Late starter making an impact

Joy Das, DH News Service, Mar 10 2018, 21:54 IST
Aiming high Amritpal Singh plays for Sydney Kings in the Australian NBL.

To proceed far on the road less travelled, you must be willing to meet the challenges on the way head on. Amritpal Singh is certainly doing so in a sport that struggles for recognition in this country.

The Indian basketball star is among the select few who have made it to the big leagues, despite the lack of infrastructure and a professional league, that has hampered the growth of the sport at home.

In 2015, Satnam Singh Bhamara opened the doors to the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the United States when he was chosen as the 52nd overall draft pick by Dallas Mavericks. The 7ft 2inch centre, though, hardly got any game-time, and he eventually moved to Texas Legends, an affiliate of the Mavericks in the developmental G-League. But nothing changed for the 22-year-old in the lower tier as well.

Failing to cement his place in the two seasons, Satnam bid adieu to the league and returned to India.

Following in his footsteps, Amjyot Singh Gill too found his calling in the US. In the 2017 NBA G-League draft, the 26-year-old was chosen by Oklahoma City Blue, the minor league affiliate of Oklahoma City Thunder, as the 103rd draft pick. Amjyot has shown a lot of promise and made it to the final roster of OKC Blue.

Amritpal, on the other hand, chose to journey in a different direction. Earlier in the same year, he had signed with Sydney Kings, a team in Australia's national basketball league, the NBL, which made him the first Indian to play for a professional club Down Under.

"It was a momentous occasion for me," recalled Amritpal. "For an Indian player, it holds special significance as basketball is not a popular sport here. And to get a chance to play in a country where the game is so widespread is a huge thing," he added.

Amritpal's breakthrough moment had come in April. He was one of the four Indian players -- Amjyot, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Yadwinder Singh being the others -- invited for a try out in the NBL Draft combine in Melbourne.

The 6-ft 10-in centre ended the draft as the leading shot blocker among all participants and caught the attention of Kings' coach Andrew Gaze, who invited him to a two-week rookie camp. Amritpal again made his case with a strong performance and was rewarded with a spot in the Kings invitational team, which won the Atlas Challenge tournament in China.

He was the key performer in their title-winning clash against Lithuania, starring with 17 points and 16 rebounds, which eventually earned him the 11th and the final place on the Kings' roster.

Although not a regular starter, Amritpal has quickly adapted himself to the playing style of the team. "There is just a little difference of style which I easily understood," he said.

The tall centre has garnered a small fan-base in the Indian community in Australia. They come out in numbers to support him. "I have received a lot of support from the Indian community," he said.

A native of Fattuwal, a village in Punjab, Amritpal has made it this far after playing a season in Japan. A late starter, he didn't even begin to polish his skills until he was 19. In fact, the former Indian captain was on his way to becoming a kabaddi player when the late coach S Subramaniam convinced him otherwise. "I will give the credit of success to my family, my coach Subramaniam and the Ludhiana Basketball Academy, who have always been by my side to support me," Amritpal said.

Amritpal and Amjyot were part of the team that led India to the quarterfinals of the 2015 FIBA Asia championship. The duo's telepathic understanding was a boon to the country in the tournament.

Their importance to the national side can be gauged by the fact that, without their services, India suffered two back-to-back defeats against Jordan and Lebanon in the second window of the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers last month at home.

The Basketball Federation of India decided not to name the two players in the final list sent to FIBA, as they could only confirm their participation after the deadline had passed.

Amritpal, however, is eager to move on. "I come to India when the league is finished or whenever I am called upon to represent the country. I am proud to play for India and there is no problem," said Amritpal.

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