NEW DELHI // Could LeBron James or Shaquille O'Neal catch on in the Hindi heartland? The NBA certainly hopes so as it plans a major push to introduce basketball to India and expand its already formidable global reach into a country with a soaring economy, a growing appetite for Western tastes, and, most importantly, 1.1 billion potential fans.
The NBA has had tremendous success selling basketball overseas, most notably in China, where the league estimates 300 million people play the sport and the Houston Rockets' centre Yao Ming is a national icon. India, a relatively untapped territory, looms as the NBA's next great challenge. But it could be a tough sell. The few public basketball courts attract little attention, and words like 'slam dunk' and 'alley-oop' are met with blank stares.
To help counter that, the NBA held its first-ever event in India last week, a 'Basketball Without Borders' camp that featured charity events and basketball clinics in which NBA players instructed youngsters. League executives say they're considering a wide range of plans to spread the game, including building courts in remote villages, seeking endorsements from Bollywood stars and bringing NBA players to India for exhibition matches.
"We see tremendous growth potential for basketball in India," said Heidi Ueberroth, the NBA's chief of global marketing. "The interest in sports is by no means saturated." Indeed, most Indians are deeply interested in sports, but their passion rarely ranges beyond cricket, which is followed with almost religious fervour and played by children and adults alike wherever there's room to swing a bat.
The star batsman Sachin Tendulkar is revered, and members of the 1983 World Cup winning team are regarded as folk heroes. Basketball requires great infrastructure and money, and creating that infrastructure - building courts, training coaches - is the NBA's biggest challenge, made more difficult by the absence of a star like Yao, for example. Much of the NBA's success in China - the league says in 2006 it sold more than 400 million products there - can be traced to Yao, the Rockets' 2.36m centre who is set to lead China's Olympic team in Beijing next month.
India hasn't sent a basketball team to the Olympics since 1980, when it finished last. The NBA selected five Indian teenagers to participate in last week's New Delhi camp, compared with 12 Chinese players. Coaches said the Indians played well, but were unlikely to make it to the NBA. Marketers got a glimpse of the potential of professional sports in India earlier this year with the debut and huge success of the Indian Premier League.
The flashy cricket tournament brought the sport's biggest international stars together with big advertisers, big crowds - and big money. Their goal is not to compete with cricket but "to become the second most popular sport," Ueberroth said. "It's about growing the game at all levels," she added. The first rung of that expansion plan may be the neighborhood cricket pitch, like the one where 18-year-old Mohammed Hasib plays with his friends twice a week.
"Cricket is our game," he admitted. "But I would try basketball. If there's a chance, I would play." * AP @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org