There are two secrets about basketball that you’ll get to be privy to today. Both are kept under wraps and hidden in plain sight. Firstly, hidden behind the rules that might seem complex compared to other sports in the first week of picking it up, basketball is objectively the most explosive and action-packed team sport in the world, Secondly, we’ll let an NBA Hall of Famer explain the second one.
“The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.” - Isiah Thomas, 2x NBA Champion, 12x NBA All-Star, as told to Bill Simmons. We’ll get to Isiah in a bit.
Here’s why both of the above are relevant today. The NBA in India has just made their biggest splash in their promotional free-agency by signing Ranveer Singh as their brand ambassador throughout the league’s landmark 75th anniversary season in 2021-22. This can be great news for basketball in India depending on Ranveer’s level of involvement.
This is a man who lights up a room with his presence. His energy is tangible and contagious, and this is the second-last time you’ll read the word energy in this piece here as that adjective is stuck to Ranveer like Malik Kafur to Alauddin Khilji.
Of taking up this responsibility, Ranveer said, “I have been a basketball fan since I was a child. It is one of the most electrifying sports in the world and NBA stars have been shaping pop culture for decades now. From Michael Jordan to Allen Iverson to LeBron James, the NBA has developed a unique culture within its players and fans. The players’ impact on and off the court is something that I admire."
"Watching NBA games has shown to me that there is a flair and sophistication to this game that attracts fans in a way few other sports can. The growth of the game worldwide and in India makes me extremely excited to become NBA Brand Ambassador for India. This role is one that will help me spread the love of the game amongst the rapidly growing Indian audience," he added.
While this is great news for the NBA and basketball in India, the reactions to his signing range from exhilaration on one hand, to some out in the left-field takes on the other.
Critics pointed down at his height (5'10"), got aghast at a sport being monetized, and were dismayed at a Bollywood superstar being chosen to promote the sport instead of someone who has represented the Indian basketball team.
To sum up some of the common criticisms -
To those worried about the ability of a non-giant basketball enthusiast from Bollywood to promote basketball, one doesn’t need to be a 6’6” professional basketball player with a 40-inch vertical to help promote the game any more than you need to be a car mechanic to be able to drive one.
Let’s start with the premise that an ideal brand ambassador should be able to bring the joy of basketball and the NBA to a wide audience. If you had to select one influential celebrity to promote the NBA and basketball in India, what would you look for and whom would you pick?
For basketball to grow in popularity in India, we don't need a star who will execute the pick and roll to perfection. He or she doesn't need to explain the finer points of the triangle offense or rattle off the list of recent All-NBA Teams backward in order of most All-NBA selections. They need to love the game and be able to share the action, excitement, drama and lifestyle of NBA basketball with the masses.
To win a championship, you need a superstar
When you are promoting the biggest basketball league on the planet in the second-biggest global market, you need to be big enough to play on the same court. Big in terms of commercial appeal, popularity, versatility, and more. The bigger you are, the more attention your activities draw. If you are known globally, you can connect with other stars in their field easier as they've already heard of you. Go big, or go home.
There are many ways to measure the above, let’s stick to Box Office success and popularity. Here’s a look at the most popular Bollywood actors on Social Media by their following (in millions). For the purpose of this ranking, we're looking at just the male celebrities and looking forward to having the WNBA rope in an actress to represent the league someday too.
Around 68% of India’s population is under the age of 40. To appeal to the masses, you would want the brand ambassador to be popular with a young target audience.
Leaving out the superstars who are over 40, we are left with Ranveer Singh, Tiger Shroff, Varun Dhawan and Sidharth Malhotra, you can add Shahid as he’s 40. Let’s compare this list with the list of top box office performers.
|Name||No of movies||Box office gross (in cr)|
|4||Shah Rukh Khan||58||2,468.16|
|10||Saif Ali Khan||50||1,395.92|
If you were to select a brand ambassador based on the above criteria, Ranveer, Shahid, Varun and Tiger find themselves among the top 20, with Ranveer leading the way.
Some honorable mentions here would be Rannvijay Singha for his work with the NBA in India, Abhishek Bachchan for his work with sports franchises in India and being a Lakers fan, and Tiger Shroff for being the best basketball player in Bollywood.
Now that you've seen some numbers and feel that this piece is at least moderately researched, here are some non-quantifiable anecdotes talking about Ranveer's fit.
Play every game like it's your last
Having a young star also helps as they are hungrier to make their mark and more willing to try new things. You want someone who will experience the NBA on and off the court and give themselves an opportunity to fall in love with everything about the game. They need to be open to new experiences and willing to put themselves out there.
The biggest thing you would want in your brand ambassador would be that they are driven to do more than is expected of them. That’s something Ranveer has made a habit of doing. Here's a throwback to a viral video before viral videos were as much of a thing. Hrithik Roshan issued dares to Bollywood stars to promote his movie Bang Bang. His dare to Ranveer was a simple one.
“He’s such a great example to all of us to shed our inhibition and focus on contributing to other people. I asked him for one thing and he gave back so much, he's bought me for life, uske liye jaan haazir hai.”Hrithik Roshan on Ranveer Singh completing the dare
Ranveer spoke about doing the dare and looking up to Hrithik. During the talk, his hand was in a cast from an injury sustained during filming Bajirao Mastani. "It was a very bad injury," recalled Ranveer. "I was on a horse and I got flung off. Not the horse's fault, beautiful boy, he actually saved me from getting knocked over further."
This isn't an isolated anecdote, Ranveer's career is full of examples of him going the extra mile. He brings it to everything he does. Speaking of shooting the video for Malhari, Ranveer said "Between Ganesh sir and Sanjay sir, all their lives they have usually had to pump artists up. Here, they had to pump me down, I was so excited I was tearing the screen!"
This is another reason you need a younger superstar to lead the way for a sports league. How many of the superstars over the age of 45 do you think would get out of their comfort zone to this extent? There is a bit of a parallel here with the NBA stars as well, with a slight generational divide between some of the flagbearers of the past and present.
Some retired stars wax nostalgic with a 'Back in my day' theme, while not thinking too much of the current stars. This isn't the same as Shaq demanding more of Donovan Mitchell, that's Shaq's way of showing tough love and passing on the kind of motivation he received from stars when he joined the league. But the fact that he's unable to get that across to all speaks to a generation gap.
Ideally, you would want someone who looks up to those who came before and commands the respect of those who are following in his or her footsteps while paving his own path. In Bollywood, Ranveer has demonstrated he's that man.
Here's a fun challenge for Ranveer, to put his own spin on some of the NBA's iconic statues like he did with Freddy Mercury above. To start with, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West at Staples Center, Los Angeles and Michal Jordan at United Center, Chicago.
While we are issuing dares, how about tag-teaming with Robin Lopez in his lifelong war against mascots while dressed as Simbaa and busting out WWE combos?
Brand ambassador for a global sports league, once again
Ranveer was extremely proud to be the first official brand ambassador of the English Premier League in India. Read it in his own words-
"The values and attitude that sport teaches can be very enriching for a young mind. I'm always encouraging of youngsters getting involved in any kind of sport."- said Ranveer,
Ranveer has got his feet wet in the game having already worked with a major sports league. His involvement included promoting the league and its activities in India. I doubt that the deliverables from his side specifically included the following clip though, and that'll lead us to the next point.
"A sense of humor is a huge thing with us. You've got to be able to laugh."- Gregg Popovich
The San Antonio Spurs are the gold standard for how a sports organization should be run. The Spurs made an NBA record 22 consecutive trips to the playoffs from 1998 till 2019, and they won 5 titles in that span. Their sustained excellence since the 90s reflects more than just the dominance of Tim Duncan. They have made a habit of finding diamonds in the rough, picking talent outside of the top 15 lottery picks in the NBA Draft. What they look for in a player can tell us a lot about the traits they value, and a sense of humor is among the things they keep an eye out for.
"You've got to be able to take a dig, give a dig - that sort of thing. And [you have to] feel comfortable in your own skin that you don't have all the answers. We're looking for people - and I've said it many times - [who] have gotten over themselves, and you can tell that pretty quickly. You can talk to somebody for four or five minutes, and you can tell if it's about them, or if they understand that they're just a piece of the puzzle." - said Gregg Popovich, head coach, San Antonio Spurs.
Here's an instance of a potentially embarrassing situation with Ranveer Singh, one that could have spiraled out of control. Those looking for some sansani and khulasaa and having made it this far must be chomping at the bits, 'Finally! Gimme the dirt!'.
Sooryavanshi is an upcoming film starring Akshay Kumar, the superstar at the top of India's box office and social media rankings. The following is a scene from a press conference including Ranveer, Akshay, Ajay Devgn, Katrina Kaif, Karan Johar and Rohit Shetty among others where Ranveer arrived late.
"This is the first junior actor who's made four senior actors wait for 40 minutes."- said Akshay in jest. Two ways something like this could have gone down, the actor coming late could have made some excuse and everyone would pretend to play nice or let him have it, or the person can diffuse the situation with humility and humor like Ranveer did. Remember the time Nate Diaz walked off a press conference when his opponent Conor McGregor kept him waiting?
Take any of the Bollywood superstars, and picture them in Ranveer's place above. How many of them will be able to turn a situation like the above into something everyone can laugh and joke about?
Remember Eminem as B-Rabbit in the final battle in 8-Mile, where he starts by acknowledging everything his opponent may say to put him down, owns it, and then crushes the competition. He knows who he is, and doesn't shy away from it. That swagger leads us to the next point.
Hip-Hop and fashion
Basketball and hip-hop culture are inseparable. The game has its own rhythm expressed in beats with each bounce of the basketball. Hip-hop music dominates the playlists of NBA players, with many stars having tried their hands at rapping. It's not just something they do as a casual hobby, give Dame D.O.L.L.A.'s tracks a listen. His albums feature Lil' Wayne, Snoop Dogg and more.
Ranveer was introduced to hip-hop at a young age. “A cousin of mine used to come over from the United States and being cassette tapes of Tupac Shakur and we used to listen to it and not that I understood those mature themes or was familiar with the language, but at that age was also realised that there was something very authentic about this man’s expression and I got hooked onto that kind of music very early on and have been listening to hip hop ever since," recalled Ranveer.
I have been listening to hip-hop ever since I was a kid. I have seen the entire evolution of rap in India from Baba Sehgal and Devang Patel to now Divine, Naezy and Bantai.Ranveer 'Murad' Singh
Ranveer earned his hip-hop cred by playing Murad in Gully Boy and rapping four songs in the movie. He's also launched his own independent record label IncInk along with filmmaker Navzar Eranee. Having already connected with the Hip-Hop community in India, he can now bridge the connect with hip-hop and basketball. His fashion cred is well established, having cemented himself as a style and fashion icon, he'll now make his impact on NBA Style on Instagram.
Warming up to people
Building connections with people is an underrated quality. No other celebrity in India gives others their props, fanboys harder at his idols, and have them instantly warm up to him than Ranveer. When you can make the ice-in-veins Michael Jordan, he who takes a sidelong-glance personally, fight to suppress a smile and look at you during an interview, you know you connected with him. At least I guess that's what's going on here.
The path to Ranveer becoming the brand ambassador of the NBA in India was laid back in 2016. The above picture is from the 2016 NBA All-Star game where Ranveer shared his experience with fans on social media. Look up literally any picture of Ranveer with other celebrities or athletes, it seems like you're watching lifelong friends come together.
This is something taken for granted, but once again, replace Ranveer with any other star, do you see the replacement connecting with people as easily as him?
When Isiah Thomas said that the secret of basketball is that it's not about basketball, here's what he was talking about. Speaking of the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics teams of the 80s, Isiah said-
"They won because they liked each other, knew their roles, ignored statistics, and valued winning over everything else. They won because their best players sacrificed to make everyone else happy. They won as long as everyone remained on the same page. By that same token, they lost if any of those three factors weren’t in place."Isiah Thomas to Bill Simmons, Book of Basketball.
You need a team player who will not take this for granted, go out of his way to do all he can to fulfill his responsibilities. This isn’t a proclamation that Ranveer Singh will change the game for basketball and the NBA in India. This scouting report just projects the best possible outcome, based on observations of Ranveer's body of work. The season is yet to begin.
Ranveer will be seen playing Kapil Dev, the former Indian team captain who led India to our first World Cup win in 1983. He'll be at the center of Indian cricket fans' consciousness this December, fans who will also be exposed to basketball and the NBA through him.
Asli fan kaun?
We've been waiting patiently for the masses to get exposed to how much fun this game can be to watch and play. At times, we as fans have been at fault for playing gatekeepers, for looking to decide who gets to call themselves a fan and who is a casual fan, to decide which national team players are worthy and which are not. As fans of the sport, it is on us and our cohorts to share our love for the game and help others discover the same. We do ourselves and the game a disservice when we try to pick apart those who are looking to promote the game or our players who represent India at the highest level.
This is not to say that we should not hold promoters or players to a high standard, but a reminder to see what exactly are we contributing towards when we spout hate just because someone does not live up to our standards of what constitutes a hardcore basketball fan or when our team loses to countries that are miles ahead in terms of basketball infrastructure.
Would it be fair to say that anyone who enjoys playing or watching basketball, can call themselves a fan of the game and we can all get along? Maybe our expectations of our players should be high enough to expect them to train hard and smart and play hard and smart, and support them regardless of the outcome? For the game to grow, we need to stop picking it apart and understand that growth involves helping more people fall in love with the game, and not just catering to the hardcore fans. This is where we need someone who can bring people together and help introduce basketball to the masses.
At an event, Ranveer ran into a reporter who may have been throwing out in the left-field questions and comments at him for a while. Here's his response to that reporter, who may be the same one whom Ranveer called on stage at the end.
He literally diffused the tension with a 'Jaadu ki Jhappi' by hugging the reporter. Do you think that person will harbor any animosity towards Ranveer after that exchange?
Band Baaja Basketball
The NBA has been helping lay the groundwork to train the trainers and engage the youth in basketball for over a decade. India is a country that probably has more basketball courts than cricket fields or football fields, where the younger generation is hungry for a sport where we don't have to wait our turn to be a part of the action. Today, China has as many basketball players as the entire population of the USA. Africa has just seen the launch of the Basketball Africa League. India is the next big frontier for the growth of the sport and the time is now.
To help share the joy of the sport, you need an energetic presence. Speaking of being asked about the secret of his energy, Ranveer answered "I really don’t know, but I do think about it a lot as I get asked this a lot. The only thing that I can come up with, after internalizing and analyzing myself, is that I have a lust for life. I have a great zeal for life and to all the things that are there to experience along the way in this journey. And, I like to do everything to the fullest as I don’t believe in the past or the future, I just try and live in the ‘now’. So whatever it is that I am doing in a moment, I just try and do it with everything I have got. And that, I guess, translates into what is perceived as ‘high energy’, but it is just enthusiasm for everything that I am doing,"
Ranveer, the joy and enthusiasm of basketball has been a secret for a lot of India for way too long. This is a game where every second presents an opportunity to make an impact, every minute is filled with end-to-end high-flying action. A sport where kids can grow up shooting at the rim, letting all of their doubts and fears hang in the balance as each shot sails to the rim, and get a shot of affirmation with each swish, and grow stronger with each bucket after bucket.
This is the time to see if you can deliver another performance of a lifetime by going above and beyond for the game and show it is as packed with energy as you are.
Don't let the joy of the game be a secret any longer.