BOSTON — Pau Gasol, the Spanish seven-footer who anchors the Los Angeles Lakers interior game, had a front-row seat in the stands for the U.S.-Spain basketball game in Madrid on Sunday night.
Gasol’s absence from the Spanish lineup was certainly a key to the youthful Americans’ 86-85 victory over the defending world champs in an exhibition warm-up before the 2010 championships begin in Turkey this Saturday. Gasol will be skipping the tournament too, on doctor’s and team orders to rest after a long season from which the 30-year-old emerged exhausted and battered, but with a second NBA championship ring.
Of course, rest is a relative concept for professional athletes. So while his compatriots ready for Istanbul, Gasol flew off to Mumbai, India — NBA title trophy in hand — where, for five days, he will serve as an official NBA ambassador. Gasol’s visit comes right on the heels of a similar trip to Delhi and Bangalore by Orlando Magic superstar Dwight Howard.
The NBA is putting a full-court press on India, the world’s second most populous nation. The league has been zealously pursuing international conquest during David Stern’s 36-year reign as commissioner. And the fruits of its efforts are evident in both the growing foreign player presence in the league and the burgeoning interest in all things NBA around the world.
But India has long been a very tough sell, proving remarkably resistant to the blandishments of not only basketball, but to virtually all the mainstream international games. It’s as if, having been seduced by cricket and field hockey during the long, British occupation, India decided to shut its doors to the sports imperialists from every corner of the globe.
At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, for example, India mustered a team of only 56 athletes, compared to more than 600 for China and almost 600 for the United States. Its sole gold medal — in air rifle — was India’s first ever in Olympic competition.
Despite a population of almost 1.4 billion, India has been nearly invisible in soccer. Its World Cup bid for South Africa 2010 ended in the very first round of qualifying, when it was thrashed — a 6-3 aggregate in two games — by lowly Lebanon.
But the NBA sees an opening, or at least the glimmer of one. Basketball is now the second fastest growing sport in the country (behind soccer) with, according to the league, 4 million Indians — split evenly between the genders — now playing the game. During the past NBA season, Indian television broadcast two games weekly and even featured a made-for-Indian-TV mini-series during the finals. Traffic has jumped 40 percent on the dedicated website — NBA.com/India — where this week Gasol will become the first player to host a live chat.
In March the NBA assigned its first full-time employee to India and this summer helped launch the Mahindra NBA challenge, with basketball leagues based in three cities. The NBA never enters any fray without powerful economic allies. It now boasts nine partners in its India ventures, including Nike, Spalding, Reebok, Coca-Cola and Adidas; Adidas features NBA apparel in its 120 outlets there and recently opened self-contained NBA shops in its Bangalore and Delhi stores.
Sportswriters have chronicled how the NBA has lost considerable luster in this country and how it is no longer the economic juggernaut nor the cutting-edge sport it was here when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan reigned in the ’80s and ’90s. But a lack of growth at home in America is no longer synonymous with a lack of growth, not as long as international markets continue to flourish.
Indeed, interest in the NBA has skyrocketed in such distant outposts as Australia, China and parts of Africa. And basketball is now a mainstay in South America’s two biggest countries, Argentina and Brazil, as well as in many, major European countries. England is not among them. But that hasn’t stopped the NBA, as a prelude to the 2012 Olympics, from picking London as the site for its first-ever regular-season game outside North America.
India is obviously a long-term slog. Then again, it would have been hard to imagine the escalating level of basketball interest in China not all that long ago. Of course, what would speed up the NBA’s arrival in India — far more than the presence of Gasol, Howard and other NBA luminaries who are now making the long trek — would be the emergence of an Indian Yao Ming.
While that is not necessarily on the horizon, there is some buzz about a 15-year-old — he’s already seven feet tall and wears a size 22 shoe — who now plays for India’s junior national team. And the NBA’s wise men know that size is one thing you can never teach.