The Celtics were cheered on by a raucous crowd when they took on the Magic. The pace was quick, the players committed and the rivalry intense. The participants, though, were not the basketball teams from Boston and Orlando, but sides from the Mahindra-NBA recreational league in India, where the National Basketball Association (NBA) hope to take advantage of the growing popularity of the sport to gain a foothold in the country, backed by one of the nation's largest corporate groups.
India has famously been a one-sport country, with sponsors, fans and even politicians obsessed with cricket. Robust economic growth and greater exposure, however, have encouraged commercial and consumer interest in sports from football to Formula One motor racing and the Olympics. "Cricket represents sports one through five in terms of popularity, but for us even a small slice of a billion-plus market represents real opportunity," says Adam Silver, the NBA deputy commissioner, speaking in Los Angeles. "What we're seeing in India is a burgeoning middle class, as well as a young population ... we see an opportunity over time. It's hard to resist a population of that size."
The annual seven-week basketball league, which started last month, drew more than 1,000 eager applicants in Mumbai alone, with young boys and girls flaunting jerseys bearing the names of their more famous counterparts in the US. Mahindra and other Indian firms have long been patrons of sport, hiring sportsmen and sponsoring local teams, but they are now looking beyond cricket and even to Olympic glory. "On the economic front, we're standing shoulder to shoulder with the best in most fields," says Shitin Desai, a vice-chairman at DSP Merrill Lynch, who is on the executive committee of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a non-profit making organisation run by sportsmen and business people.
Every four years, there is a great deal of soul-searching about India's poor showing at the Olympics. Failure has been blamed on everything from a culture that scorns sport as a career, to inadequate funds and facilities and sports federations run by bumbling bureaucrats and politicians. India allocates about 35 billion Indian rupees (Dh2.7bn) every year to sports, a small fraction of its US$1 trillion (Dh3.67tn) Gross Domestic Product.
Lakshmi Mittal, the steel baron and the fifth richest man in the world, put aside $10m of his personal wealth in 2005 to set up Mittal Champions Trust (MCT), an organisation to promote sporting talent and encourage potential Olympians after he was disappointed by India's lone medal at the Athens Olympic Games. Three years later, Abhinav Bindra, the shooter, won India's first individual gold in Beijing.
While India's final haul of three medals paled in comparison to China's chart-topping 100, it was still a start. "In India there's never been a plan, a strategy to identify and nurture talent, to build a pipeline of athletes," says Manisha Malhotra, a former tennis champion who is an administrator at MCT's office in Mumbai. "At first we thought athletes only lacked money and I'd just have to sign cheques. But what's really lacking is a plan, a vision, the right knowledge, so we've had to study the system and get the best people to help with our athletes."
MCT supports 60 athletes across many disciplines - ranging from badminton to squash - working with national sports federations to select them, and then providing equipment, coaches, physiotherapists, dieticians and training. Stories of mismanagement abound: the shooting federation threatened to boycott Beijing over inadequate ammunition, the men's hockey team went on strike over pay before the World Cup this year, and facilities for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October are well behind schedule and over budget. Even the most optimistic supporter admits it will be a long haul to sporting excellence and greater Olympic glory.
"As India continues to emerge on the world stage, sports is going to be a part of that. That's an enormous opportunity," says George Pyne, the president of IMG sports and entertainment. "Remember, you've got a billion people. That's three times the people in the United States. What you can do there with some good ideas ... could be significant." * Reuters