Mumbai, India – Mumbai hosted the first-ever NBA games on Indian soil with the stadium packed with spectators – some of whom were still struggling to understand basketball etiquette – giving loud applause with chants of “NBA! NBA!” and “We love basketball!”.
In a cricket-loving nation, basketball has long struggled to make a mark, and the NBA launched a campaign to expand its fanbase to India before the pre-season games between the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers.
Mumbai’s iconic landmark, the Gateway of India, was lit up in red, white and blue, and a basketball court floated off the coast of the city in the Arabian Sea as part of its publicity drive.
As Indiana Pacers power forward Myles Turner, who helped his team to victories on Friday and Saturday, put it: “When you think of basketball, you don’t necessarily think of India.”
But the nearly 4,000 sold-out seats and howls of enthusiasm at Saturday’s match suggested that, at least for some Indians, basketball matters.
“It was an exhilarating experience … a brilliant experience,” said 22-year-old graduate student Akash Saraswati, who saved up for his ticket costing more than $90.
Even a broken leg could not stop him from travelling to Mumbai from the neighbouring city of Pune. “I didn’t hesitate,” he said.
Many of those who packed the stands were die-hard fans like Saraswati, travelling from as far afield as New Delhi and Bengaluru.
“There’s so much grace and effortless coordination among the players. It’s beautiful to watch,” said sales executive Rajesh Kamble, who admitted he was still trying to understand the sport.
Bollywood songs alternated with American hip-hop tracks at the star-studded events, where celebrities like actress Priyanka Chopra mingled with NBA legends like Larry Bird.
Before the first game, US Ambassador to India Kenneth I Juster said he looked forward to “sharing the magic of professional basketball with millions of new fans”.
But questions remain about how much the NBA – whose 2017-18 season revenue was a staggering $8bn according to Forbes – is willing to invest in India and whether its audience will be restricted to hardcore fans and wealthy urbanites.
Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, said that he is giving “serious consideration” to launching a professional league in India.
Kings owner Vivek Ranadive – the first and only Indian majority owner of an NBA team who led the effort to bring the pre-season games to India – suggested that the new league be called Monsoon Madness, a play on the US college basketball tournament March Madness.
While India has a long way to go to create the infrastructure needed to support a professional league, Silver said it could potentially get off the ground within the next five years.
The NBA has long sought to expand its footprint in India. In 2011, they partnered with Indian channel Sony TEN to air hundreds of games on live television and started a series of youth development programmes and an NBA Academy outside of the capital, New Delhi.
Diane Gotua, the NBA’s vice president of global business operations, said that an Indian professional league would be “the next logical step”. “To play, you just need a ball and a hoop.”
But, unlike cricket which is played everywhere from India’s slums to members’ clubs, basketball enjoys a limited appeal in the country of 1.3 billion people. No Indian player has ever taken part in an NBA game.
The cheapest ticket for Saturday’s game cost 4,500 rupees ($63.5), going up to an astonishing 85,000 rupees ($1,200) for courtside seats. In comparison, a season pass for next week’s second cricket Test between India and South Africa in Pune tops out at 5,000 rupees ($70.5).
But the high price did not deter many sport fans. Chitraj Grover, a young college graduate who just started a job as an engineer, said he spent his first paycheque ever on flying to the game from New Delhi.
With two matches played to a packed stadium, Indians seem to have embraced a new sport.
Clive Machado, a young fan from Mumbai, perhaps portrayed the NBA’s optimism about expanding into India. When asked if he was a basketball fan, he replied, “soon to be!”
Additional reporting by Namrata Kolachalam from Mumbai