It’s certainly not a sight you see every day.
A 7 foot 1, 350 pound monster, constructed to dominate the NBA post, holding on to a diminutive cricket bat. We don’t know if Shaquille O’Neal had ever played cricket before, but on opening night for the Sacramento Kings, the franchise’s new minority owner tried a few strokes at a specially-constructed cricket net outside the Sleep Train Arena. There wasn’t much Sachin Tendulkar-esque grace to the way he swung the bat, but that didn’t matter. Because if one of the greatest ever NBA players decides to try his hand on cricket, even a hit-wicket can look like a lot of fun.
On a historic night for the Kings – whose fans were given renewed hope to celebrate their team’s extended stay in Sacramento – the franchise also ensured their commitment to reach out to a whole new fanbase. From Shaq’s cricketing antics to a festival of Bollywood flavours across the arena, the Kings have started strong on their promise of becoming “India’s home team”.
When Vivek Ranadive – the first-ever Indian-born majority owner of an NBA franchise – purchased the Kings, he ensured the team’s survival in Sacramento. And then he took it a step further: the ambitious software billionaire shared his vision of popularizing the Kings globally with a little help from his homeland. While NBA teams are popular across the globe – from South America to Europe, from China to the Philippines – India, the world’s second-most populous nation, remains a relatively untouched treasure trove. Ranadive’s attempt to connect with Indian fans would make them the first NBA team to take major steps towards embracing India, a country where the majority of sports fans are yet to look beyond the charms of cricket.
So far, so good. Since his takeover, Ranadive and the Kings have carried their share of the promise. The Kings’ sent their cheerleading team to Mumbai for the finale of the NBA Jam. Not long after, Ranadive laid out ambitious plans to try and hold an exhibition game in India by next year. Weeks before the start of the NBA season, the Kings made history by becoming the first NBA team to launch a website in Hindi.
And for the Kings’ opening night against the Nuggets on October 30th, the desi fever was everywhere. Shaq, Ranadive, and Hall of Famer/Kings advisor Chris Mullin played cricket. Amongst a sellout crowd at the arena, there were several fans of the Indian community who waved the ‘Tiranga’ flag. Media from India attended the game. Indian food was served in the concession stands. During timeouts, the scoreboard showed Kings players greeting fans in Hindi. The Kings Dancers wore Indian garb and performed Bollywood dances. Indian-English musical artist Jay Sean performed for the fans at halftime. The game was broadcast live back in India as well.
In the press conference before the game, Ranadive reiterated his ambitions of popularizing the Kings in his homeland. “We hope in the near future to actually take the team to India, which has never been done,” Ranadive said and later added, “In the next five years, I would be very surprised if there isn’t an Indian player in the NBA.”
All the fanfare provided a perfect Bollywood ending, too. The Kings edged the Nuggets 90-88 to win the game, led by newly-extended big man DeMarcus Cousins’ dominating 30 point, 14 rebound performance. The Kings will need a lot more ‘Good Cousins’ and hopefully, wave goodbye to the immature antics that have troubled his young career so far. Ranadive even hopes that Cousins can become a household name in India.
Ranadive has made it clear that he doesn’t expect basketball to surpass cricket in India, but he definitely intends to play a part in the game becoming the country’s second-most popular sport. The first step has been taken: with a memorable season opener, the Hindi website, and plans for a future exhibition game, the team has hit all the right chords to try and ensnare the Indian fan. But a few cricket strokes and choreographed Bollywood dances won’t be enough; a concentrated effort is now needed by Cousins and the rest of the Kings to produce fireworks on court and ensnare the interest of the new Indian NBA fan forever.