For long, India’s hopes of seeing a player on the hallowed courts of the NBA rested on the mighty shoulders of Satnam Singh Bhamara. From winning a scholarship to train at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida in 2010, the young 7″2′ son of a farmer from Punjab went on to become the first Indian to be drafted to play in the world’s most popular basketball league? five years later.
Picked by the Dallas Mavericks, Satnam, however, never got a chance to play in the NBA. Shunted off to the Texas Legends – the Mavericks’ affiliate team in the lower G-League – Satnam laboured through a couple of frustrating seasons and eventually faded into obscurity.
However, another Singh is now pursuing the dream. In October last year, as he and his mother Nirmal Kaur offered prayers at a gurudwara in Chandigarh, officials at NBA’s headquarters in New York were preparing to usher in the next Indian in the 2017 G-League Draft – Amjyot Singh. From the marathon four rounds, the 26-year-old was pick no. 103, chosen by Oklahoma City Blue, the feeder team for Oklahoma City Thunder. It made Amjyot the third Indian to be worthy of treading the uncharted waters of the NBA and the second to be drafted by a G-League club after fellow India forward Palpreet Singh Brar’s selection by the Long Island Nets in 2016.
While Palpreet could go only as far as the tryouts, Amjyot aced his week-long conditioning camp to make the cut for the final OKC Blue roster. It was a personal victory for the 6’8″ talented ?forward after a year of facing rejection.
In 2016, Amjyot turned up for the G-League (then known as the D-League) draft along with Palpreet and India centre Amritpal Singh. While Palpreet – backed by his extensive training stint in the United States – was picked by the Nets, Amjyot and Amritpal were not so lucky.
An attempt to make his mark at the Draft Combine in Australia’s NBL, too, failed to bear results. But Amjyot never lost hope, banking on his indomitable perseverance to keep working harder.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” Amjyot told Times Sportal from Oklahoma. “Playing with the OKC Blue has enhanced my game and improved my standard as a basketball player. It’s a really big opportunity for me.”
BASKETBALL BY CHANCE
Like almost every other young boy, Amjyot, too, dreamed of playing cricket for India. A passion for fast bowling saw him push himself daily, so much so that a freak back injury on the field left him bed-ridden for nearly six months.
While recuperating, Amjyot saw his father Mohinder Singh, a sub-inspector with Chandigarh Police, throw hoops. “My father was a national-level basketball player and asked me to try the game and ever since I have never looked back. I just fell in love with the game,” Amjyot recalled.
Having made the Indian U-16 team in 2008, Amjyot’s ascent to the senior Indian men’s team took shape under former coach Kenny Natt and as a young 19-year-old at the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, he began his trailblazing journey.
Amritpal Singh shares a moment with Sydney Kings coach Andrew Gaze. (Photo Courtesy: NBL)
WHEN SINGH BECAME KING
As Amjyot broke new ground in Oklahoma, nearly 14,000 kms in the other corner of the world, yet another Singh ?was scripting a new chapter for himself. Amjyot may have failed to cash in at the NBL Draft last year, but 26-year-old Amritpal’s rebounding prowess and towering presence caught the eye of several Aussie scouts, eventually bagging him a spot in the roster of the Sydney Kings.
Amritpal’s hoop story is unlike any other. Seven years ago, the 6’10” centre was ankle deep in his father’s paddy and wheat fields in his village of Fattuwal in Punjab. When not farming, he was learning the nuances of kabaddi. But a year later, at the age of 20, Amritpal was manning the post for the Indian team in the 2011 FIBA Championship.
“I never thought I’ll reach here (playing in the Australian league), that too after giving my first ever tryouts,” said Amritpal, the first Indian to play in the NBL. “This is a stage for me to prove myself.” While he admits that he misses his ‘mummy ke haath ka khaana’ (food cooked by mum), Amritpal would have little trouble in finding fan support for his matches in Australia?.
“He is a big inspiration to NRIs in Australia,” says Vishnu Ravi Shankar, business head of Pursuit India, which manages Amritpal and Amjyot. “The Punjabi community in Sydney has especially rallied behind Amrit, showing up at his games and supporting him vociferously. His near 7-feet frame is hard to miss at the local gurudwara in Sydney, which he attends regularly. He is giving Indian basketball players a new look on the big stage,” Vishnu added.
A WINNING CAMARADERIE
A frontcourt combination that excelled at the domestic, national and international levels, Amritpal and Amjyot’s meteoric rise started making waves across Asia, and the duo eventually took the ?courageous decision to play professionally in Japan. Starting with Hyogo Impulse in the BJ Challenge Summer League, the two Indians then moved to Tokyo Excellence in Japan’s D-League and put in a strong show to win their team the championship.
But unlike in India, where basketball popularity pales in comparison to cricket, Japan and their love for ?hoops gave Amjyot and Amritpal a glimpse of what sports heroes feel like. Their posters lined the streets and shops across Itabashi while autograph-seeking fans gave them the respect they deserved. “Japan was my first experience playing in a professional setup,” recalled Amjyot. “It was way different from the basketball we played in India. It is played at a very quick pace and that exposure helped me improve on my speed and agility.”
Overcoming the language barrier, finding things their size and adjusting to Japanese cuisine were all dealt with over time. “Everything is available online. We cooked at home and a translator helped us communicate with the locals,” ?Amritpal said. “The fact that we were there for each other helped us adjust easier.”
INDIA FIRST, ALWAYS
Nothing about success comes without? personal sacrifices?. Amjyot and Amritpal learnt it the hard way four years ago on a balmy evening in Wuhan, China. Limbering up for their opening tie against Japan in the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup, the Sikh duo was asked to remove their turbans by officials in adherence to FIBA’s headgear rule. Stunned, both players went off court to tie their hair back with rubber bands but the damage had already been done, the distraction costing them the match.
The next day, Amjyot and Amritpal returned for their tie against heavyweights China -? ?hair firmly pulled back by bands? – and put in a performance to remember. Against a team of experienced pros ranked 50 spots above them in the world, India took out their frustration on the hosts with a historic 65-58 win, their greatest ever victory.
Amjyot, who punctuated his steely resolve with a fierce alley-oop dunk towards the end of the game, now looks beyond the incident. “Of course, it (headgear incident) was hurtful. My parents were extremely supportive and hence I could take the decision (to play without the turban). I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t play for my country,” he said.
FIBA lifted the headgear ban on October 1 last year, but the decision came a little too late for the duo, who cut their hair in preparation for the 2014 Asian Games. “It’s in the past now, but yes it hurt because I had just begun wearing a turban a year and a half ago? back then,” said Amritpal. “I’m glad that rules have changed so that upcoming Sikh players don’t have to face this problem.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
In the 20-odd games he has played for OKC Blue, Amjyot is primarily used as a bench player, averaging close to seven minutes per game. But last week, the Chandigarh lad got 27 minutes of game time against the Northern Arizona Suns and he used it effectively – bagging nine points and grabbing four rebounds. Warming the bench or playing in a limited role is something Amjyot is not accustomed to and he knows he needs to make every second count, cautiously, in a merciless league where an injury will see him be cut from the team.
“My aim is to be the main player for OKC Blue just like (I am for) India. I’m trying to improve my game to reach that level. I’m focused on my shooting as that’s my strength,” Amjyot said. The coming months will be crucial for Amjyot and Amritpal. With India competing in the World Cup qualifiers, Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, it will be a test of resilience and finding a balance between club and country for the duo.
Their ambitions may seem steep – Amjyot looking to go one step beyond Satnam and become the first Indian in the NBA and Amritpal hoping to establish himself Down Under. But India’s finest ballers are steadfast in their quest for greatness.