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NBA Academy comes to India, eyes 'limitless potential'

These 21 prospects were selected following a three-month, nationwide basketball talent search and are to receive scholarships and training at the newly launched NBA Academy in Greater Noida. NBA India

On the walls of a basketball court near the Indian capital of New Delhi, hang massive posters of NBA superstars Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry and James Harden, dwarfing the boys for whom they are meant to serve as inspiration. On the wood tiled floor, the youngsters run drills at a practice session of the NBA academy that officially opened in the Greater Noida suburb on Tuesday.

And while the 21 teenagers go through the basics of passing and shooting, they can't help but look at images above them and hope of one day perhaps joining their idols. Watching them is coach Jacques Vandescure, a former international player for Belgium who subsequently served as a talent scout in Africa for the San Antonio Spurs NBA team. Vandescure hasn't been in India for too long, but he believes in the dreams of the youngsters he is supervising. "I have witnessed miracles in the game of basketball. And I think you can see miracles over here. The potential in this country is limitless," he says.

Clearly the NBA believes so too. The academy in India is one of just five they have or plan to set up across the world. It follows the launch of academies in Hangzhou, Jinan and Urumqi in China and Thiès in Senegal. They also plan to launch a global academy in Canberra, Australia. It's perhaps a testament to the venture's significance that NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum is here too. Tatum is bullish about the Indian academy's prospects. "This initiative is not about finding more sponsors or marketing partners. It's about developing elite basketball prospects," he says.

Prospecting and developing talent in India might not seem the most sound choice. The sport occupies little mindspace in a cricket-obsessed country. Unlike other countries where NBA has opened academies, Indians have found it hard to breach the NBA barrier. While Satnam Singh Bhamara made history when he was picked by the Dallas Mavericks in the 2015 NBA draft, he has been relegated to the D-League (NBA's official minor league). Palpreet Singh too was picked by the Long Island Nets in the D-League draft in 2016 but was subsequently waived.

This is a reality Tatum admits. Which is why, he makes it clear that the NBA will not be the only target for the 21 at the residential academy. "It isn't about whether you make the NBA or you don't," he says. "Some of the kids may play Division 1 or 2 or 3 college basketball in the NCAA. Others might play in the European League or the development league. We could even take others to compete against teams from our academies in China and Australia. There are multiple paths. We hope the training we provide here will help these kids reach their full potential as players, whatever that might be."

"This is a long term plan," adds Yannick Colaco, managing director of NBA India. Over the course of the next five years, Colaco says he expects to see a hundred students train at the academy.

The seed of the idea had been planted around the time Satnam was drafted in the NBA with the organization spending a year and a half studying the infrastructure around New Delhi before eventually going ahead.

Indeed, the program has done all it could to select the best players from across the country. Thousands of players appeared for trials across the country while others were picked up on account of their performances in the national age group tournaments. A couple of those selected have basketball pedigree with their parents having competed internationally, while others are the first in the family to play the sport. The sheer variety of shapes and sizes are mindboggling too. The oldest, 17-year old Manoj Sisodiya is five foot nine, while Amaan Sandhu, who stands six foot nine at 13 years old is both the tallest and youngest in the camp.

"India is almost like a continent," exclaims coach Vandescure. "India has so much diversity in body types. You have tall and thick kids, and you have the tall and skinny kids who can jump. You have smaller guys who can shoot. It's definitely an advantage."

"It takes a huge commitment to leave your family and be here"

If there's one thing common to the youngsters though, it is their wide-eyed wonder at their surroundings. While the dorm rooms, gym studio, cafeteria, outdoor swimming pool and brightly lit four court basketball hall might not seem particularly ostentatious, it's a completely different world from the one most of the campers here have known. "When I first had to come to the academy, they sent me by plane. It was so exciting," gushes 13-year-old Mohammad Ibrahim Ali, a LeBron James fan. The six foot one inch tall son of a fast food vendor was one of two boys selected out of the 400 who showed up for trials in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. "When I first started to play basketball at school, there was no one who really knew the sport. We learned most of what we did just by watching YouTube videos. Over here there are coaches who know so much about basketball. I find there is so much to learn," he says.

That's an observation made by technical director Ray Farrell too. "What stands out is their desire to be here. Even if it isn't easy to communicate with them, their desire to learn is obvious. It takes a huge commitment to leave your family and be here," says Farrell, who has previously conducted camps in Iraq, Haiti and Mexico. Undoubtedly everyone is here because they want to be.

Shaurya Kohli, 15, has changed 12 schools but is certain this will be his final one. Kohli missed the selection trials in New Delhi but convinced his father to let him apply for another round in Kolkata, where he made the cut. At the camp, Kohli is proud to be continuing a family tradition. "He learned basketball from his brother and he learned it from his father," says mother Anupam. "And before that his grandfather used to play for the Delhi University team. Coming to the Academy is an incredible opportunity for him. In fact before he came here, his grandfather gave him his University blazer," she says. Indian University grade basketball though is far removed from the aggressive, relentless play Kohli will have to learn if he is to succeed.

Coach Vandescure believes it will eventually be learnt. His confidence comes from personal experience watching a player who might one day very well join the other luminaries up on the wall of the basketball hall - a young Cameroonian participate in a Basketball without Borders camp in Johannesburg named Joel Embiid. He is an example of a true basketball miracle Vandescure says. Joel was a third overall pick at the 2016 NBA draft and one of the star rookies that year, averaging 20.5 points a game for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Vandescure also remembers a different version of Embiid. "I saw Joel Embiid when he was 18 and back then he couldn't hit a layup cleanly. And now look where he is," he says with a smile. "There are heroes are all around us. There could be a Joel Embiid here too."