Harrison Barnes Delights in Hoops, Culture on India Journey
Harrison Barnes traveled 8,000 miles across the globe, but a basketball in his hands and two dozen eager competitors made him feel at home.
On the first stop of his seven-day sojourn to India, the Kings forward took centerstage on a sun-drenched court inside a newly-built Delhi NCR sports complex, encouraging a group of NBA Academy youngsters through ball handling drills and spirited scrimmages.
As he fought off jet lag following a 20-hour trip, Barnes, serving as Sacramento’s ambassador ahead of October’s NBA India Games, took a moment to reflect on how the sport he loves has afforded him opportunities he never thought were possible.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to travel and see most of the world because of the game of basketball,” he said. “It’s humbling just to be in another country, to be playing the game of basketball and have these kids recognize you from watching your team, cheering for you, rooting for you and supporting you. It’s really humbling just to have that experience, when a kid comes up to you and gives you a compliment or asks for your autograph.”
Besides adding a new stamp to his passport, the Iowa native was intrigued by the prospect of experiencing India’s richly diverse culture and zealous NBA fanbase. He’s hoping his visit can help broaden interest and boost the number of kids pursuing the game in a nation home to one of the League’s largest intercontinental audiences.
“The NBA is growing around the world at a crazy rate … (comparing) where it was five years ago to where it is now,” Barnes said. “The fans here are so passionate, so excited, and they’re really just looking forward to seeing it for the first time.”
That first time has been in the works for over five years and will finally become a reality in the fall. On October 4 and 5, Barnes and the Kings will face the Pacers in the inaugural NBA preseason games in Mumbai, fulfilling a lifelong dream of Vivek Ranadivé, the League’s first India-born majority owner.
After taking in the cacophony of squeaking sneakers, bouncing basketballs and screaming voices at the camps, Barnes expects an unprecedented atmosphere inside the NSCI Dome that might even rival the roaring receptions at Golden 1 Center.
“It’ll be crazy when the entire team comes here,” he said. “Tickets sold out in, like, two minutes! So everyone is just really excited to just see an NBA game for the first time, because they haven’t had that experience here.”
Barnes, warmly welcomed with “Namaste,” the customary Indian greeting, by fans who recognized him from basketball telecasts on the country’s cable networks, made appearances on Sony Ten 1 and Sony Ten 3’s NBA wraparound TV shows in Mumbai to cover the Playoffs and connect with viewers.
On his last day in Delhi, he was present for the National Finals of the fourth ACG-NBA Jump, India’s national basketball talent search program, to help identify the top prospects who will receive scholarships and training at the Academy. Barnes recognized immense potential among the 50 attendees, and along with instructing athletes on the finer points of the pick-and-roll, shared his personal mantra with players who pulled him aside to pick his brain.
“The biggest advice I try to give to these kids is, just love the game,” he said. “At this point in time, when you’re developing all the skills and you have a hunger, you just want to make sure that the love of the game is the most important thing and that you keep that as your focus as you continue to build and get better as a player.”
Outside of teaching and learning – “Mera naam Harrison hai” (My name is Harrison), he quickly picked up – and in between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. workouts, Barnes was able to explore the subcontinent, immersing himself in the culture and getting a glimpse of day-to-day life for locals.
Enticed by the flavorful aromas wafting out of restaurants and marketplaces, Barnes couldn’t pass up the chance to sample the traditional cuisine, indulging in everything from samosas to chicken tikka masala to palak paneer. At eateries Peetra and Eggspectation, every delicacy he tried surpassed his expectations.
“Indian is my favorite food, so it’s hard for me to say which dish was my favorite,” he said. “All of the dishes here were phenomenal. It was unbelievable!”
Barnes later folded his 6-foot-8 frame inside an auto rickshaw for a tour of Mumbai, where he was engulfed by centuries-old historical sites and landmarks. At the Dharavi neighborhood – an area made famous as the setting of the critically-acclaimed film “Slumdog Millionaire” – the 26-year-old, his drenched gray t-shirt clinging to his chest, swung a cricket bat in the field among cheering crowds.
“It was pretty cool just to be able to try something different,” he said.
His sightseeing expedition continued in Delhi, where he took in the scenery at several tourist attractions, including India Gate at the Ravi River, and culminated with a six-hour roundtrip to the city of Agra to view the iconic Taj Mahal.
Barnes, no different than any of the thousands of domestic visitors, was captivated by the majestic ivory-white marble masterpiece as he wandered through the symbolic gardens and opulent interiors.
“It’s one of the seven wonders of the world,” he said. “So just to be able to see it, see the history behind it, and just have that moment of taking a picture and just thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really here because of the game of basketball’ was a pretty surreal moment.”
A week wasn’t enough to check off every destination on his summer itinerary – much less, sample every culinary treat – but it was ample time for Barnes to recognize how passionate the fans are for the NBA and how much of an impact the Kings upcoming exhibition games will have on the region.
“It’s hard to say if basketball is going to overtake cricket some day, but basketball is on the rise for sure. The fans and the kids here, they definitely see it, appreciate it, and they want to be ball players,” Barnes said. "I came here with an open mind, and it’s been a great experience, so I’m really looking forward to coming back with the team in October.”