The biggest and tallest player in the NBA did little more than warm the bench in the Kings’ loss Friday night, but his presence represented a huge victory for Sikh Americans trying to find their way into the mainstream after years of being often-misunderstood outsiders.
From the moment Sacramento Kings rookie Sim Bhullar loped onto the court for pre-game warmups, Sikh fans, some in blue, purple, orange, black and gold turbans, surged with pride.
The 7-foot-5-inch Bhullar, the first player of Indian descent to put on an NBA uniform, didn’t play a minute in a hard-fought game against the New Orleans Pelicans. But that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the more than 500 Sikh Americans at Sleep Train Arena who turned out for the Kings’ second annual Sikh Appreciation Night.
“We all hope he’ll make it. He’s a good kid in touch with his Indian culture,” Bhullar’s uncle, Roseville Realtor, liquor store owner and Kings fan Guri Kang said before Friday’s tipoff. “Whenever he has a chance to go to the motherland in India, he visits the Golden Temple, the Sikh Shrine in Amritsar.”
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Friday’s appreciation night was dedicated to “Kaurs, Singhs and Kings.” In an effort to eliminate the class distinctions among Sikhs that have divided India’s classes for centuries, all baptized female Sikhs are given the middle or last name Kaur, which means “always pure princess.” Male Sikhs are given the middle or last name Singh, meaning “lion.” The 22-year-old Kings rookie’s full name is Gursimran Singh Bhullar.
Sikhism was founded in 1469 by Guru Nanak in the Indian region of Punjab.
Bhullar, who was born in Toronto to Sikh immigrants, signed a 10-day contract after playing center for the Kings’ NBA Development League team, the Reno Bighorns.
Kang and the other Sikhs hoping to see Bhullar make history Friday are among the estimated 60,000 Sikh Americans who live in the greater Sacramento region, said Inderjit Singh Kallirai, who organized the first Sikh Appreciation Night with Kings owner Vivek Ranadive last season. Ranadive’s vision of NBA 3.0 includes making basketball as popular in India – which worships cricket – as it now is in China following the entry of Yao Ming, another large center, into the NBA.
The Sikh fans at Friday’s game said Sikhs have a reputation for hard work and want Bhullar to earn his playing time. “Simran’s significance to the team will be known over time, based on his abilities and how he performs,” Kallirai said.
Bhullar’s impact goes far beyond what he will do on the court, Kallirai added. The well-spoken giant, who recently appeared on “The Late Late Show” is already generating “positive vibes locally, nationwide and internationally,” Kallirai said. “Interestingly, his brother Tanveer is next within a couple of years, all 7-foot-3 inches of him.”
Kang recalled that by the time Bhullar was in middle school in Toronto, “his dad had to change all the doors in the house because he was already 6-foot-8.”
The Kings rookie – who had a triple double in February for the Bighorns with 26 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocks – comes from an athletically gifted family, Kang said. “I played left wing for UCLA’s soccer team myself, my wife played field hockey in India and one of my brothers in India, a cop, is a shooting champion.”
Bhullar’s father, who’s 6-5, used to play Kabadi, an Indian version of rugby, and his mother is “taller than me; I’m 5-foot-11,” said Kang, adding his son, 19-year-old Jabi Kang, stands 6-3.
Kings analyst and former point guard Bobby Jackson was among those who admired Bhullar’s height and hands, but said he needed to downsize so he could get up and down the court faster.
Kang said Bhullar on the right track. “When he came to my house, he said the Kings had put him on a special diet, and he looks much better than he did three months ago. He’s gone from 388 pounds down to the 350s.”
Sikhs, who are among India’s tallest ethnic groups, were famous for their willingness to fight to the death when they served in the British army during World War II.
Friday’s Sikh Appreciation Night helped launch Sacramento’s Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Week, endorsed by Mayor Kevin Johnson and Vice Mayor Allen Warren.
“We plan on working with the mayor and his staff to make our capital city the epicenter for Sikh heritage and celebrations,” said Kallirai, who attended the game with Dr. Jasbir Kang of Punjabi American Heritage Society.
“(Bhullar) needs to lose some weight, but his message is very powerful,” said Jasbir Kang, an internist from Yuba City, home of the annual Punjabi Festival and Sikh Parade.
“Though Sikhs strongly believe in justice, equality and freedom, the same fundamentals as other Americans, a recent study shows 80 percent of Americans still confuse our turbans with those seen on TV wearing turbans in the Middle East and other countries,” said Jasbir Kang, who was wearing a blue turban. “Our turban is our symbol of religious devotion, community service and determination.”
Kallirai, who also has pioneered Kaur-Singhs nights for the Los Angeles Clippers and Detroit Pistons, said Bhullar will help take Sikhs further into the American mainstream. To combat harassment, bullying and hate crimes triggered by misunderstandings and misconceptions, “we need to be more active in local communities and engage more to educate and create awareness of who Sikhs are,” he said.
Ravi Khalan, another Sikh businessman from Roseville, said Bhullar “is the symbol of our second generation. He plays so other youngsters can follow.”
Khalan’s 13-year-old daughter Nunu was among the Indian American teenagers from Northern and Central California who performed bhangra – traditional Punjabi dances – to celebrate Bhullar’s debut in his Kings uniform.
“It’s very historic that a man of Indian descent is playing in the NBA,” said 15-year-old Shahlil Malli of Tracy, clad in a kurta – a loose, collarless, embroidered shirt.
Jasbir Kang’s niece, 11-year-old point guard Saihaj Kang, called Bhullar “an inspiration.” When asked her favorite NBA player, she replied: “That would be him.”
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