NBA brings basketball to cricket-crazy India Print
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Thursday, 10 July 2008 10:33
NBA Headline News

 NEW DELHI (AP) -Could LeBron James or Shaquille O'Neal catch on in the Hindi heartland?
The NBA 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 importantly, 1.1 billion potential fans.
The NBA has had tremendous success selling basketball overseas, most notably in China, where the league estimates 300 million people play the sport and Houston Rockets center Yao Ming is a national icon.
India, a relatively untapped territory, looms as the NBA's next great challenge.
But it could be a tough sell. The few public basketball courts attract little attention, and words like ``slam-dunk'' and ``alley-oop'' are met with blank stares.
To help counter that, the NBA held its first-ever event in India last week, a ``Basketball Without Borders'' camp that featured charity events and basketball clinics in which NBA players instructed young Asians.
League executives say they're considering a wide range of plans to spread the game, including building courts in remote villages, seeking endorsements from Bollywood stars, and bringing NBA players to India for exhibitions.
``We see tremendous growth potential for basketball in India,'' said Heidi Ueberroth, the NBA's chief of global marketing. ``The interest in sports is by no means saturated.''
Indeed, most Indians are deeply interested in sports, but their passion rarely ranges beyond cricket, which is followed with almost religious fervor and played by children and adults alike wherever there's room to swing a bat.
Star batsman Sachin Tendulkar is revered, and members of the 1983 World Cup winning team are regarded as folk heroes.
And while field hockey has been a popular sport, interest seems to be waning.
As Haresh Sharma, 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's where the NBA hopes to find a toehold.
Dozens of schools in New Delhi and other big cities have teams that compete in newly formed leagues, and that number is expected to rise in coming years, Sharma said. He estimates about 4 million people (less than half of 1 percent of the population) play basketball at an amateur level.
One hurdle basketball promoters in India face is the poor diet of impoverished villagers.
``Children from rural areas are undernourished,'' said R.S. Gill, president of the Basketball Federation of India. ``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. America's 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. Basketball ``requires great infrastructure and money.''
Creating that infrastructure - building courts, training coaches - is the NBA's biggest challenge, made more difficult by the absence of a star like Yao, for example.
Much of the NBA's success in China - the league says in 2006 it sold more than 400 million products there - can be traced to Yao, the Rockets' 7-foot-6 center who is set to lead China's Olympic team in Beijing next month. India hasn't sent a basketball team to the Olympics since 1980, when it finished last.
The NBA selected five Indian teens to participate in last week's New Delhi camp, compared with 12 Chinese players. Coaches said the Indians played well, but were unlikely to make it to the NBA.
Still, Sharma said ``we are nurturing some stars'' whom he wants to play in India's first professional league, which the Basketball Federation of India is hoping to launch once it finds corporate backers.
Marketers got a glimpse of the potential of professional sports' in India earlier this year with the debut of the Indian Premier League, a flashy cricket tournament that brought the sport's biggest international stars together with big advertisers, big crowds - and big money.
More than 131 million people tuned in to watch the games, according to media reports, and for weeks the league was a fixture on front pages and TV news programs, demonstrating a widespread appetite for the spectacle and glitz of professional sports.
The cricket league also caught the NBA's attention. During a trip to India, Ueberroth and a group of NBA executives attended a Delhi Daredevils match and came away impressed, she said.
Their goal is not to compete with cricket, Ueberroth said, but ``to become the second most popular sport.''
``It's about growing the game at all levels,'' she said.
The first rung of that expansion plan may be the neighborhood cricket pitch, like the one where 18-year-old Mohammed Hasib plays with his friends twice a week.
``Cricket is our game,'' he said. ``But I would try basketball. If there's a chance, I would play.''
 

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