By Eric Card
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Don’t forget about where you come from. It’s very, very important in your life, where you come from.” These are the first words uttered by Satnam Singh Bhamara in the documentary “One in a Billion,” recently released on Netflix, chronicling his arduous journey in trying to become the first-ever Indian-born player to be drafted in the NBA. Satnam, at 7’2” and almost 300 lbs., explains that he is from Ballo Ke, a small farm-village in India with a population of 800 people. He describes his family as “really low-level,” and “don’t have anything back home.” While similar rags-to-riches stories involving athletes talk about them idolizing their sports heroes and playing their respective sport with makeshift equipment at a very young age, Satnam reveals that he was forced into the sport by his family. Already 5’9” at the age of 9, Satnam’s father pushed him to pursue basketball as a way to support his family in the future. He was told by his father, “Satnam, you have only three things … basketball, study, and go sleep. Now you have a responsibility for everything. Your family. To your coaches. For this country.” Satnam’s response: “That’s a lot. [long pause] That’s a lot.”
The documentary immediately delves into the landscape of the NBA and its vision and roadmap to globalize the sport of basketball to untapped markets around the world. In a country with over 1.2 billion people that has a huge following in cricket and soccer, India has great potential as a market for the NBA. People like Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, and Troy Justice, NBA Senior Director of International Basketball Operations, state that having a player from India could potentially open the floodgates in gaining popularity for the sport. Former Chinese NBA player Yao Ming is mentioned numerous times throughout the film as a prominent example of a player that single-handedly created an international market for the sport. Satnam is well aware of this. He understands that people from his home country are looking to him as an inspiration. The film efficiently juxtaposes two stories: an unassuming and poor young boy with God-given potential thrown into a situation with unprecedented expectations, and its possible implications for popularizing basketball to new heights.
The film documents Satnam’s path to the 2015 NBA Draft, starting with his humble upbringing and being made a priority to attend the Ludhiana Basketball Academy, merely due to his sheer size. The academy itself suffers from poor conditions. The “indoor gym” has holes in its roof, allowing birds to enter and make the court unsanitary. The gym is not heated, nor does it have air conditioning, often times making playing conditions either extremely cold or warm. Satnam has to wear makeshift shoes, made up of canvas stitched together from two pairs of shoes, to fit his size 19 feet. He can’t run properly in them. He is finally given proper shoes when he is discovered by Troy Justice, who makes a visit to India to scout players. This eventually leads him to move to the United States, at age 14, to attend the IMG Basketball Academy, located in Florida.
For the next five years, we see him develop into the man he is today, but as mentioned before, none of it comes easy. We see him struggle to evolve into his ever-growing body. We see him struggle due to language and cultural barriers. We see him struggle due to homesickness and having to adapt to a whole new world, one that he does not choose for himself. But as one of his teachers would later reveal, he never complained or gave up, he never showed frustration or anger. He was disciplined and determined. His cultural upbringing and influence is made apparent, as he shows respect and gratitude for coaches that matches his esteem for his parents. He never loses sight of what is at stake, as this undertaking goes beyond just himself. This is for his family. For his coaches. For his country.
Although Satnam’s background and path differ from your typical athlete, the viewer gets an interesting glimpse into the behind-the-scenes process for an NBA prospect. We see Satnam pick an agent to represent him, go through interviews with team executives, and participate in private workouts with teams. We see him go through the pressure, stress, and tribulations leading up to the 2015 NBA Draft. The documentary does a great job covering a myriad of topics and blending them to create a cohesive and in-depth look into Satnam’s astonishing journey. The transitions are seamless and the pacing is consistent. The time spent on each subject is efficient and economical, as not one subject overshadows another. To cover as much ground as they did in its runtime of 70 minutes is quite impressive. Satnam’s story, as well as the documentary itself, is ambitious and inspiring.
Whether he gets picked in the NBA draft, I’ll leave for the viewer to find out. Regardless, Satnam has already made history as an Indian-born player to make it this far. He is already an inspiration.
But being picked would mean the world, not just for Satnam, but possibly for India and the NBA.
In regards to the significance of Satnam being drafted, Indian journalist Karan Madhok explains, “It would be historic. For an Indian-born person, someone who was a national, who’s been through the same things we have … who can relate to those things that we have gone through. For someone like that to make the NBA was always gonna be huge. Hopefully he can be that role model that Indian basketball solely desires.” Regardless of the outcome, his influence and impact is yet to be seen. Before the draft, someone says to him of his influence and role in providing opportunities for Indian players, “Already you open the door.” Satnam jokingly responds, “Just opened the lock. Not door. Just opened the lock.” He remains humble. He remains grateful. You can’t help but cheer for him. You can’t help but hope that he opens that door.
“One in a Billion” is available for streaming on Netflix.
Eric Card can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.