Satnam Singh is chuckling about his dunk the other night. It was a thunderous, two-handed effort, his 7’2” frame hanging on the rim afterwards. It bent the stanchion (the portable tower holding up the backboard), interrupting play for 15 minutes as India faced Jordan in the Asian qualifiers for the World Cup. “This is nothing new,” he says. “It keeps happening with me in training. The whole post has moved by a few feet many times.” The workers who scrambled to fix the damage did not perhaps see the funny side of it, but Satnam is laughing. He is in a happy place: playing basketball, entertaining crowds, at peace with himself.
A year ago, things were depressingly different. Satnam was in a second season with the Texas Legends in the NBA’s developmental D-League, struggling for game time, tired and angry. “I’m sitting there losing my game, losing my mind,” he sighs. “It broke my heart. I’m thinking, ‘Why am I sitting here when they’re not giving me time?’”
In his two seasons, Satnam featured in a total of 27 games, averaging 7.1 minutes per fixture. So when his contract wound down, he packed up and left. “Mera koi improve nahin hua wahan pe (I didn’t improve there),” he says. “I learnt a few things but never got to try them out. I’m grateful to everyone who made the NBA move possible, but if you sit on the bench, you can’t do anything. I told myself, ‘OK Satnam, nothing is happening here. Go back home and show everyone that you can play.’”
Satnam flew home, disappointed and — he adds — broke. “It was really, really bad. I didn’t have anything for my family. My father tries to work on the farm even when he can’t. My mother handles the house. My brother, the poor guy, had to quit his studies to help my father on the farm. He doesn’t have a life of his own. We need to make arrangements for my sister’s wedding. I have a lot to take care of. And I got no financial benefit from the D-League. Kuch nahin hua. Mera teen saal barbaad hua (I lost three years).”
A few months after he arrived in India, Satnam signed a contract with the United Basketball Alliance (UBA), the country’s first professional league, and is set to compete in its fifth season later this year. “That made me comfortable,” he says. “If I have some money in my hand, I can be free in my mind. And I can play well. If I have no money, how can I play well?”
But back in 2015, when Satnam became the first Indian to be picked in the NBA draft, the future had held so much promise. His selection by the Dallas Mavericks marked a young man’s dizzying rise from a life in rural Punjab to the highest echelons of professional basketball in the world.
But things did not quite turn out as India had hoped. One stumbling block, and Satnam brings it up himself, was that he had effectively jumped to the NBA straight from high school. He was 19 at the time of the draft, and had spent five years at the IMG Academy in Florida. Ideally, he would have gone to college and cut his teeth in America’s NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) leagues before making the step up. There were academic requirements, though, and Satnam did not meet them.
“The biggest problem for me there was not going to college,” he says. “If I was born there and I had studied well, things would have been different. I would have played college basketball for three or four years, kept getting better. I was 19. And most of the draft stars are like 21-22.”
Satnam admits he had to lose weight. He also admits he had to work on his footwork, speed, and shooting. The role of the center has evolved over the years, and big men are now expected to be lean, athletic, and quick across the court. Satnam worked religiously at it, staying off roti and rice, shedding some 40 pounds.
He made his professional debut in the D-League (now christened the G-League) with the Legends, the Mavericks’ minor-league affiliate, on November 13, 2015. Satnam spent 9 minutes and 34 seconds on court that day, scoring four points and making six rebounds. It was the most playing time he got in a single game for 10 more weeks.
“I was ready to play, but they thought I was not,” he says. “I can’t go into the coach’s mind and see what he was thinking. I can’t go there and demand, ‘Hey coach, I want to play, why aren’t you giving me time?’ That looks bad. It looks like I’m disrespecting the coach.”
It must not have been easy being, as the title of the Netflix documentary on his journey goes, ‘one in a billion.’ Satnam was expected to do for Indian basketball what Yao Ming did for the sport in China: spark a revolution. He must, surely, have found the weight of that responsibility oppressive.
“It did feel like that a little bit. In almost 70 years of the NBA, there had been no Indian player. When somebody told me that, I said, ‘Oh my God’. On one shoulder was my family, one another were 1.3 billion people, and it all felt really heavy. But once the draft was over, the load was lifted. I felt light. I felt I did a good job for India. I thought, ‘I’m here only because I worked hard. That’s why they made One in a Billion. To show kids how hard you have to work.’ Now all I have to do is carry on working hard.”
While he warmed the bench, desperate to play, fretting over the future, Satnam says he received nothing in the way of encouragement from his colleagues. “Nobody does it. They all wish that you get worse… the worse you get, the better it is for them. I’ll say it straight. Nobody will help another player out. Everyone thinks, ‘I want to go up first.’”
These days, the smile has returned to Satnam’s face. He is “playing ball” and has improved, he feels, “by 50%” in the last six months. He is still only 22 and hopes for another chance in America. He will upload videos of his games online, hoping NBA scouts and coaches notice. “People have not seen me play. Why will any team be interested in signing Satnam when they don’t even know how he plays?”
Twenty-four hours before he spoke to The Hindu, Satnam was in fine form for India, fighting a passionate battle in a losing cause. After the game, it was clear whom everyone in the crowd wanted a picture with. He spent nearly 20 minutes obliging them, having one cellphone after another thrust into his hand.
“If you refuse a ‘selfie’, people will say, ‘Satnam has a bad attitude,’” he says. “But if you make people happy, if you make kids happy, everyone will love you. I don’t need anything but love.”