Ailene Voisin, sports columnist
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  • Richard Drew / Associated Press

    Vivek Ranadive, right, and Mark Mastrov, left, are part of the investment group seeking to buy the Kings. The Indian-born Ranadive could mean much to the NBA as it seeks greater exposure in that country.

  • Vivek Ranadive The Indian-born wireless wizard would give the NBA a connection to the country of 1.2 billion.

  • Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: NBA's interest in India may be boon for Kings

Published: Sunday, Apr. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 7, 2013 - 8:50 am

David Stern's trip to India this weekend had been planned for months. Coincidence and conspiracy theories aside – and yes, it certainly is tempting to give the award-winning series "Homeland" a Sacramento spin – the commissioner's overseas escapade is unrelated to Vivek Ranadive's involvement with the group attempting to buy the Kings and partner with the city on a downtown sports and entertainment complex.

Still. However. But.

This can't hurt.

The NBA is keen on drama, infatuated with expanding its brand, and unfailingly protective of its reputation as the most progressive and inclusive of America's four major sports leagues. African American coaches and owners. Female referees. A successful women's pro league. The Dream Team. The NBA was there first – Greece, Argentina, Russia, China – and, yet, what prominent and highly populated country continues to elude its persistent tentacles?

India, it is.

India is the next NBA frontier.

So, for the moment anyway, spin the globe back around to Ranadive, the East Bay wireless whiz. While the winner of this arena contest figures to be the city that digs up the dirt faster than its counterpart, what happens if Sacramento and Seattle sprint to a dead heat? If the owners decide that competing plans for downtown arenas are too comparable to call? If they remain incapable of splitting the baby?

Then all the other variables become far more important, among them: demographics; population; television market size and the number of competitors in the market; the league preference for retaining viable franchises in existing locations; and the quality of the potential ownership group, which in this case, features a handful of wealthy and innovative investors, but only one of whom born in India.

Ranadive's recent inclusion not only financially strengthened Sacramento's bid, it introduced a unique and tantalizing element into the equation: the potential presence of an Indian-born owner to put a face on the league's forays into the second-most heavily populated country in the world.

That's me theorizing, folks, not league officials talking. While his committee members evaluate the competing arena projects, Stern is staying away from Ranadive, the Kings, Seattle. But he isn't so reluctant to chat about India.

"Basketball is in its very early stages of development," Stern told me just before boarding his flight to Mumbai, "but the opportunity is real, immense, and likely to move fast. The government and private sector are concerned about fitness, exercise, problems of diabetes and obesity. They recognize the contribution that organized basketball activities can make, similar to China."

Opportunity knocks, the economy improves, and the NBA runs through the door. The commissioner also plans to meet with investors about arena development, creation of a professional league, retail sponsorships and e-commerce, and squeeze in his usual assortment of meet-and-greets.

The getting-to-know-you phase these next five days looms as particularly important. Besides the absence of adequate facilities and the usual array of economic, political and cultural issues common to league expansion into other global markets, India, a nation of 1.2 billion, lacks anything resembling a basketball tradition; cricket dominates as the No. 1 sport.

Accordingly, the press is on. The NBA recently added another employee to its Mumbai office. The number of youth camps and coaching clinics is expected to be increased. Additional equipment will be donated. More WNBA and NBA stars are volunteering as ambassadors; Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Kyle Korver and Dominique Wilkins already have visited.

Wilkins, the Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer who accompanied the Atlanta Hawks on their tour of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, believes popularizing the sport in India will be more incremental than explosive.

"I went with Basketball Without Borders for its first visit in 2008," said Wilkins, "and it was a very different experience than the Soviet Union of 30 years ago. Russia, even when the wall was coming down, all the Cold War stuff, was much more familiar with the game. But then when I went back to India again two years ago, I definitely could sense a difference. It's not leaps and bounds, but I think the access to information, social media, the Internet, getting more NBA games on television is changing things."

And Ranadive? He is a native of India. He does high tech. He is giving the board of governors a lot more to think about.

Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin (916) 321-1208 and follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.

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Read more articles by Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin, sports columnist

Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UNLV and a law degree from the University of San Diego before committing full time to journalism.

Her career includes stops at the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and time spent as the backup beat writer for Dodgers and Angels, Clippers and NBA beat writer, sports columnist, along with numerous assignments covering international events and the Olympics. Ailene joined The Sacramento Bee in 1997.

Phone: 916-321-1208
Twitter: @ailene_voisin

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