Punjab hoopster makes it to NBA

Punjab hoopster makes it to NBA

Back home in a small hamlet in Punjab, many still call him by his nickname, “Chotu”, which means the “little one” in local dialect. Wobbly toddler's steps fast turned into sturdy strides as Chotu stepped into his teens, only to fathom the growing inseparability, rather the perplexity, that surrounded his nickname all through.

Make no mistakes, this little one nicknamed Chotu this day is 7 feet and 2 inches tall and just 19 years of age. His height grew astonishingly fast, and so did his stature. This Punjabi Sikh lad, Satnam Singh Bhamara (Chotu), has made it big and his small village, “Ballo Ke” in Barnala in Punjab, is rejoicing.

The Dallas Mavericks picked him as the 52nd player in the 2015 National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft last month--the first Indian born to be a part of NBA draft. But as India qualifies for the FIBA Asian Championships to be played in Wuhan (China) from September 3, Satnam will not be available. He says  his “focus is on NBA for next two years”.

There was a time when people would turn heads and laugh at Satnam. They would ridicule him for his abnormal height. In his village, they would look at him curiously. At 14, he had grown 7 feet tall. His father Balbir Singh, now 56 years, saw his own aspirations growing in his son. That's when a basketball net found way in the front courtyard of the village house where Satnam got his first lessons.

Satnam's father too wanted to play professional basketball at one time, after all he is just an inch shorter than his son. But he couldn’t realise his dream. The family of farmers wanted him to work in the fields to earn a living. He remembers a report on him in a vernacular daily that said that “the tallest man of the district at 7 feet and one inch” was jobless and should be recruited to the state police.

Satnam's father says CRPF personnel took him to Delhi where he was introduced to a basketball coach. But his age worked against him. He was told he could not be recruited under the sports quota. In store for Balbir was a flour mill which he runs at home even today.

His unsuccessful tryst with basketball only reaffirmed his faith when Satnam showed early signs of a basketball champion in the making.

Today at 290 pounds, Satnam wears a size 22 basketball branded shoe. He's come out of times when he struggled to meet his shoe size. Thanks to his father, and even his grandmother who is 5 feet and 9 inches tall, shoes could be made on order, but Chotu's growing feet would fast get out of the splitting seams.

Balbir says there's another reason why he always wanted Satnam to move out and live his dream as a player. Balbir says the work at the flour mill requires constant crouching. “For a tall man, it's a tough task. I have a troubled back and I didn't want my son to bend his back and meet my fate,” he said.

Just a few days back, Satnam spoke in flawless English to Indian media persons via video conferencing from Dallas. His family recalls how averse Satnam was to learning English. His sister, Sarbjot Kaur, said they have kept a count of the number of English books Satnam tore till class V-- over a hundred, she recounts. He hated English, but he's now at his best conversing in English, she said.

It was not just the love for the sport or a father's teeming aspiration to see his son excel as a basketball player that chalked out the road map for Satnam. In fact, as a growing kid his family was a lot concerned about him--after all  Chotu once nearly escaped drowning and even banged his father's two-wheeler straight into the wall.

His family wanted him to stop whiling away time. The answer was basketball, essentially because of his height. His stint at the Punjab Basketball Association’s academy in Ludhiana worked well for him before he finally took off for the academy in Florida. It's an everyday walk down the memory lane for the family in Barnala.

Just the other day Satnam sent a picture of his with a lady dentist working on his teeth in a clinic abroad. His younger brother Beant can't help but recall the early days when Satnam had gone abroad. At the village, he says, Satnam was never used to a toothbrush or a toothpaste and instead preferred a branch of the herbal “datun.”

Beant says they use to call him up and often remind him to brush his teeth. But looking at his day with the dentist, seems like he still forgets to brush his teeth.

Satnam has now been in the US for the last couple of years as a member of the IMG Academy. The sporting league on an average pays its players $ 4.9 million for a season. Although Canadian-born Sim Bhullar became the NBA's first player of Indian descent in the past year, Singh would be the first player actually born in India to make the league.

Newspapers quoting NBA director of basketball operations in India, Troy Justice said “First time I saw him play, he was wearing shoes that were falling apart. The seams had split, and he was coming right out of them. That's all he had. He was growing so fast. We helped him get shoes”. Satnam's mother Sukhwinder Kaur says she always had an inkling that her son would be an achiever. He weighed 4.5 kg at birth and is still the tallest in the village, she flaunts.

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