket, then cricket,” Sharma said.
And that is where the N.B.A. hopes to find a toehold.
Dozens of schools in New Delhi and other large cities have teams that compete in newly formed leagues, and that number is expected to rise, Sharma said. He estimates about 4 million people (less than half of 1 percent of the population) play basketball at an amateur level.
“Cricket is our game,” 18-year-old Mohammed Hasib said. “But I would try basketball. If there’s a chance, I would play.”
One hurdle basketball promoters in India face is the poor diet of impoverished villagers.
“Children from rural areas are undernourished,” R. S. Gill, the president of the Basketball Federation of India, said. “We need better nourishment” so children can grow enough to be competitive in basketball.
Basketball is most popular among cosmopolitan Indians, for whom the game carries a whiff of Western sophistication. The United States’ ultimate gritty playground game has, in India, largely become a game for the children of the elite.
“My students, they go to U.S., Europe, and there they have so much of a basketball culture,” said Deepak Shukla, who coaches a basketball team at an exclusive New Delhi school. “They have Shaquille O’Neal shoes they get from U.S. My students are from wealthy families.
“The poor people will play cricket,” he said, adding that basketball “requires great infrastructure and money.”
Creating that infrastructure — building courts, training coaches — is the N.B.A.’s biggest challenge, made more difficult by the absence of a star like Yao.
Much of the N.B.A.’s success in China — the league says in 2006 it sold more than 400 million products there — can be traced to the 7-foot-6 Yao, who is set to lead China’s Olympic team in Beijing next month. India has not sent a basketball team to the Olympics since 1980, when it finished last.