Tonight is a big night for over a billion people in the world, even if only a small fraction of them are basketball fans. Tonight, against a tall and formidable Utah Jazz front line of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert we could see the newest Sacramento Kings player play the first NBA minutes of his career. Why is this historic? Well, it is because Gursimran Singh Bhullar, or Sim Bhullar , or SimCity, is of South Asian heritage. Sim would be the first player to represent that part of the world to play in the NBA. He is a pretty moderate Sikh who was born and raised in the Greater Toronto Area, where about 8% claim Indo-Canadian roots. Furthermore, about 3% of the 6 million strong in the GTA speak Punjabi as their mother tongue - like the Bhullars.
Many people all over the world, some I respect, some who are suspect, have been writing about Sim over the last week. But for the most part they are writing the wrong story. Sim's parents are immigrants from the Indian state of Punjab, and as someone born and raised out of India he has been branded with the title of "Non-Resident Indian", or NRI. That's not something he can change, and that stigma has been with him despite being such a big and obvious target for support from the Motherland. He himself recounts that issue when he, like most other young Sikhs, visited the metropolis of Amritsar as a young boy. Amritsar is the heart of the Sikh religion, and the seat of their faith. The Golden Temple there is as iconic as the Salt Lake Temple is for members of the Mormon faith. But when he went there his NRI status was one that set him and his family apart from the rest of the people that the NBA is now trying to sell their brand to.
When people talk about Sim they don't mention that he's just one of another in the long line of Canadian bigmen to make the NBA, following in the footsteps of Basketball Hall of Fame member Bob Houbregs, or All-Star Jamaal Magloire, or solid but unspectacular guys like Todd MacCulloch, Bill Wennington, Joel Anthony, or Mike Smrek. Those are the guys who developed in the Canadian basketball infrastructure that directly leads to the NBA. And it was in Canada where Sim got the nutrition and health care in order to develop his body to the point that actual basketball coaches and scouts could help pave his way to play in the NCAAs at New Mexico State.
Instead, we hear about the story of an Indian origin player, and how he's playing for the only NBA team that's also owned by an Indian origin businessman, and how all of this is supposed a) make Indians proud, and b) help sell the NBA to India. Even some Indian reporters are claiming Sim as their own, while lying all about it to get page views. Sim isn't "Indian", when he's in India he is branded a NRI and not accepted with open arms. He, like other NRIs are called "Non-reliable Indians" behind their backs, because of their crime of being born and raised within pluralistic societies outside of Bharat. A guy like Myck Kabongo, the Canadian point guard, can rightly be claimed by Zaire (now the DROC) because that's where he was born. Similarly, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson could also be rightly claimed by Jamaica, where he was born. India trying to claim Sim is disingenuous, and hypocritical because of the whole NRI branding/other-ing. It's also slick and slimey for others to proclaim Sim as for India, from the inside of a board room.
And to a lot of non-Desi people the whole NRI stigma is just going to be a part of this story that is so hard to grasp and easy to dismiss. In India the common person will talk crap about NRIs all day long, unless they make it big. No one in India cared for or supported people like Russell Peters, Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn (Kalpen Suresh Modi), Mindy Kaling (Vera Mindy Chokalingam), Lisa Ray, Katrina Kaif, Jay Sean, Jazzy B (Jaswinder Singh Bains), Norah Jones (Geetali Norah Jones Shankar), Sunny Leone (Karenjit Kaur Vohra), or Freddie Mercury (aka Farrokh Bulsara) until they were famous. And that's precisely what's happening to Gursimran Singh Bhullar right now too. Sim is being sold to India as Indian, while the old world mentality was traditionally to not even consider himself as one or give him the rights of one.
It's also about making money. But no one wants to admit that. One author likened this situation to the watershed moment of Yao Ming's effect upon basketball in China. First of all, Yao Ming was born there. Second, he was a product of their own basketball infrastructure, coaching, and player development. And third, he was good enough to make it to the NBA outside of 10 day contracts and international parlor tricks by an NBA Owner who wants to run his team upon a series of gimmicks. (If Vivek wasn't interested in selling the Kings to India do you think he would have influenced his team to pick up Sim? How does Sim help his team play an up-tempo offense?)
Yao Ming made it to the NBA on his own, and rightly put China on the map. It would be more correct for Indian reporters, or the NBA, to make this claim if it was Indian shooting guard Trideep Rai making the NBA (yes, he hits threes); or actual Indian bigman, 19 year old Satnam Singh Bhamara getting drafted and playing. In those cases the Resident Indians have their claim to fame and glory. India didn't do anything for Sim. But the NBA, Vivek Ranadive, and the powers that be want to use him to sell him to India. They wanna get that new TV deal. They wanna sell Sacramento Kings jerseys. They wanna get that paper. Or Rupees. Or whatever.
India is a target rich environment, as a nation moving out of the developing world that has a huge native English speaking audience and an ever increasing middle class. In India basketball is a status game, unlike the street cricket that is played with almost nothing but a bat and a ball. For basketball you need an even court, baskets that are the right height, and you need the fanciest of shoes that only the ones with the most disposable income can afford. It's a game that we see played more and more in Bollywood movies. Heck, Bollywood superstar Abhishek Bachchan was in the NBA All-Star Celebrity game this past year.
The NBA has been sending players like Kyle Korver and Pau Gasol, and legends like Dominique Wilkins to India for years now. And shoe companies for even longer - Kevin Garnett used to go there for Adidas store openings at malls even before the NBA started to look there. The full court press is on, in the land of the Monsoon.
I see why you want the NBA in India to work. When I last lived in India I was constantly late to work waiting for NBA games to end. They didn't televise the games, or talk about it in the news papers. But now with the advance of technology and access, there's a lot of money to be made there. As a for profit business it's important to maximize your revenue streams. India is a smart bet, especially with an Indian owner in the NBA who is doing his best to promote his team, his league, and the game - even if it's in order to make a buck. A billion people is still a billion people.
But doing it by using Sim is awful. Instead of talking about how he is a great story of a guy who worked his way to the NBA through playing in the NBADL, after leaving a mid-major college early, we get the red carpet treatment on Sim. He's even been on late night talk shows on American TV.
Is he even better than Kyrylo Fesenko or Francisco Elson? Andris Biedrins? There are better bigman available than Sim. So this isn't a basketball move.
This is a money move.
And this is a money move that's selling a version of a guy who isn't the real deal. I've been following Sim since he was in high school. I've been following all South Asian basketballers because I am South Asian and I write about basketball. I've known about Sim for years. I've known about his (then) girlfriend, who would tweet and instagram pictures of what he would send her for Valentine's day, or know which video games she used to play with his brother. I've know about the Canadian basketball team coaches telling him what to improve on in order to be able to make that jump from being a junior player to a senior player. I know Sim's limitations and abilities because I've seen him play in college and in the NBA-DL.
Tonight we may get to see him play in the NBA. That's a huge deal, as he is the first person of South Asian heritage to do so, ever. But let's not be fooled into thinking that India had anything to do with his path to the NBA besides genetics. Without the health care, nutrition, coaching, and exposure to the game he got in Canada there's no way he makes the NBA.
There's more Bill Wennington to his game than there is Bollywood.
And as an Indo-Canadian who has played basketball at the university level in North America, who has also lived and worked in India at different parts of life, I had to say that.
The storyline is: "He's a big deal, and please buy our TV package to watch the NBA, India - after all this guy is Indian enough." The storyline should be: "This is a big guy who worked his butt off from obscurity (Canada to New Mexico to Reno) to make the NBA. Watch the biggest moment of his life as he completes a life long journey and dream, tonight against the Jazz."
The Ex-pat experience is rough anywhere, but few places like to embrace hypocrisy as much as the Republic of India does. Minimizing the hard work Sim has put into his game and the sacrifices he has made to get in this position is a disservice to him. You trivialize his journey by trying to paint him as the Yao Ming of India, when he's a Canadian who like most other NRIs, didn't get any love or support from India when growing up. Marketing means it's important to sell him as something he's not. So I can't stop the wheel of the NBA as it moves to it's next financially specific target. I didn't want to write this post, but I could not keep quiet amidst the overbearing narrative I've been reading, listening, and watching over the last few days.
Sim does make South Asians proud. But don't cheapen him to sell tickets or TV deals. I love this kid and wish him nothing but the best. His unique story should be told. But for the boardroom reasons, it's not.