New Kings owner vows to make basketball the No. 2 sport in India

There are no professional basketball leagues in India, and no Indian has ever played in the NBA.

That doesn’t stop new Kings owner Vivek Ranadive from predicting his team will help make basketball a household word in the nation of 1.2 billion.

The Kings’ opening night victory – featuring cheerleaders in Indian costumes gyrating to Indian pop music – was shown live in India. “It was such a huge hit, now they’re asking us to broadcast 15 more games,” Ranadive said in an interview last week. Cricket will always be No. 1 in the hearts of Indian fans, he said, but “basketball can become a strong No. 2”

While the NBA is already working to grow the sport’s popularity in India, selling the Kings isn’t going to be a slam-dunk, either on the subcontinent or among the Sacramento area’s 42,550 Indian American residents, the region’s fastest-growing Asian ethnic group. Local Indian Americans interviewed said they take pride in Ranadive’s Indian roots and accomplishments as an MIT graduate and successful software executive. But few ever played – or even watched – basketball in India.

Some said they’re taking a wait-and-see approach: If the team starts winning, they will get interested.

At the moment, the Kings’ record stands at two wins, seven losses.

“People are waiting to see how the team comes together, and if he can create the magic that Vlade, Bibby, Webber and Peja had,” said Pratibha Shalini Pandey, a community leader who played a little basketball in India, and whose daughter plays for Winston Churchill Middle School in Carmichael. “If they assemble that kind of team, we will enlist.”

Back in 2003-2004, Pandey was a Kings season ticket holder. But until opening night this season, she hadn’t been to a Kings game since 2010.

Ranadive said people just have to be patient.

“Most fans know building a winning team is a process; it doesn’t happen in one season, but the Kings will start winning,” Ranadive said. He admits he had never picked up a basketball himself before volunteering to coach his 12-year-old daughter Anjali’s team in Redwood City about a decade ago. She’d never played either. The always analytical Ranadive realized his girls were short and inexperienced, so he trained them to play the way he’d played soccer: always swarm the ball. They played girl-to-girl full court press.

“We would press and steal, and do that over and over again,” Anjali told author Malcolm Gladwell, who recounted the team’s success in a New Yorker magazine piece that has been incorporated into his new book, “David and Goliath.” Ranadive’s relentless trapping strategy got his daughter’s team into the regional championships.

The Indian community – both in the United States and in India – is a potentially lucrative customer base for the NBA and the Kings. Indian immigrants, now the third-largest Asian ethnic group in the Sacramento region behind Filipinos and Chinese, constitute a highly educated, prosperous segment of the population. About 50 percent of those 25 and older have a bachelor's degree, compared with 30 percent of the rest of the region, census figures show. About one of every eight employed Indian Americans in Sacramento earned more than $100,000 in 2011, much higher than the rate for everyone else.

About three-quarters of local Indian Americans speak English very well, making it easier for them to adapt to local culture. They tend to work at local colleges, restaurants, hospitals, grocery stores and information technology businesses, census figures show. There are Kings fans from India working at both Intel and Hewlett-Packard.

‘Winning is the key’

But sports rarely come first for Indian immigrants, said members of the local community. Ravi Verma, who runs a software company in Rocklin, said what Ranadive has done is very unusual. “It’s not in the culture to own a sports team,” he said. “Indians who come to America are very studious types and don’t take an interest in sports unless their sons and daughters do. We all feel Vivek has done a wonderful thing, but that has not endeared the game to local Indians.”

The Indus Valley American Chamber of Commerce is proud to have a native son like Ranadive help Sacramento keep its beloved Kings, said general secretary Sukh C. Singh. But that doesn’t translate immediately into season ticket sales, Singh said, adding that if members get to meet Ranadive personally, they’re more likely to invest in tickets.

One prominent local Indian who has met Ranadive, Kumar Sharma, said he has started going to games. “I like the way he’s running his business. He’s making every effort with the business community in downtown Sacramento, and the arena will be a great asset,” said Sharma, who owns seven hotels, including the Red Lion Hotel Woodlake, Clarion and Ramada Plaza in Sacramento and others in in Chico and Placerville.

Still, Sharma, who found himself sitting behind the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench in the Kings’ loss earlier this month, said the team needs “a lot of work.”

“I’d like to see my favorite player, Isaiah Thomas, start, and see Jimmer (Fredette) play more,” Sharma said. “Winning is the key. At the end of the day, it’s a business.”

While Sharma, who played high school ball in India, said he’s seeing more Indians at Kings games compared with two years ago, he predicted that “it’s going to take some time and major media marketing to encourage the young generation in India to like basketball over cricket, which is in people’s blood.”

That effort is already underway, both by the Kings and the NBA as a whole.

The Kings recently launched a Hindi-language version of the team website. The team’s dancers performed in India this summer, and Ranadive has said he hopes to take the team to India soon for an exhibition game.

Meanwhile, the NBA reports it has conducted more than 500 grass-roots events throughout India since 2008, including basketball camps and leagues for youths 12-18 as well as older players. About 6,000 players a year now participate in recreational leagues in seven cities, and some kids travel as much as 10 hours each way every weekend to play, said NBA spokesman Rick Pendrick.

“We’re full speed ahead and we are definitely seeing huge interest,” said Pendrick, adding that the NBA plans to show up to 14 live games a week in India this season.

A teenage prospect

India could be a gold mine, if China is any example. The league made its first inroads in China 27 years ago. The first Chinese player, Wang Zhizhi, joined the league in 2001 with the Dallas Mavaricks. In 2008, the league launched NBA China with five strategic investors, including Disney/ESPN. Last year, in an interview with Bloomberg, NBA Commissioner David Stern said annual revenue from China was approaching $150 million and growing by at least 10 percent a year.

The NBA invited two Indian journalists to watch a few opening games this year, including the matchup between the Kings and the Denver Nuggets. “We don’t have a basketball league, we just have national championships,” said Alok Sinha, a sports editor with the Times of India. “It’s not a sport you see played in the parks.” While India’s developing some pretty good half court teams, he said, “it’s not at a stage where we have gained momentum.”

Ranadive isn’t worried. He says basketball is cheap, accessible and easily learned. His vision of a global game – “NBA 3.0” – combines technology, globalization and sports “as an agent of good in local communities.” After he conquers India, he plans to help bring the game to Argentina.

Praneesh Prasad, an electrical engineer who is originally from Fiji, attended his first-ever Kings game against the Blazers. “I was never interested in basketball until Vivek bought the team,” said Prasad, 32, who also brought his wife, kids and parents. “Hopefully he can take this sport to India and have some Indian players.”

An up-and-coming Indian prospect could stir Indian interest in the league. Satnam Singh Bhamara, a 7-foot-2 17-year-old from Punjab, India, is now playing for a prep school in Bradenton, Fla. There were 92 international players on NBA rosters to start the 2013 season. Bhamara, who has a nice touch around the basket, could become the first Indian.

“We’re excited we have an Indian billionaire who’s bought an NBA team, and now we might have an NBA player,” Sinha said.

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