BY CRAIG DAVIS
Chris Bosh’s summer of celebration took an exotic detour last week from a family excursion to France and Italy.
The Miami Heat center, fresh off helping win a repeat championship, couldn’t pass up a chance to lend his talents to another formidable conquest: India. The nation of 1.2 billion is the next international frontier for the NBA, which has already established itself as a force in China and other foreign markets.
Bosh has been to China several times, as an Olympian and with the Heat, as well as on promotional tours. A renaissance man whose curiosity ranges far from the court, he was intrigued by the prospect of experiencing the other Asian giant.
“I’m always interested in traveling the world, and any opportunity that comes up to spread the game of basketball and travel, I think that is the best of both,” Bosh said in a phone interview with the Sun Sentinel during his four days in Mumbai as special emissary of the NBA.
“People are aware (of basketball.) Not as aware as China, but I think the love of the game is growing here. A lot of people here are interested in basketball. There are a lot of Heat fans.
They were watching the Finals. They asked me a lot of questions about LeBron (James).
You can just tell that the game has a chance to really grow here.”
Focus on youth
The NBA is serious about making that happen. The league has hosted about 450 grassroots events in 10 Indian cities since 2008 and created a recreational league that has 6,000 players.
But the potential is much greater with about 600 million Indians under age 25, according to Yannick Colaco, managing director of NBA India.
“We want to grow our fan base through increasing participation, and we want to grow the game at a grassroots level,” Colaco said. “Our focus is on India’s youth, and we want to continue to expand access of the NBA through television and in digital platforms.”
One way to achieve that is by bringing in 7-foot stars already familiar to viewers on live and taped telecasts. With the NBA’s new TV deal with Sony’s Multi Screen Media amping up exposure since 2012, the Heat have been a prime and popular attraction.
‘They know about us’
Bosh said he was getting a lot of queries about the vital rebound he grabbed and pass to Ray Allen for the season-saving 3-pointer to force overtime in Game 6 of the Finals against the Spurs.
“It surprised me. I thought, OK, guys were watching the games. So it’s not like you have to introduce yourself, (or) introduce them to basketball. They know about us and they know about the Spurs,” he said. “A lot of people are excited to meet me, and I’m very humbled by that.”
They expressed it via the customary Indian greeting, “Namaste” (NAH-mas-tay), which became the theme of the week as Bosh was warmly welcomed as he toured Mumbai and participated in a variety of events aimed at building interest in the NBA and basketball participation.
Bosh conducted a youth basketball clinic, took part in an NBA Cares event to promote education, health and fitness for kids and announced an NBA Jam 3-on-3 tournament that will be contested in four Indian cities in September.
Cricket still top sport
These are baby steps for the sport in a nation where cricket is king. But Colaco said the pace of basketball appeals to a younger generation that has increasingly shown a preference for a short-form of cricket, Twenty20, over the matches that go on for days.
“That’s like in most sports markets across the world, the consumption of sports is gravitating toward a fast-paced, attractive package and competitive formats which are packed into an entertaining short time frame,” Colaco said. “That is a perfect fit for the sport of basketball, and the NBA brand.”
Bosh said the mission isn’t to challenge cricket for supremacy in India.
“That will always be No. 1 here,” he said. “But there is plenty to go around where everybody can really enjoy both sports, and hopefully we can get people that are into cricket into basketball.”
Though basketball already had a foothold in China, popularity took a quantum leap when Yao Ming made it to the NBA.
Player trains in Florida
No one is forecasting a comparable impact in India from the recent purchase of the Sacramento Kings by Mumbai-born Vivek Ranadive, who was previously part owner of the Golden State Warriors.
India has yet to produce an NBA player, though nations such as Sudan, Senegal and Turkey have. During a visit to Mumbai in April, outgoing-NBA Commissioner David Stern predicted that could change within the next five years.
One possibility is 17-year-old Satnam Singh, already 7-feet-2 and honing his skills at the IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to have an NBA player from India in order to grow the game.
It would serve as an additional catalyst,” Colaco said.
The immediate focus is on bringing the game and league to India. Bosh cut his planned trip to Italy short by a couple days to aid the cause. In a busy four days, he shepherded a replica of Larry O’Brien Trophy around Mumbai, mingled with some Bollywood stars and served as a role model for curious young fans to look way up to.
Bosh also had a session with a fortuneteller. But he didn’t get a definitive answer on prospects for a Heat three-peat.
“He just told me that I have some good years ahead. So I look at that as everything else is left up to how it’s supposed to be,” he said.