Indian blood in American Basketball

On 7th April 2015, Gursimran ‘Sim’ Bhullar became the first ever player of Indian descent to play in America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) league. The 16 seconds he spent on the court for Sacramento Kings were enough to ensure him of a place in history, not just in NBA’s, but in India’s too. Though India did not have any role in developing Bhullar’s skills (he was born and brought up in Canada) and cannot claim any credit for what he has achieved, it sets aside any doubts people may have had about the physical ability of Indians to play competitive basketball at the highest level.

Too tall to miss
Mint newspaper, 9th April 2015 (Read online here)

At 7 feet 5 inches, Bhullar is the tallest player in the NBA. Basketball is a fast game, and for any player, with height, often comes the inevitable problem of weight and sluggishness on the court. Bhullar is said to weigh about 160 kgs, and carrying this up and down the 90-odd long foot court would take quite some effort. Off-court too he would be conspicuous by his sheer size.

Reading about Bhullar, I was reminded of my basketball-playing days of the 1980s-90s. Like Bhullar, there was one player in India who stood out head and shoulders above everybody else – Sunil Kumar Panda.

My first memories of Panda are from the year 1977. The prestigious Senior National Basketball Championship was being held in Bangalore in Jan 1977 and my parents had taken us to see the flood-lit matches. I would have been only about six, but I recall that one match had the Karnataka women’s team playing and the other had the giant Panda.

Years later, I actually got to see Panda close-up several times, at several basketball tournaments all over India. Always in a blue vest – whether for his club TISCO, state Bihar or country India, his 7 foot 3.5 inch frame made him unmissable. Quite an entertainer when on-court, the stands would be full when his team was playing. People would come to see his huge shoes, or to see how a basketball could look like an orange in his hands. With a temper comparable to today’s sledging cricketers, the crowd would wait for him to give a miss-pass or miss an under-basket shot to see him explode. Of course, for one who did not have to even lift his heels to touch the ring, missing under the basket was not excusable, and a few of these would see him being substituted, despite his protests. Panda is featured on the site TheTallestMan.com. In 2003, at the age of 57, he was still playing for TISCO.

With Sunil Kumar Panda, Senior National Basketball Championship, Jaipur, Dec 1989
With Sunil Kumar Panda, at the Senior National Basketball Championship, Jaipur, Dec 1989 (in the pic: me – no.4 and my Karnataka teammates Shivani Gupta, Samyukta Anjan and Deepa Chopra)

In the past India never made much of a mark on the international basketball scene. Media coverage of the sport was also poor. Recently however, things have changed, with better focus on picking up people with potential (such as good height) and backing them with international-standard training and facilities. And the results have been there to see, with upset victories at the Asian level.

Bhullar is just what India has been waiting for. One icon to give a further push to the game, IPL-type commercialisation notwithstanding. With many sports disciplines setting up leagues in India, basketball is not likely to be far away.

5 thoughts on “Indian blood in American Basketball

  1. Mouli April 6, 2016 / 6:32 am

    It is fascinating to see someone that tall, an Indian and a basketball player! I did not believe the picture until I read the article. It is a wonderful contrast. I recognize one of your Karnataka team members whose game I personally watched as a spectator about thirty years ago at IIT Madras. It takes me back to those good times! As you mentioned, the photographs keep the memories alive! Thank you for the picture!

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  2. Arathi Manay April 6, 2016 / 8:39 am

    Happy that you like the post Mouli. I too played at IIT Madras in 1988/89 with the Mount Carmel team. I think we won gold back then. The medal must be at my parents’ home. No pictures though.

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  3. Mouli April 9, 2016 / 8:15 pm

    It is pleasing to know you won Gold medal at IITM. Those games are remarkable as played in pure spirit of the game. The world has moved on within these thirty or so years, but those days remain still by a picture like this.

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  4. Rajendra July 22, 2016 / 7:44 pm

    Hi,Arathi,there was another player as tall as Pandaji or even an inch taller ,if could remember his name was SRIVATSAN also from TISCO

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  5. Arathi Manay July 22, 2016 / 8:13 pm

    Hi Rajendra, Yes, Pradeep Srivastava was the other tall player for Tisco. I remember him too. He was as tall as Panda, but unlike him, he was wiry. He retired much earlier than Panda.

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