When you turn on the TV to watch basketball, Indians are nearly nowhere to be found. None are in the NBA or WNBA, and only a handful play in college. With over one billion people of Indian descent on the planet, they remain an untapped resource for hoops talent, but the sport is gaining popularity in India with over 10 million playing it.
So, make no mistake, Indian hoopers exist. And 11 of them have formed a team to bring attention to the game’s growth and serve as role models while competing on national television.
India Rising will be one of the 64 teams competing in The Basketball Tournament, a single-elimination, eight-region competition that tips off Saturday on ESPN and will award $1 million to the 2022 champion. India Rising general manager Gautam Kapur likes to call his squad “The Avengers of Brown Basketball” because it comprises only Indian-origin players from across the globe.
“I think it's an important, not only just an idea, an important thing for just Indian basketball players and kids growing up and having that opportunity to see people like them doing something that they love,” said Sailesh Tummala, a 6-foot-6 forward on India Rising. “When I was growing up playing basketball, I was always taller and naturally gravitated to it, but didn't really have any role models for seeing people play at a higher level or having somebody to look up to.
“It's cool, I think, just for more for the younger generations to see that there's people out there that's possible that you can play basketball at a high level. It's important to see people doing that. I think also just for the Indian community in general, seeing some of their own on the screen is a pretty cool thing.”
India Rising was co-founded by Kapur and Roy Rana. Kapur formerly worked for the NBA as a portfolio manager on the business side of basketball. Rana previously served as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings and is currently head coach of the Egyptian national team. The two basketball enthusiasts want to put Indian hoops on the map, so when the opportunity to assemble a TBT team presented itself, they didn’t hesitate.
“I spent most of my life praying, waiting, hoping, dreaming to see people who look like me on these sports channels, and it's like, I'm kind of done waiting,” Kapur said. “We have these heroes, but nobody knows they exist. I get it, they're not in the NBA, they're not averaging 20 and 10. But that doesn't mean we need to feel like we're erased from sports history.
“What we wanted to do was show the world that brown people can play basketball at a really high level. … But the whole idea was let's create India Rising to be a brand for brown athletes and compete in the TBT.”
Kapur and Rana did their due diligence to construct a talented, competitive roster that can make some noise and match up well with any opposing team. Tummala is a former Division I player, having played at both the University of Hawaii at Mãnoa and Arizona State. His India Rising teammates have extensive experience in the NBA G League, NBL, NCAA and FIBA national teams.
“People should take this team seriously because of the caliber of players that we have on this team,” said Sukhman Sandhu, a 6-10 center from the University of British Colombia. “I mean, there's guys from Division I, out of the States. There's guys playing professionally all over Europe and the world. There's guys like myself in elite Canadian universities that are not only going to have their university careers and whatever but are going to go on to play professionally in some league after.
“So there's a lot of talented guys on this team, and this is only the beginning. So I think this is going to be that first steppingstone for not only everybody on the team, but next generation of Indian ballers to be on the team to really be put on notice and recognize the talent that we have coming out of our community.”
Bikramjit Singh Gill, a 6-8 forward from Toronto, acknowledged that India Rising hasn’t played together before like other teams in the tournament, such as the Golden Eagles Alumni, Best Virginia or reigning champion Boeheim’s Army, the No. 1 overall seed that will open against India Rising in the Syracuse region on July 22 (7 p.m. ET on ESPN). The commitment to playing team basketball will be crucial, according to Gill.
“I just want to take one game at a time and just see. I just want to put our team in a good position to win,” Gill said. “It's one of those things where it's all about how we come together, man. That's the biggest thing. I think the challenge we're going to have is kind of putting our ego aside.”
Gill played his college hoops at Ball State and also has 3x3 FIBA experience. Sukhmail Mathon, a 6-10 forward from Boston University, was the 2022 Patriot League Player of the Year. San Francisco’s Kiran Shastri, a 6-7 wing with a deadly 3-point shot, led Switzerland’s NLB in scoring with an average of 24.9 points per game last season. Princepal Singh, a 6-9 native of India, spent a season on the NBA G League Ignite team before joining the NBL in Australia.
They’re just some of the many talented players on India Rising. And all four are Punjabi and of Sikh faith, in which many men and women wear turbans. Gill wore a turban before college and wears one again now, but he didn’t wear one early in his college career until he had a realization.
“I didn't keep my hair, I didn't keep my beard when I was playing Division I basketball, but I realized afterwards that if I wanted to inspire other Sikh basketball players, I got to at least look the part,” Gill said. “So kind of my motivation was to grow my hair. And I'm like, hey, I want people to look up to me and go, ‘Yo, he’s Punjabi, he’s Sikh. I have to at least look the part."
Representation matters to India Rising, which relishes the opportunity to inspire the next generation of Indian athletes in any sport. The team seeks to abolish cultural stereotypes and, of course, beat its opponents.
“Winning games is No. 1. I think No. 2 is creating a sense of community for (Indian) athletes,” Kapur said. “I think we're creating a brotherhood, and I think that's one of the second goals here. And then I think the third goal is just defeating cultural stereotypes. You don't even need to necessarily win games to defeat stereotypes.
“We want to start a cultural movement that if you're (Indian) and looking to move into athletics, there's a home for you or a community for you.”