The Sacramento Kings played without their best passer and second highest scorer on April 3 as they hosted the Los Angeles Lakers on 'Bollywood Night’. Out with a quadriceps injury, Isaiah Thomas watched from the bench as his team won the game 107-102 without him. But the on-court action wasn’t the only thing he was watching.
“The whole NBA fraternity went crazy,” Thomas said of the festivities hosted by the Kings to honour Indian culture at the game that night, “Everybody wore Bollywood-themed shirts with the word 'Kings' written in Hindi. People were excited to see decked out dancers who performed during the interval. It looked like we were on a different planet.”
The Tacoma, Washington born, Sacramento, California employed Thomas experienced close encounters with India for months before he ever stepped foot on the sub-continent. Credit the new owner of the team that he plays for – Vivek Ranadive – the first Indian-born majority owner of an NBA franchise. Under Ranadive, the Kings started the new season in Sacramento with a big nod to the owner’s homeland. They became the first team to launch a Hindi website, and they hosted the above-mentioned Bollywood Night.
So, when Thomas finally made his visit to India this week – holding clinics in Mumbai and Chennai and interacting with hundreds of adoring fans – he had been prepared on what to expect.
Ranadive has long held hopes to make India the next big destination for the game of basketball, and – in the process – make his Sacramento Kings into India’s ‘home team’. Although efforts to promote the Kings to the Indian community from Sacramento will help, reaching out to India directly will be the most crucial step to realizing Ranadive’s vision. As the first member of the Kings’ family to visit India in the Ranadive-era, Thomas’ trip this week could pay huge dividends in the long run for both the team and the NBA as a whole.
Thomas isn’t the team’s biggest star – that honour goes to DeMarcus Cousins – nor is he the Indian owner that would’ve resonated instantly with Indian fans. But the 25-year-old is a rising NBA star in his own right. He averaged 20.3 points and a team-high 6.3 assists per game over the past season. Much will also be made of his size, or lack, thereof. At ‘just’ 5-foot-9, Thomas is one of the smaller players in the NBA. But his success in the league is further proof debunking the myth in India that size is the only key to basketball success.
Thomas could also be the first of many future trips of Kings players, coaches, scouts, or management executives to India. The trip could open doors for other big name Kings’ players like Cousins, Rudy Gay, or a future exciting rookie (the Kings have the eighth pick in this year’s deep draft) to make way to India. And of course, fans in India will he hoping that Ranadive himself returns to his homeland, now as a celebrated owner of a team in the world’s finest basketball league.
The long-term goal, as Ranadive expressed last year, will be to eventually bring the entire Kings’ team to India for the NBA’s first-ever exhibition game in the country. India’s infrastructure might take a few years to build up to this big moment, but Ranadive and his team will be ready when India is.
India has been a ‘potential’ market for the NBA for years. Although the first few choices of sport in the country – by a large margin – are cricket, cricket, cricket, and then a little more cricket, all that basketball needs is a small percentage of those fans. In a country with over a billion people, even a small percentage can reap huge benefits, not just for Indian basketball but for basketball’s growth around the world. This is why Ranadive’s step into the NBA-sphere is so crucial, and why Isaiah Thomas’ trip will be the first of many important strides that the Kings take in India.