Picking up basketball in India – the sport’s next global hub

Avnit Kaur Gamlin shares how she found basketball, its life-changing impact, and why India is the next global hub for the NBA.

Ball is life. This became true for Avnit Kaur Gamlin when she went to Delhi Public School, or DPS, in Jalandhar, Punjab one morning. As a child who loved swimming and watching sports on television, Gamlin’s, “day of awakening” came during physical education in fifth grade when her class watched an inter-school basketball tournament. “I loved it instantly,” Gamlin said. “I was just amazed by the game. The vibe, the focus, and the way the team was working together to score just made me want to play as well.” She installed a hoop at her house the same week. 

Many kids around the world can recall the moment they first wanted to shoot hoops. Basketball is one of the most widely played and followed sports in the world and FIBA estimates over 450 million people play the game worldwide. The games inception in India began earlier than most countries, with basketball being played on Indian soil since the early 1930’s. 

After cricket, basketball is one of the most popularly played sports at both school and university level and India is considered to be the next global hub of the sport after China. The NBA has also seen the potential of basketball in India, having ramped up their efforts to tap into the potential market in recent years. 

In 2008, the NBA inaugurated a court in Mumbai and in 2017 it started the country’s first ever NBA Academy in the capital New Delhi. Along with the official academy, the NBA has since set up 14 Basketball Schools around the country to continue its expansion and cement the sport’s impact. On October 4th and 5th, 2019, India hosted two pre-season NBA games – the first time a major North American sports league and team played an official game in India. 

For Gamlin, that day in fifth grade served as the moment when basketball began to take over her childhood. “I started to work on my range from a young age, I played with a mixed boys and girls team to learn more and then hone my skills at home practicing all the things I did wrong,” Gamlin said. 

At 5 foot 3 inches, Gamlin knew playing a sport like basketball would be challenging, but she didn’t let that stop her doing what she loved and enjoying it with others. “Being on a team always made me excited,” Gamlin said. “While on my school team, we became the first girls’ team in the history of DPS Jalandhar to score a position at the North-Zone level school championship.”

“But more than the victory it was the spirit of the game and its people which makes me want to play the sport.” 

– Avnit Kaur Gamlin

With her height disadvantage, Gamlin knew she had to work harder than those around her to compensate. “I worked very hard on my jump, which meant hours of additional workouts,” Gamlin said. “I would do a mix of drills – including ones which built up my calf muscles – and gym routines to generate a lot of the force that a vertical jump requires. I followed this with agility exercises to give more speed to my movements, faster fakes, faster layups, faster rebounds, etc.” 

Fast forward to ninth grade, Gamlin tried out for her school’s basketball team and made the cut. “We had a coach who would train us at 5 a.m. before school, and then again after school and I loved it,” Gamlin said. “But it still wasn’t enough for me, so during summer vacations I trained with two of my friends. They were the best at teaching me and pushing me to train more and develop my skills. I worked on extending my range, taking shots from all possible ranges and working on my technique, speed, and strength.” 

While basketball remains a popular sport in India, the way it’s accessed and played varies from the United States. “In India, basketball is more of an outdoor game, we don’t have indoor wooden courts,” Gamlin said. “We have synthetic or clay courts with no roof. So basketball in India is very draining on the body as it is just training ourselves to play 40 minutes with high energy levels to beat not only our opponent but also the sun’s heat.” 

Along with playing the sport; Gamlin, now 24, also enjoys watching it being played at the highest level – the NBA. “I do follow the NBA but with a more selfish interest of learning some new moves,” Gamlin said. “I started supporting the Los Angeles Lakers for an obvious reason: Kobe Bryant. Other than him, Lebron James is goals! I love the way he moves, it’s just amazing to see him move on the court and we cannot not bow down to Stephen Curry’s 3-point shots.” 

Recent changes by the NBA – in particular to the G-League and the “one-and-done” rule – have created a direct route for students straight out of high school to the NBA. This could provide an easier path for young basketball players from India to make it to the NBA without having to worry about paying for college in the United States. 

“This is the need of the hour,” Gamlin said. “The fact that young lives will get an opportunity to shape their careers with commendable mentors is game changing. A lot of them will get direction early in their careers, and that’s something I would’ve wanted for myself as well. This surely is going to help us see more professional ballers in the next decade – both females and males, I hope.” 

Gamlin believes such opportunities will also give young athletes the professional coaching and guidance needed to make it at the top level of the game. “It’s going to be very exciting to see more skilled and advanced players in the next decade,” Gamlin said. “They’ll get professional help in the years where it matters most, seeing my own journey – it’s always the initial years which determine our paths.” 

For those who do not make it professionally however, they must decide whether to continue trying to play the game or look for a new career option. “I always wanted to pursue the game, but a part of me knew it will be a different route,” Gamlin said. “So, I ensured that the National Institute of Technology, or NIT in Jalandhar had a girls’ basketball team for me to represent and leave a print in as many tournaments I could in as many years as possible.” 

While sports began to take a back seat to her education, basketball remained a part of her life till the end of her college playing career at NIT Jalandhar. “It’s the love of basketball which kept me sane in college,” Gamlin said. “We always had a supervisor and a great sports department that funded us and supported all our tours. However, in my team we coached ourselves, which meant practices every day after college from 5-9 pm with the boys’ team. We got better at our game, offensively and defensively just because we trained with them.” 

Gamlin became the sports head-girl of the college, and she led her team to win several competitions. “In my final year we went on to achieve a winning slot in the NIT national’s competition, after participating in and winning two private university competitions,” Gamlin said. “My journey has been purposeful – basketball not only made me happy, it healed me. I battled many small fractures and other injuries throughout my college career just so I could feel the rush one feels when playing basketball.”

Header image courtesy of Avnit Kaur Gamlin/Photography Club NIT Kurukshetra.