NBA Awaits Satnam From India, So Big and Athletic at 14
He just grew.
And his dreams were mostly what he read in books, limited to his life in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, a faraway outpost in the state of Punjab, India, close to the Pakistan border, where his father farmed, and he too, expected to farm one day.
Then his father told him a story, a sad story about long-ago missed opportunity, about a game he knew and loved but never was allowed to play, a game he quietly wanted his son to try, offering a window to a whole different world.
There were no basketball courts in his village to play on, no cable television to deliver the games, so his father sent him away, where others could teach him to play, quickly discovering he had an incredible gift, an athleticism very unusual for someone growing so fast and so large, leading him down the path he walks today.
In a country of 1.3 billion people, 7-foot, 250-pound Satnam Singh Bhamar has become a beacon for basketball hope.
At age 14.
"Satnam could one day do the same thing for India that Yao Ming did in China -- put the spotlight on basketball through an entire country,'' said Troy Justice, the NBA Director of Basketball Operations in India who has watched him play many times. "It really could be something.''
Despite the league's already-strong global flavor today -- there are 85 international players from 39 different countries or territories -- there never has been a player from India on an NBA roster.
Satnam may well be the first a few years from now, opening the door to a monstrous but untapped market.
Satnam came to the United States for the first time six weeks ago, one of 29 student athletes (both male and female in three different sports) from India who will train at the renowned IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla, as part of a new scholarship program to promote, develop and manage sports and entertainment in that country.
Although the program was designed to last three months before this group leaves and another arrives, Satnam and his burgeoning skills won't be going home anytime soon. It's like gold has been discovered in the hills, and this diamond in the rough will be carefully polished.
"Satnam is on track to be a very, very good long-term basketball player,'' said Dan Barto, director of player development at IMG Basketball Academy, who recently returned from India where he conducted several coaching clinics. "His biggest weakness now is our biggest strength here when it comes to developing players -- neuromuscular firing -- overall body control. His potential is pretty amazing.''
That potential starts with his size, which is incredible itself. At age 14, he is expected to grow for another couple of years. For now, he wears a size-22 basketball shoe. His hands swallow the ball. His father, Balbir Singh Bhamara, is 7-2. His grandmother on his father's side is 6-9.
He already has a man's body with broad shoulders and a thick chest. Although his leg strength is not good yet, there is nothing skinny about him. Through the normal maturation process -- if he continues to work -- he should become quite a specimen in the next five years.
His basketball skills are still raw and mechanical, but his eye-hand coordination looked good during a recent workout. He has a soft touch around the basket. He moves better than some of the big men in the NBA today. He is comfortable with the ball. In six weeks of training at IMG, his body has changed and his muscles have toned.
Until he arrived, he had spent much of the last two years away from home, living and training and going to school in India at the government-funded Ludhiana Basketball Academy. It's where his father first sent him, in the midst of a growth spurt that included 16 inches in four years.
It's where his clothes grew too small, his shoes too tight. It's where he first dunked at age 13. It's where he learned his first basketball drills and skills. It's where he first caught everyone's eye, catching the basketball fast track that included a National Youth championship for Punjab, a FIBA-sponsored Asian U16 Championship in Malaysia and the NBA Mahindra Challenge, which is where Troy Justice of the NBA first met him. He also was invited to the NBA's Basketball Without Borders Asia camp.
"First time I saw him play, he was wearing shoes that were falling apart. The seams had split, and he was coming right out of them,'' Justice said. "That's all he had. He was growing so fast. We helped him get shoes. I've heard people talk, but we're not sure they know how big he'll get.''
Barto, although cautious when it comes to talking about the NBA for a 14-year-old boy, believes he could mature into a body type like Greg Oden of Portland or Andrew Bynum of the Los Angeles Lakers. Or bigger than either one of them.
"We've seen a dramatic change in the six weeks we've had him,'' Barto said. "He's shown a real willingness to work, very coachable. He wants to learn. Why do 7-footers sometimes go bad? Because they get bad people around him. That won't happen here. There is a beauty to this kid.''
Because Satnam is so physically imposing, it's easy to forget he is a young teenager still, playful and fun-loving, still finding his way in a world that keeps changing so rapidly around him. One thing, though, is pretty clear when you watch him play. He picked basketball. Basketball didn't just pick him for his size.
"When I left home, my father told me to work hard, and bring a good name for my family, my village, my country,'' Satnam said through an interpreter last week in an exclusive interview with FanHouse. "He is proud. I love basketball, and I am happy to play this game. I want to get better.''
Satnam speaks little English, relying still on his native Punjabi, outside his ninth-grade classroom. Like the other 28 young athletes from India, he attends high school classes at the Academy every morning for four hours. He spend another three to four hours each day practicing basketball or conditioning to play more basketball.
He shakes his head at the mention of cricket, India's No. 1 sport. Through the NBA's grass-roots efforts, which includes more than 120 youth leagues in five different cities, basketball is vying with soccer for No. 2. The rise of Satnam as a national phenom would help the sport tremendously.
He plays now on the IMG Academy Basketball team, a long, long, long way from home. His size often intimidates his opponents, but he still must work to learn the physical and speedier side of the American game.
To his credit, he is not timid -- by any stretch. His ancestors came from the same village where he was born. It has been there for more than 600 years. Those that know India say that the countryside where he is from produces an aggressive mentality among the men. They are farmers, but they also are warriors, strong and proud and brave, always protecting the border with Pakistan.
While all signs point to a rapid development of Satnam, there also is a reminder that interests and attitudes can change as nature takes it course. He just smiles at a question about one-day playing in the NBA. He mentions Kobe, but his knowledge of the NBA is only average.
"My father wanted to play basketball, but my grandfather insisted he could not. They were a family of farmers. He had fields to tend,'' Satnam said. "He never got the chance that I am getting now. He is very proud of me, and I want to play this game as well as I can play. That is my task now. Where it will take me, I don't know. The NBA? One day.''