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NBA scores on debut in cricket-mad India, but questions remain

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Sacramento Kings player Yogi Ferrell (centre) is blocked by Indiana Pacers during the second pre-season NBA basketball game between Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers at the NSCI Dome in Mumbai on Saturday. PUNIT PARANJPE/afp

NBA scores on debut in cricket-mad India, but questions remain

Seconds after the NBA’s first games in India ended, the packed Mumbai stadium erupted with cheers as spectators – some of whom were still struggling to understand basketball etiquette – rose to their feet.

In a country where cricket reigns supreme, basketball has long struggled to make a mark, and the NBA took no chances, launching a promotional blitzkrieg before the pre-season games between the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers.

As Indiana Pacers power forward Myles Turner, who helped his team to victories on Friday and Saturday, put it: “When you think of basketball, you don’t necessarily think of India.”

But the 7,000 sold-out seats and howls of enthusiasm at Saturday’s match suggested that, at least for some Indians, basketball matters.

“It was an exhilarating experience . . . a brilliant experience,” said 22-year-old graduate student Akash Saraswati, who saved up for his ticket costing more than $90.

Even a broken leg could not stop him travelling to Mumbai from the neighbouring city of Pune. “I didn’t hesitate,” he said.

Many of those who packed the stands were die-hard fans like Saraswati, travelling from as far afield as Delhi and Bangalore.

Others were there for a taste of something new, grappling with the rules as they watched the players dribble, dive and dunk.

“There’s so much grace and effortless co-ordination among the players. It’s beautiful to watch,” said sales executive Rajesh Kamble, who admitted he was still trying to figure out the sport.

The game may have confused some, but the entertainment was familiar territory – Bollywood dances replaced cheerleader routines and a Mumbai hip-hop group took over the floor before the tip-off.

The courtside audience included celebrities such as Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra-Jonas. The biggest ovation of the night however was for NBA legend Larry Bird, whose presence brought the crowd to its feet.

What happens once ‘circus’ leaves?

But questions remain about how much the NBA – whose 2017-18 season revenue was a staggering $8 billion, according to Forbes – is willing to invest in India and whether its audience will be restricted to hardcore fans and wealthy urbanites.

“The fact that the circus has come to town is a great thing,” said Vishal Jhunjhunwala, partner at Mumbai-based sports marketing firm, Square Consulting.

“But what happens once the circus leaves town?

“You need a local connect, a superstar with Indian roots for basketball to take off. That doesn’t exist at the moment, unlike say China where the presence of a star like Yao Ming galvanised his whole country into following the sport,” Jhunjhunwala told AFP.

No Indian player has ever taken part in an NBA game and although NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters that he hopes to see that change within five years, few are holding their breath.

And, unlike cricket which is played everywhere from India’s slums to members’ clubs, basketball enjoys a limited appeal in the country of 1.3 billion people.

The cheapest ticket for Saturday’s game cost 4,500 rupees ($65), going up to an astronomical 85,000 rupees for courtside seats. In comparison, a season pass for next week’s second Test between India and South Africa in Pune tops out at 5,000 rupees.

Although the high price did not deter well-heeled sports fans, analysts say the NBA risks losing out on a huge chunk of India’s audience if it doesn’t build up mass appeal.

“You are asking people to spend a lot to watch a sport they don’t know much about,” said Jhunjhunwala.

To those in the stands, however, the spectacle was well worth the big bucks.

“I am a cricket fan but . . . basketball also has huge potential and hopefully this is the start of a new sporting journey”, said 25-year-old Danish Contractor.

In his comments, the NBA’s Silver said the games “required us bringing in a court, a scoreboard, seats, locker rooms” to Mumbai.

They will have to do much more if the sport is to have a long-term future in the country, experts say as the NBA pre-season Asia tour now heads off to Japan and China for further matches over the coming week.

“One game isn’t going to turn India into a basketball-loving nation. But it’s a first step,” said Jhunjhunwala

“If they lose money on it, well, they have deep pockets.”

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