History was made during the second round of the 2015 NBA draft when the Dallas Mavericks drafted the NBA’s first Indian-born player in the organization’s 70-year history. But the player they signed, Satnam Singh, has the potential to make an impact that reaches far wider and change the game itself.
The current Texas Legends center has a story that may permeate the deepest annals of sports history and bring his love of basketball to more than 1 billion of his fellow countrymen. His story was relayed in the Netflix original documentary One in a Billion, which was released Dec. 6 and explores what makes Dallas’ new giant such an exciting prospect to the game and his nation.
“I’m really happy for it and I’m really proud of how the documentary has come out,” Singh said over the phone with the Dallas Observer. “Everyone can see where I came from.”
Weighing in at nearly 300 pounds and standing at a massive 7 feet 2 inches tall, the 20-year-old has more than bright lights and big cities in mind for his future. Growing up in the remote village of Ballo Ke in Punjab, India, Singh began playing basketball at the age of 10 with the encouragement of his father, a farmer who sought a better future for his rapidly growing son and once had aspirations of playing basketball himself.
“My father told me, ‘Singh, you have only three things, basketball, study and go sleep,’” Singh says in the beginning scenes of One in a Billion. At age 10, he left his family farm for the first time and was sent to the Ludhiana Basketball Academy 60 miles away. By age 14, Singh had grown out of so many pairs of shoes that two pairs had to be sewn together to accommodate his size 22 feet. He says his toes poked out of the leather sides of his shoes as he played on an indoor basketball court that lacked heating, air conditioning and at times a roof.
This is where he was discovered by Troy Justice, then director of NBA operations in India.
Now Singh says he brings two bags of shoes with him when he goes back home to visit his family. “I say, ‘Dad, you never put shoes on your feet in your life, so I give you these shoes and whatever you’d like to do with these shoes you can do it. Don’t worry; I have a lot of shoes for you.’” Singh and his 7-foot-3-inch father wear the same size.
Singh’s history-making journey from Punjab to Frisco, where he now lives and works in the Mavericks’ developmental program, was a long one. Despite his raw talent, he needed more conditioning and to gain speed. But what makes Singh special is his ever increasing drive to improve.
“Last year was my first year [with the Texas Legends], so right now I’m just working on my conditioning, foot work and more speed workouts, [losing] weight and [making] sure I’m ready for the game,” he says. “My coaches, they mostly told me, ‘Keep playing more and keep working, keep working, keep working.’ That’s mostly what I’m doing right now.”
After impressing Justice, Singh received a scholarship to attend IMG Academy, a boarding school and sports academy in Bradenton, Florida. He struggled to grow into his frame as he adjusted to his new Americanized diet, spent three years learning how to communicate with his English-speaking teammates and coaches, and was unable to gain a basketball scholarship after his five years at the academy.
“I [didn’t] play in college. I played only in high school and so I don’t have experience,” Singh says. “I spent five years with my coaches at IMG and the first two years at IMG were so hard for me.”
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However, Singh’s talent, size and work ethic are all he’s needed to impress coaches, scouts and players. Now he says the gate is open for more Indian players to come into the NBA, and that means an opportunity for the sport to reach over 1 billion more people. And it all started with Singh.
“It really only takes one player from a particular country to in essence turn that switch,” Adam Silver, NBA commissioner, says in One in a Billion. “Yao Ming, the easiest example in China — when he came into the NBA that seemingly changed everything.”
The NBA has already started searching for new talent on the subcontinent and are set to open India’s first NBA Academy in April 2017. The school will train 24 players ages 14 to 18, and there’s no doubt that they will all hope to aspire to follow in Singh’s footsteps. But the man himself says there’s something more important players will need to be successful in the NBA.
“I would say if you are really a good player, you’re a star in the world, you’re the first Indian player, that’s why you are here — because of your family, because of your mom and dad, because of your culture,” Singh says. “Everyone that’s with me, that’s why I’m here today. Don’t forget your background, where you come from. Don’t forget the people who helped you up to get you here.”