Indo-Canadian Sim Bhullar is 7-foot-5, and set to become the tallest player in the NBA for the upcoming season.
But the only thing bigger than the Punjabi giant from Toronto was his big summer of 2014, a summer that provided probably the most life-changing few months for the 21-year-old. When the dust settled, Bhullar had created history by becoming the first player of Indian-descent to sign an NBA contract.
To recap: a month after winning his second consecutive Western Athletic Conference (WAC) tournament MVP award and leading New Mexico State back to the NCAA National tournament, Bhullar declared for the 2014 NBA Draft, foregoing his two remaining years of college eligibility. After a whirlwind few months, he saw himself go undrafted on Draft Night but picked up by the Sacramento Kings Ė owned by Indian-born Vivek Ranadive Ė for the Summer League in Las Vegas. And on August 15th, while India celebrated their Independence Day, Bhullar gave basketball fans in his ancestral homeland more reason to cheer: The Kings had signed him to an official NBA contract, making him the first to break the South Asian racial barrier in the worldís finest basketball league.
Born in Canada to parents who immigrated from Punjab, India, Bhullar has taken a small step in what many will hope becomes a giant leap for Indians worldwide.
Bhullar will now attend training camp with the Kings with hopes of earning a larger role for himself on the squad for his rookie season.
Regardless of what the future holds for him, the big young man has already become a symbol for Indian and Indian-origin basketball players across the globe. Reaching out to global desi audience, I was able to catch Bhullar for a short phone interview where he discussed the beginning of his NBA journey, his connections to India, his ambitions to be a role model for others of Indian-descent, and much more.
When you first declared for the NBA Draft earlier this summer, many people were surprised at your decision. But personally, how confident were you of your chances of either being drafted or signed by an NBA squad?
Bhullar: I was pretty confident in myself. I know I had the support of my coaches and my family when I made the decision. I didnít really care about what other people thought: I just believed in myself.
Describe to me the lows and highs of going undrafted but then receiving the good news of getting a chance of getting signed by the Kings?
Bhullar: There were no highs and lows really to be honest, I think I was happy the whole time. I knew that I could have an opportunity with the Kings; I didn't matter to me to be drafted or not.
How does it feel to be the first player of Indian origin to be signed into the NBA?
Bhullar: It really feels great to be the first, and I know that there will be more players of Indian-descent coming in to the NBA after me.
Do you feel any responsibility or pressure as someone of Indian-origin as you carry forward the hopes and dreams of South Asian basketball fans around the world?
Bhullar: I donít feel any pressure. I grew up in Ontario, Canada, and my parents came from India. I know that all the hard work that has been put leading up to this situation has paid out. My parents supported me and were behind me a hundred percent, which is what mattered most.
There are some doubters who believe that the Kings' signed you more for business than basketball reasons. How do you wish to respond to that and prove yourself on court?
Sim: Iíll respond to that my just producing, by just doing what I do. I donít really care what people say, I could care less about it. Those criticisms usually come from those who havenít played basketball before.
How close is your connection still with India? Do you have family and do you visit often? Tell me about your last visit to India?
Bhullar: About 80 percent of my mom's side still live in India, and a few of my Dadís relatives are still there too. They are all in Punjab, in Amritsar and other places. I was last back in India about five years ago and it was pretty crazy, it was different, and I really enjoyed it! I remember going to Golden Temple, which was huge and really crowded. I remember that we were swarmed by a huge crowd of people who took photos [Simís younger brother Tanveer is also a 7-footer!]Ė and they didnít even know who we were!
Have you had a chance to learn more about the basketball scene in India?
Bhullar: I know a lot about it, actually. I've been paying attention to basketball in India for a while now. I had been wanting to play for India for a while, too, but I know that I couldnít play for India with a dual citizenship or without giving up Canadian citizenship. I think India is the only major country which has a rule like that.
What is your immediate goal with the Kings? Where do you want to see yourself in the course of the 2014-15 season?
Bhullar: I just wanna get better. I want to change my game to fit the NBA game more. I want to get more comfortable with the league and prove all those who doubt me wrong. I want to become a better player overall, work on my body, things like that.
What is your relationship like withÖ
a) Kings part-owner Shaq
Bhullar: I havenít met Shaq yet. Heís going to be a Hall-of-Famer, an All Time great, and of course itís great to have him on my side.
b) Kings Coach Mike Malone
Bhullar: We talked a lot during the Summer League. He gave me pointers and tips to help me in my process of coming along on court.
c) Kings star DeMarcus Cousins?
Bhullar: We did a mini-camp together where we got to work out, and he told me that he canít wait for the season with us. We could potentially play together if he plays the Ďfourí with me at the Ďfiveí. For me, as long as Iím on the court, Iíll be happy!
Is there any particular player in the NBA that youíre looking forward to going against?
Bhullar: I wanna go up against Kevin Durant, who was probably my favourite player coming up. I met him a couple of weeks ago and we had a little conversation. It was cool meeting a person that you watch growing up.
What is your relationship like with Kingsí Indian-born owner Vivek Ranadive?
Bhullar: Our relationship is pretty good. I can talk to him about anything. He kinda treats me like his son. He's been helping me out a lot. We have talked about representing the Indian community as part of the Kings a little bit, and I think we will discuss it some more later on, too.
Your brother Tanveer is just one among many more Indian-origin players who are looking to follow your example and fulfil their NBA dream. What message do you have for the worldwide Indian community of basketball players?
Bhullar: My message is just that if you work hard and really aim for your goals, you can accomplish anything. There will always be ups and downs in the journey. But at the end, you have to push yourself hard to achieve your goal.
Rapid fire round...
a) Your favourite Bollywood film?
Bhullar: I watched a lot of Bollywood when I was younger. I think Singh is Kinng was a good one. Movies like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, those are the ones I remember watching.
b) How's your Punjabi and your Hindi
Bhullar: My Punjabi is 100 percentÖ Hindi is okayÖ
c) The best place you've visited in India?
Bhullar: My Dadís old home in Punjab. When we used to go there as youngsters, I remembered it to be so huge and we used to be spend so much time over there. But when I returned a few years ago, we had grown so much, and everything seemed much smaller. It was really cool to go back and see it recently.
d) Your athlete role model?
Bhullar: Kevin Durant
Where do you want to find yourself in your basketball journey in 10 years?
Bhullar: I hope to accomplish all of my goals and do the best to my abilities. I just wanna be a role model too: hopefully, Iíll get to see four or five more Indian-origin players in the NBA: that will be a great feeling for me!