Before the maiden NBA preseason game in India, between the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers in Mumbai on October 4-5, I made a mental note to keep my colleague Annanya Johari's suggestion in mind - "Keep your eyes on the ball. That's where most of the action is, most being the operative word. Focus on where the ball is, but try to keep the rest of the court in your peripheral vision."
What I experienced later, though, went beyond just that.
One of the first things I noticed about the ball was how fluid its motion around the court was, for the most part. It seems like a bit of a tired cliche at this point but I suppose it's best to get it out of the way -- how different, and more impressive, live sport is in person than on TV. I've seen a perfectly executed string of passes on TV many times, but watching it from up close, with the slap of the ball on hands -- seemingly amplified in the stadium -- each time a reminder of the ball's momentum, was a whole other kind of mesmerising. On occasions when the final pass in the sequence returned to its originator before a shot was attempted, it brought to mind those perfectly looped videos where you can't tell the start from the end.
As I zoomed out to the players, I couldn't help but notice how synchronised they were. No-look passes almost always found their way to the intended recipient and spaces created each time were imperceptibly gobbled up by the players. That anticipation of the players was much like what I've seen of football (soccer), either full matches on TV, or those tightly-cut highlights clips that show the best of players' abilities.
After a point, I began to anticipate a few things myself. Such as how persistent -- irritatingly, I would imagine, for the opponent -- the Pacers' TJ McConnell was in guarding the Kings' Yogi Ferrell. And how on some occasions, you could just tell a three-pointer was going in -- either from the expressions of the players on the bench or from the arc of the ball, time seeming to slow as it traced a perfect parabola through the air before going clean through the net, unassisted by the frame of the net or the backboard.
Across the two days, the only occasions that the stadium went entirely silent were whenever the three-pointers were attempted. Those were the few seconds the soundtrack of the stadium hit pause before resuming, the lull only serving to intensify the energy of the crowd thereafter. And that's another thing that struck me about the live NBA experience. I haven't seen a football match of the scale of the Premier League or the World Cup in person, but based on hearing the ceaseless chanting of the crowd on TV, this seemed like something comparable. The soundtrack in the stadium was a mixture of several things -- the constant chatter of players, among themselves and with the umpires, the music played almost unceasingly, and of course, the crowd. As a tennis fan, I thought of parallels. Wimbledon is mostly quiet, with strict emphasis on its traditions and protocols, while at the US Open, it would perhaps be unreasonable to expect silence in the crowd. This was much closer to the US Open than it was to Wimbledon.
For the first game, the majority of the crowd consisted of 3000 children from schools in the Reliance Foundation Junior NBA program. The children made a substantial difference to the atmosphere. They cheered every point, regardless of whether it was scored by the Pacers or by the Kings. After the second game, Pacers coach Nate McMillan said that the crowd was a little louder thanks to the kids, whose energy, he said, buoyed his team to a come-from-behind win in the first game. Kings coach Luke Walton, when asked if any preseason game he'd been a part of before was quite like this, conceded that the first game was a little extra special.
During multiple breaks in the second game, various NBA legends were introduced. When former Pacers player Detlef Schrempf was introduced, the German-American sitting a few feet away from me, I had to resist the urge to shout, "Detlef, I loved you in Parks and Recreation." Among the loudest cheers of the night came for former Kings players and their current team staff Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Bobby Jackson and Doug Christie. Perhaps this is in part because I'm not enough of a basketball fan to recognise the full extent of the sport's popularity in India, but the level of recognition for these players came as a bit of a surprise to me.
The loudest cheers of the two days, by some distance, were for Boston Celtics legend and former Pacers coach Larry Bird. When Bird was introduced and the cameras panned to him, the applause did not stop. After the first few seconds, I realised I was in the midst of something special as the crowd got to its feet, chanting "Larry, Larry, Larry", and the cameras were forced to cut away from actress Priyanka Chopra back to Bird, who got to his feet to acknowledge the extra-special reception. For the rest of the night, cries of "We love you, Larry Bird!" echoed from one particularly vocal section of the crowd, who also kept shouting "We love you, (Pacers player) Myles Turner" throughout the game.
One of the pros, certainly for me, with following basketball of late is the fast-paced nature of the game. Players have eight seconds to get into the opposition half and 24 seconds to attempt to score, and the game is based on players not being allowed to hold on to the ball for long. When watching on TV, the number of breaks in play has always seemed counter-intuitive to the exciting nature of the game. However, in person, those breaks seem far less jarring and far more of a natural extension of the basketball-as-entertainment product.
To bring more of the NBA's product to India, in the form of more games in more cities and in the form of a recognized league in the country, will require a significant increase in infrastructure, Commissioner Adam Silver had said before the first game. But based on the reception the NBA has received in India, it's something the country certainly seems ready for, even if extrapolating on the basis of just two games.
When Kings owner Vivek Ranadive spoke of what it took to make these games happen, he used the Hindi word jugaad, which is perhaps best translated as improvisation. "The word jugaad means we can just get it done," he said. In addition to the necessary leap in facilities, a little more of jugaad is also perhaps what's needed for the NBA to make the foray it wishes to in India.