Big in India

If you think you hate packing for a trip, imagine being me. Here’s the thing about being 7-foot-5 that people don’t think about: my shoes literally take up about half of my suitcase. I wear a size 22. When you’re playing in the D-League like I was this season, you’re packing your own bags and riding around on buses. A lot of times you don’t even have time to shower before the bus leaves for the next city. When you fly, it’s all commercial. You just hope that the nice people at the gate take mercy on you and make sure you get an exit row, but you’re stuffing your gear bags into the overhead bin like everybody else.

So the packing thing becomes a real challenge. When I was signed to the Sacramento Kings at the end of this season, the most amazing thing was that the trainers handle all your shoes for you. They even have fresh extra pairs waiting for you in every city. I had all this extra room in my suitcase that I didn’t know what to do with. It was awesome.

The last few months have been a blur. When I was signed by Sacramento, I became the first player of Indian descent in NBA history. It became a media frenzy, for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time. My first day with the team, I came into the practice facility with a full iPhone battery. When I got back to my locker, it was at 10% from all the text messages and Twitter notifications. People wanted to know what I thought about the global growth of basketball and all kinds of big questions. For me, it was tough to deal with because my mindset was all about basketball. I had been leading the D-League in field goal percentage and blocks. I kept waiting for someone to ask me what I could do on the court. All the questions were about India.

I was born in Toronto, but most of my extended family still lives in India. When I scored my first NBA basket against Utah, my relatives were emailing my parents videos of the highlights leading the nightly news in India. It was totally surreal, but I was so caught up in the 24/7 job of the NBA that the importance of it didn’t really sink in at the time. When the NBA gave me the chance to go on a tour of the country as an ambassador last month, it finally hit me that 1.2 billion people were rooting for me to succeed. The morning after we landed, we went straight to the YMCA in Mumbai at 7 a.m. I was thinking, Who’s going to be playing ball at sunrise? When we got to the outdoor court, half of it was in the blazing sun. The other half was shaded by trees but covered in bird poo (tough choice — if you chose the shaded side, you had to have good footwork). The nets were torn and the rims were crooked. But there was already a half-dozen kids playing pick-up. As the day went on, hundreds more would show up. They ran up to me asking about Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry (Steph is huge with the Indian kids, I think because he’s undersized but super-fast like they are). They told me about getting up to watch Kings games at 6 a.m. before school. They even knew all about my D-League team in Reno and my college career at New Mexico State.

You have to understand that it had been six years since I had been to India. When I would visit as a kid, I would stay with my family in the villages. We would bounce around from cousin’s house to cousin’s house, mostly on farms. There was no internet, no western TV. We ate the local food and nobody knew who I was. This time, it was a totally different experience. Five cities in eight days, western hotels. I can’t tell you how weird it felt to eat an American-style breakfast in India. We went to the Golden Temple, one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in the world. The last time I had visited the temple, I was just trying to figure out how to handle my growth spurt and make the high school basketball team. Now I was being surrounded by people taking photos and shaking my hand. I asked blessings from God to help me fill the role everyone wants me to fill and to be strong enough to make a major impact in the NBA. To go from riding around on buses in the D-League to being treated like royalty in India in just a matter of months was overwhelming. It’s especially emotional for my parents to have their son be supported so much in their home country.

Growing up in Toronto, I remember looking up to Vince Carter like he was a God. I wanted to be just like him. And now all these kids a whole world away were telling me that I’m their role model and they want to be just like me. That’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life, honestly even better than scoring an NBA basket.

I feel like I’m helping to break through the centuries-old belief that Indians cannot excel at sports outside of cricket. A lot of the kids I met are exposed to things we here in America don’t get to see. They witness people living in poverty day in, day out in a place where it could be easy to lose hope fast because you don’t believe you can make it out. But they have the hustle. I know that one day some of these kids will use basketball as a vehicle to help them go abroad to get an advanced education, a career, or even the opportunity to play pro ball.

The game is growing so much in India, and it’s funny because the kids were asking me to show them all these post moves, but the culture of the game over there is more based on speed and transition. These kids are like little Iversons. They fly around the court and really push the tempo. My game is more back-to-the-basket. So I got to show them some hook shots and some up-and-unders. Hopefully I’m spreading some love for the low-post game in India.

When I was signed by Sacramento, I got hundreds of questions about what I mean to the future of basketball in India. At the time, I really had no idea how to answer that question. Most of the time I had spent there as a kid was at cousins’ weddings. But after going back and seeing the passion of these kids, I think the possibilities are endless. When I was growing up in Toronto in the early 90s, my parents didn’t know anything about basketball. Most of my friends only cared about hockey. But then I saw Vince Carter fly through the air in the 2000 Dunk Contest and I thought, “I want to do that, too.”

Maybe my hook shot isn’t as amazing as Vince’s 360 windmill dunk, but hopefully it inspires a few million Indian kids to put down the cricket bat and say, “I want to do that, too.”