Amaan Sandhu is the first, but not the last, Indian to play Division I basketball

Amaan Sandhu is the first, but not the last, Indian to play Division I basketball

King Rice walked onto the court one day last week, blasting the sounds of Jay-Z’s remix of “Beware.” The song won’t make any short lists of the rapper’s most famous or well-regarded tunes, but it was the perfect choice for Rice’s audience of one.

Amaan Sandhu arrives at Monmouth University to an inordinately heavy addendum to his name. Five years ago, he was the youngest member of the nascent NBA Academy in India; now he’s the first Indian-born athlete to earn a Division I men’s college basketball scholarship. He carries the hopes of the NBA’s attempts to gain a foothold in India to the Jersey Shore campus, as well as the aspirational goals of millions of Indian youths who finally see a legitimate route to basketball success where one previously never existed.

It is, to say the least, a lot. “Gotta man up now,” Amaan says. “It’s like my coach used to say to me: Time to put on the big-boy pants.” But the only way Sandhu realize can any of the rather grand expectations heaped upon him is to find the fine line between appreciating the monumental role he can play, but not being burdened by it.

This is where Rice and his music choice comes in. “Beware,” is the Americanized version of “Mundian To Bach Ke (Beware of the Boys)”, originally recorded by Panjabi MC. Rice, he wholeheartedly admits, did not know this. His assistant, JR Reid — “He’s much more worldly than me” — made the connection that the artist, like Sandhu, is from Punjab. “Play it for him,” Reid told Rice. “He’ll love it.” Sure enough, when Rice bopped onto the court blaring the music, Sandhu laughed out loud. “I do my research, brother,” Rice yelled across the court.

“There’s pressure on him because he’s the first one,” Rice says. “My job is to ease that for him. That way, he won’t be the last one.”

Troy Justice first arrived in India to help lay the foundation for the NBA 12 years ago, helping the league establish an office in Mumbai in 2011. He essentially had to dig the hole to lay the cement. In the country of more than 1 billion, Justice, the NBA vice president and head of international basketball development, estimates maybe 3 million could be considered basketball “stakeholders” — referees, coaches and players included. For a frame of reference, the Aspen Institute’s State of Play found around 4 million kids — that’s just kids ages 6 through 12 — play basketball in the US

The people who played basketball remained devoted to it, but at best it existed as a niche sport. The national team qualified for the Olympics just once — in 1980, and by default thanks to the boycott of those games. The team finished 12th out of 12, failing to win a single game. Kids simply didn’t flock to the courts, if they could find one, and schools rarely offered it as a physical education program.

Using all of the NBA resources — its Junior NBA Program, Basketball Without Borders and NBA Basketball School — Justice and his team stopped worrying about the lack of a trickle down, and started to work on the trickle up. “Every kid comes up knowing how to play cricket,” Justice says. “They had no idea how to play basketball.” The NBA brokered a deal with Indian schools, asking participating principals to agree to include basketball in its physical education curriculum for a minimum of three months. He found scouts to scour the country for raw talent, and opened 20 NBA Basketball Schools (tuition-based development programs) in nine different cities. The 3 million stakeholders have turned into 10 million youths alone playing basketball, and the sport ranks behind only soccer as the fastest growing in the country now.

To be clear, this is a philanthropic cause but also a smart business decision. The NBA’s global reach now includes 109 players from 39 different countries, but none from India (Sim Bhullar, who played for Sacramento in 2015, is of Indian descent, but was born in Toronto), a country with 1 billion potential fans. Though Justice, who first figured he was on a 20-year timetable, believes his grassroots effort is ahead of schedule, the country still waits for its success story.

Two players have toyed with realizing India’s NBA dream. Satnam Singh Bhamara, who played at IMG Academy, became the first Indian-born player to be drafted when the Dallas Mavericks took him with the 52nd pick in 2015, and Princepal Singh, an NBA Academy India alum, signed a G League contract in 2020 Neither, however, have stuck. Santham Singh Bhamara played only for the Mavs’ G League affiliate and is now a professional wrestler. Princepal Singh last year played with the Australian Basketball League.

But in some ways, earmarking an NBA player as the sign of India’s arrival is almost skipping a step. “Aspiration creates energy and motivation, and this is a very aspirational society,” Justice says. “Everyone dreams of playing in the NBA. Of course they do, but what Amaan has done, that’s something you can see more easily. It’s a little closer to home. That creates a very real path to follow.”

Sandhu is an outlier. He comes from a family of ballers. His father, Gurcharanjeet Singh Sandhu, played for the national team as well as professionally and his mother, Rajinder Kaur played locally. Older sister, Aakarshan, played for the U18 team. Sandhu grew up wearing Jordan Brand clothes and watching basketball. Mohali, the Punjab where he was raised, offered an assortment of complex sports. Sandhu tried them all, fancying himself initially as a swimmer.

But as he grew — he’s 7-foot now — his family nudged him toward basketball. He was hurt with good timing. Around the same time Sandhu started to take basketball seriously, the NBA opened up its fourth academy, settling in Delhi in 2017. Relying on expanded and, by then, well-versed regional scouts, the Academy sought the best 20 high-school-aged players from across the country. Just 13, Sandhu already stood 6-7 with flipper feet when scouts first saw him. “He was tall, that’s where it started,” says Scott Flemming, the NBA Academy India technical director. “He was heavy, could barely get up and down the court without getting tired. So yeah, real raw but also tall.

Before picking up and moving to India in 2012, Flemming spent years as a college coach, laboring at the NAIA (Mount Vernon Nazarene) and Division II (Northwest Nazarene) levels where tall and raw count as recruitable skills. He sort of tripped into India — “I didn’t even know they had basketball,” he says. In 2011, he was an assistant coach with the Texas Legends, the Mavericks G League team, working with Del Harris. Harris had worked clinics in India and when the country needed a new national team coach, some folks reached out to Harris for suggestions. Harris gave them Flemming’s name. In his second year as national team coach, he helped India to arguably its biggest win, against China during the Asia Games. When the NBA needed someone to head up its academy, Flemming was uniquely qualified.

Like Justice, he sees a D1 scholarship — or better yet, a series of D1 scholarships — as a more reasonable way to grow the sport’s popularity and get India closer to its NBA promised land. Parents there value education over everything else, most kids opting for academic after-school programs rather than athletic ones. A scholarship offers the double whammy — a shot at athletic success, and a free education.

Early on, Flemming certainly did not predict Sandhu would be the first to earn the scholly. Neither, frankly, did Sandhu. “Big Baby Punjab,” people called him, and at 300 pounds, he had a lot of work to do. He loves bread, and giving up his favorite parathas was no small sacrifice. “No bread. No sugar. Nothing,” he says. “All protein and fiber.” Within two years, Sandhu dropped 50 pounds and, with a growth spurt pushing him to 7 feet, became a very viable basketball player. He understood that the path to success lay in the US, and his parents endorsed the move. With Flemming’s help he relocated to Pittsburgh, to First Love Christian Academy. Flemming and First Love head coach Nate Roesing have known each other for years. The transition went remarkably well. Sandhu already had a pretty good handle on English, and he’s an affable kid who fits in pretty easily, his conversation peppered with Americanized slang and good humor.

Rice first saw Sandhu on the summer circuit, playing for Team Takeover. “A big old man,” is how Rice remembers him. But he liked his footwork, and appreciated how hard he played. He kept an eye on him, thinking there might be something there and, with his own bigs now gone, thought with a more concentrated weight room effort, Sandhu could very well be worth the risk. It took time to work through the NCAA clearinghouse—his transcripts from India had to be thoroughly vetted, which scared a few schools off—and Sandhu only visited Monmouth this summer, committing and finally arriving in late August.

He is not physically ready for the rigors of D1 hoops, but he’s also not easily discouraged. This summer Rice introduced a grueling, maybe even downright cruel, jump drill to his workouts. “All right, big fella, let’s see what you got,” Rice remembers thinking. Sandhu’s bound jumps weren’t the best. His high jumps weren’t the highest. “But he did every single one without complaint,” Rice says. “And then he headed to the ice bath.” Because of his NBA Academy work, Sandhu already understands spacing and can shoot a 3. With weight room work, Rice expects, his lower body will catch up with his upper body in strength. “Already, I’m wondering if maybe we got a steal,” Rice says. “You call me back in a year or two, I might be fighting to keep him.”

Back in 2018, two reporters relocated to Spokane, Wash., to follow Rui Hachimura around. So big was the Gonzaga star back in Japan, he purposefully refused to divulge his parents’ names, worried that they’d be hounded.

Sandhu is not at that level — at least not that yet. He is more trailblazer than savior. This past year, the U16 national team finished fifth in the FIBA ​​Asian Championships. Their previous best finish was 10th. Every starter is an NBA Academy player, all with some level of scholarship potential. Behind them, 11 new players just arrived at the academy. Every single one itches to do what Sandhu has done. The path always has been clear, and now that Sandhu has finally bridged the gap and taken the first step, it feels more in reach.

But that’s the thing with brass rings. Grab one, and there’s always another one, dangling just out of reach, begging to be realized. Once it was enough to get the scholarship; now that he has, Sandhu has another task to complete. He has to come out on the other side successful enough to convince other American college coaches to take the same leap of faith King has. It’s a simple numbers game. The more athletes who come up through the NBA system with the early appreciation and understanding of the game, the better the quality of player the academy can coach. Better academy players equal to an increased likelihood for scholarship offers. More scholarships mean the impossible goal — of an Indian-born NBA player — becomes more and more possible.

But that all starts at the beginning, and right now Sandhu stands alone on square one. “Play that Jackie Robinson role,” Rice says. “That’s a lot to ask of a kid. But that’s why I’m here. I’ll make sure he doesn’t do it alone.”

(Top picture: Courtesy NBA Academy)


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