January 3, 2012


One in a billion (Mark Winegardner, 1/09/12, ESPN The Magazine)

By the spring of 2010, Satnam, now 14, was almost as tall as his father. His shoulders and torso had broadened. His voice had grown deeper. Then one day, back on the blacktop outdoor court at the Ludhiana sports academy, the head coach blew his whistle and halted practice. He ordered his players, who ranged in age from 14 to 24, to line up along the baseline, shortest to tallest, and stand at attention. Satnam, a head taller than the very tall boy beside him, glanced down at his shoes. He'd had a village cobbler slice the sides of a pair of running shoes and refashion them to accommodate Satnam's feet, which had kept growing and were now sticking out the ripped sides of the shoes. For a month, his coach had been talking about the important American from the NBA who was coming to watch them play. It was a notion so fantastical that Satnam hadn't expected it would ever really happen. Suddenly it was real. And here Satnam stood, a shaggy-haired giant in these inadequate shoes.

The American was a bald and florid man, trim but on the front slope of middle age, rumpled and bleary, minutes removed from stepping off the all-night train from Mumbai. The academy's coach explained that this man, Mr. Troy Justice, was the NBA's first director of basketball operations in India. He'd be running big tournaments and training players, the coach said, and spreading the culture of basketball throughout the nation.

Justice, more than anything, was looking forward to getting to his hotel and catching a nap. But the sight of Satnam brought him out of his fog. Satnam felt the man's eyes on him. The coach asked whether Justice wanted to run the rest of the practice and seemed surprised when the American agreed. The boys broke rank and queued up in front of Justice, each in turn bending over and touching the visitor's feet before they took the court. Satnam was last in line.

"For your blessings," the academy's coach said, explaining the gesture.

Justice put the players into a three-man weave drill. Satnam's skill set was, to be generous, limited. He hustled and shot surprisingly well, but he couldn't handle the ball or reliably catch it. He shied away from physical contact, clearly worried he might hurt someone, although his footwork was so bad he might have been a bigger threat to hurt himself.

"How old is that kid?" Justice asked the coach.

"He is 14."

Justice shook his head. "I need his real age."

"That is his real age. He is 14. His father is 7'3"." An exaggeration, a few inches for effect, but it got Justice's attention. The boy wasn't the product of a tumor on his pituitary gland, and he was so young for his size that his flaws on the court all suddenly seemed fixable.

"Do you mind if I take Satnam off to the side to work on his footwork?" Justice asked the coach.

Satnam spoke no English. In Punjabi, the coach told him to go work on footwork with the American. The boy, mortified, nonetheless obeyed. That was how he was raised. One obeys. He willed himself to forget about his shoes. He focused on what the American, who spoke no Punjabi, was trying to teach. Justice wasn't sure he'd ever coached anyone who was more present. Afterward, a reporter asked about the giant young Punjabi. "He can be the chosen one for basketball in India," Justice said.

Three months later, in June 2010, Satnam, still 14, led Punjab's state youth team to a national championship. Right after that, the Basketball Federation of India chose him and two others to send to the NBA Basketball Without Borders camp, which was held that year in Singapore -- where Satnam got to meet several NBA players and coaches and be showcased as one of the 44 best basketball prospects from Asia. He was the youngest player there.

Soon, Harish Sharma, the head of the BFI, invited Satnam to play at an all-star game against senior players, most of whom were on the Indian national team. Sharma was impressed by Satnam's talent and character, but he wondered why a boy like that would want such long, shaggy hair.

"Sir, I have huge ears, and I can't afford to leave them uncovered," Satnam said.

"It doesn't matter how long your ears are," Sharma said. "It's how good you are as a basketballer that matters."

Posted by at January 3, 2012 5:37 PM

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