The Rise of Basketball in India and the Promise of Princepal Singh
Half the Indian village of Dera Baba Nanak had gathered in the Singh family home. It was late July 2020, and relatives, friends, neighbors, kids, reporters, and even local politicians had poured into the modest four-room space, filling the house with the sugary aroma of pinni, a traditional Punjabi sweet that’s stuffed with almonds, pistachios, and raisins.
People had come to celebrate the then-19-year-old Princepal Singh, who had just been selected to the NBA G League’s select Ignite team. Standing at 6-foot-9 and 221 pounds, Singh is the tallest person in Dera Baba Nanak, a small farming community of just over 6,000 in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab, India. It’s a village where everyone knows everyone else. And everyone knows Princepal, whose nickname is “Prince.” He is the village’s star, hope, and portal to possibility: that someone from here could become something beyond here.
Singh’s selection to the Ignite team meant that he was one step away from reaching the NBA—and one step away from becoming the first Indian-born player to make an NBA roster. Satnam Singh (no relation to Princepal) became the first Indian-born player drafted into the NBA in 2015, when the Dallas Mavericks selected him 52nd, but he didn’t crack the roster. Two other Indian players—Amjyot Singh and Palpreet Singh (neither of whom is related to Princepal)—were drafted into the G League but failed to make it past that mark. And while Sim Bhullar was the first player of Indian descent to play in the NBA when he made his debut with the Sacramento Kings in 2015, he was born in Toronto.
Now, those in Dera Baba Nanak, and many throughout India, hope Princepal might be the one to finally break through.
“Nobody in our village has ever heard of basketball, until Princepal,” says Princepal’s father, Gurmej Singh, speaking through a translator. The main sports that people in Dera Baba Nanak play are cricket, volleyball, and kabaddi, a full-contact sport originating in India that involves two teams taking turns sending a “raider” to the other’s territory, or half. Princepal says the village has no basketball courts. Few people have a television or smartphone with which to follow the sport. And many kids don’t even have athletic sneakers.
“Prince! Prince! Prince!” a few kids shouted that day in July. They tugged on his shorts, barely reaching his knees. “Tell us about what you’re learning in basketball! What do you think it will be like in the G League?”
“It was unbelievable,” Princepal says now, through a translator, “to see so many people.”
Before he could answer the kids, Singh was swarmed by about 10 reporters: “Princepal! Do you think you can make it to the NBA?”
Reaching the NBA is Singh’s ultimate goal, but the question still surprised him. Growing up, Princepal largely expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and get a job within the government. Gurmej has been an electrician with the government’s energy department for over a decade, and he has always been Princepal’s inspiration—a principled, hard-working, selfless person who has done everything he could to provide for his family.
The only other career option Princepal envisioned was joining India’s army. Dera Baba Nanak is located near the border with Pakistan, and as a child Princepal would see soldiers walking around and imagine what it’d be like to become one. But then he found basketball.
In the mid-2010s, a coach from the Ludhiana Basketball Academy—which is located about three and a half hours from Dera Baba Nanak, in the city of Ludhiana—spotted Princepal playing volleyball and told him he should try basketball.
“Basketball?” the 14-year-old Princepal thought to himself. “What’s basketball?”
And then he picked one up on his first visit to Ludhiana. Princepal clutched the orange leather ball in his palms. Smoothed over the dots with his fingers. Marveled at other kids who were dribbling the ball between their legs and behind their backs. Something in him felt compelled to do that. He needed to do that.
He began to dribble, to slice the ball between his legs. In front of him, behind him. The ball escaped, wiggled away each time, but he quickly retrieved it and tried again and again.
Something unfamiliar rose inside of him, something he wasn’t sure what to call. Soon he began to let himself dream. Dream of doing something with that ball. Dream dreams his father never could.
Before the start of the Ignite’s 2020-21 season, Princepal’s mother, Hardeep Kaur, baked him a batch of pinni to take on his trip to the team’s home base in Walnut Creek, California. The Ignite would eventually move to Orlando, Florida, for the G League’s bubble at Disney World, but Kaur wanted to make sure her son had a piece of home with him wherever his new home became.
Not much else was familiar to Princepal during his first few months in the States. Princepal was amazed that many Americans don’t jaywalk across the street. And at how glued his teammates were to their phones. Singh grew up without a smartphone while teammate Jalen Green, a projected lottery pick in the 2021 NBA draft, had grown to cult-like basketball internet fame by amassing over a million Instagram followers.
During those early practices with the Ignite, players whizzed by Princepal on the court. He was somewhat out of shape due to India’s COVID-19 lockdown and the fact that he didn’t have a court nearby. He could train only in his backyard, lifting bricks in place of weights.
But he bounced back quickly. He’s tall, athletic, and smart. He blocks shots, has an arsenal of post moves, and dunks on people with authority. His shooting touch is improving, and he can step out and drain 3s, but that part of his game still needs work. He’s playing catchup, though that’s understandable. He has, after all, been playing basketball for only about five years.
Between his time at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy and his G League invite, Singh traveled around the world getting his basketball education. He trained at the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, Australia. He impressed at the 2018 NBA Basketball Without Borders Global Camp in Los Angeles, facing off against phenoms like Sekou Doumbouya, Josh Green, Luka Samanic, and Killian Hayes, all of whom are now in the NBA.
When Princepal walked on the court at that camp, fresh off a nearly 18-hour flight from India, few in attendance knew who he was. But he dunked on players. Rebounded hard. Showed that he wasn’t afraid of anyone; wasn’t overwhelmed by performing at the Lakers’ practice facility in front of NBA coaches and scouts, and the current and former players who led the workout, including Al Horford, Dikembe Mutombo, Goran Dragic, and Domantas Sabonis.
“Suddenly a guy comes from India, runs and dunks, and it’s like, who is this guy?” says Marc Pullés, NBA India’s basketball operations team leader. Pullés got to know Princepal when he played at the NBA Academy India in the Delhi National Capital Region, prior to Princepal’s stint in Australia. “Princepal was just like, ‘I’m not gonna be trash here. I belong here with these players.’
“Princepal is one of the most gifted players that I’ve ever seen in India,” Pullés says. “If he stays on this track, he might be an NBA player, or a pro player overseas. He has the work ethic and the talent and is young enough to keep growing. He has not reached his full potential yet.”
Princepal knows he has a lot of work to do. And the odds are stacked against him. Each of the league’s 30 teams has only 15 active spots, and the best players in the world are vying to fill them. Recently, the G League has had more success helping players reach that final stage; per an international NBA source, a record 224 players with G League experience were on opening night rosters for the 2020-21 season. But still, there are factors outside of Princepal’s control.
“Sometimes it just comes down to being lucky. Sometimes it comes down to being the right fit or situation for a particular team,” says Brian Shaw, Singh’s Ignite coach. “He still has a long way to go but if he continues to improve as much as he did during the course of the season, and keeps building on that, anything is possible.”
Princepal doesn’t try to predict what will happen, nor does he think about the expectations that have followed him from India. Instead, he keeps things simple so he can own moments rather than get swallowed by them. Because that’s what might happen if he contemplates the pressure of becoming the first person from his country to make it.
What if I don’t make it? He wipes away the thought. Because to those in Dera Baba Nanak, he already has made it. His parents beam when they look at him. A son who dared pursue sport, not stability. “I could never imagine that it would come to this, when Princepal started playing,” Gurmej says. When so many in the village came to their house to celebrate last July, Gurmej was stunned: “I felt ecstatic. Our family was not expecting the kind of celebration that day.”
But Princepal isn’t ready to celebrate. He wants more. “I don’t just want to play in the NBA, I want to play for a long duration in the NBA,” he says. “I need to be there.”
Respect for elders was one of the first things Troy Justice noticed about young Indian basketball players when he visited the country in 2010. That year, when Princepal was 9, Justice flew to Mumbai and took an overnight train to Punjab, sitting in a car surrounded by goats and sheep. Justice wondered what the next day would bring. He thought about the conversations he had with random strangers when he had asked them: “Where do I go to find the best basketball talent?”
They told him: “Go to Punjab. There is one academy. It’s called Ludhiana.” So, he went. Justice was the NBA’s first full-time employee in India. The league was just beginning to establish relations in the country, hoping to create basketball infrastructure from the grassroots level and up. Build courts, train coaches, develop players. Maybe even pave the way for someone to make the NBA one day. “There was a lack of access to the game,” says Justice, who’s now an NBA vice president and its head of international development.
During his first morning in Punjab, Justice stepped off the train and saw about a dozen kids, lined up from tallest to shortest, greeting him, each one carrying a bouquet of flowers. This was Ludhiana’s team.
Justice quickly fell in love with India. He saw how passionate the kids were. How they smiled when they got on the court. How they persevered even though there were so few opportunities for them to play, especially given the weather. There are four seasons in India, Justice says: “Hot, hotter, and hottest. And then there’s monsoon season.” Most courts are outdoors, allowing for only a good two, three months of play a year without interruption.
Many coaches at the academy would hold practice at 5 a.m., with kids traveling from miles away to attend. Parents didn’t always have cars, so Justice remembers some coming to the courts by rickshaw: a three-wheeled carriage with a small overhanging lid that had to dodge oxen carts and zooming motorbikes in the road.
During his near-five-year stay in India, Justice found pockets of talent. But players needed teams, leagues, courts, and coaches. The more the NBA invested in India, the more kids began showing up. Players began to embrace a fast-paced style, buzzing up and down the court in a flash.
The stands at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy, which hold about 3,500 people, were often packed for youth league finals. Once, right after a championship game, the spectators all rushed the court. The D.J. cranked up the music. Everyone broke into the bhangra, a traditional Punjabi dance associated primarily with rejoicing over the spring harvest festival Baisakhi. For 10 straight minutes, a beautiful cacophony of sneaker squeaks, beats, and cars honking outside hung in the air.
Ludhiana was the first place Princepal saw a basketball court. He arrived at the academy at age 14 and soon got his first taste of a real practice. His teammates were warming up, stretching, and talking about LeBron James being an incredible player.
“Who is LeBron?” Princepal thought. He didn’t know what the NBA was, let alone anything about its best player. He was just trying to catch the ball in stride and make a layup without falling over.
And it was easy to fall over on Ludhiana’s court. Justice says the roof of the facility was made of clear, hard plastic, with years of visible damage. Holes had developed, allowing in rain and dirt, and that created dead spots on the floor. The court’s lights were dim. Pigeons, purple sunbirds, and common redshank often flew around the gym. At dusk, a cloud of mosquitoes would swarm inside, rushing in with the breeze.
But for Princepal and his teammates, the court was a sanctuary. It was where they could have fun, laugh, and train. And it was where Princepal finally realized that his size was normal. After years of towering over everyone in his village—except his mom, who is 5-foot-10, and his dad, who is 6-foot—his new teammates were tall, too. But they had an edge in experience. Many had started playing at just 5 or 6 years old. “I started late. I can think about it and feel bad, but I’m not feeling bad, that’s how I grew up,” Princepal says. “I didn’t have access to basketball at all.”
He improved quickly. His athleticism was apparent. Then, he watched his first NBA game, one involving the New Orleans Pelicans. That’s when he saw Anthony Davis. Princepal was in awe, watching Davis shoot fadeaways, dunk, and rebound. It seemed like Davis could do everything. Princepal wanted to be just like him.
Pullés, the NBA India basketball operations team leader, saw Princepal play at a tournament two years later. He met with Princepal’s Ludhiana coaches and asked them if Princepal was interested in training at the newly established NBA India Academy, which was about six hours away.
“How good is he?” Pullés asked.
“Princepal is a star,” they told him. “He might be a very good player if he works hard. We have to focus on him, make sure he grows as much as he can.”
In May 2017, Princepal packed his bags and moved to the Delhi National Capital Region. He was 16, and in a radically different environment: The NBA academy had a state-of-the-art facility replete with a swimming pool, weight room, and even a hotel.
There were no more dead spots on the court, no more birds. Princepal and his teammates hadn’t seen anything like it. Yet despite the academy’s allure, its coaches had to convince some of the players’ parents to allow their kids to come.
Many of those kids had to work. Some were preparing to get a job, with say, the railroad, that would pay them minimal wages that they could use to help their families. Pullés says the coaches told parents that it would be more beneficial for kids to come to the academy and work toward a long-term plan, such as going to college or pursuing basketball professionally, both of which could lead to better job prospects.
“That’s the difficulty,” Pullés says. “Not every parent is willing to do that.”
Yet many parents were happy to send their kids there, including Princepal’s. They were supportive, even though Princepal’s path is something they never could have envisioned. They are both from Dera Baba Nanak. Hardeep is a housewife who grew up more or less knowing that would be her path, Gurmej says. He knew he needed to secure a government job to provide for the family. “At that time there were not many career options in the village,” Gurmej says. “I was more than happy to get the job that I got. Obviously there was no sporting culture, so I was always focused on getting the job that I got.
“We were happy to let Princepal go and pursue his dreams,” Gurmej says.
Princepal lifted weights for the first time at the NBA India Academy. He was challenged in conditioning. He had previously gotten by on natural athleticism, without working much on his shooting. But this was a place where he could change that. “He was very athletic,” Pullés says. “He was lacking some things because he started playing really late, but you could see the talent and potential.”
A few months after he arrived, in July 2017, the Indian academy team traveled to Australia for the annual NBA Academy Games, where the NBA groups from around the world (Australia, China, India, Mexico, and Senegal) compete in a tournament. Facing off against the African academy, Princepal realized how far he had to go. One African player dunked emphatically over an Indian player. The African team was more poised and experienced. It was a wake-up call.
“Hey,” Princepal told his coaches. “I want to play here.” Here meaning Australia. He wanted to attend the NBA Global Academy in Canberra. He wanted to be as good as those players on the African team. He wanted to be one of the best in the world—to go even farther than Satnam Singh, who was also from the Punjab area.
Satnam had also attended the Ludhiana Academy when he was young, which is where Justice met him at the age of 13. He was big even at that young age, towering over everyone and barely fitting into his sneakers. Satnam eventually grew to 7-foot-2 and 290 pounds, and was drafted by Dallas in 2015, but he failed to make the roster. He bounced from the Mavericks’ G League affiliate, the Texas Legends, to the National Basketball League of Canada before he was handed a two-year doping ban in 2019 for failing a drug test.
“Satnam was born 20 years too late,” Justice says. “Was he good enough to play in the previous NBA? 100 percent. It was the era of the low-post, back-to-the-basket big man.
“Now, with small ball, freedom of movement, 5s that shoot 3s and handle the ball like guards, it’s a different game. He just doesn’t have the skill set of today’s modern NBA player.”
Even so, Satnam’s journey motivated those who came next, such as Palpreet and Princepal. “Each of these players are standing on the shoulders of the one before,” says Chris Ebersole, an NBA senior director who has been involved in the league’s international basketball development efforts for the past eight years.
In the past decade, millions of young people in India have participated in junior NBA programs. Hundreds of coaches have been trained. Courts have been built. The goal was to create opportunities both in and out of basketball. Carve a path for someone like Princepal. Or someone like Sanjana Ramesh, a 6-foot forward for Northern Arizona University.
Ramesh grew up in Bangalore, Karnataka, India, and trained at NBA Academy India. She hadn’t heard of basketball until age 12, but quickly fell in love with swatting shots, playing defense, and guarding the boys. Playing there gave her exposure to American colleges, and now she’s the second Indian-born women’s player ever to receive a scholarship from an NCAA Division I school. She hopes to one day make the WNBA.
“Basketball took me everywhere. It gave me everything I have,” Ramesh says. “I want to inspire people. I want to help the next generation.”
Ramesh has watched Princepal from afar, admiring his journey. And both players watched a 2019 academy game that they consider a turning point for basketball in India. That year, the Indian men’s academy team beat China in the annual Academy Games. India’s bench was on its feet the entire contest, cheering and celebrating a massive moment for the country’s relationship to basketball. “It made people aware that Indian people can play basketball,” Pullés says. “They see Princepal, who is 6-foot-9, who can run, jump, and take 3s, and see that there are more players than him. They have talent. They can play.”
Princepal has now played all over the world. China. Hong Kong. Los Angeles. He feels at home wherever there’s a basketball waiting for him. He realizes he has been given an opportunity and he doesn’t want to squander it.
Especially because kids back home are looking up to him. Studying him. Studying basketball. Soon after he left for Australia, some parents in his village began going to Princepal’s house and asking his parents how Princepal made it that far. Asking how their kids could pursue basketball, too. Gurmej would steer them to Ludhiana.
Basketball is now the second-fastest-growing sport in India (behind kabaddi) among both boys and girls, according to the Basketball Federation of India. The Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings played two preseason games in Mumbai in 2019, marking the first games the NBA has played in India and the first games staged in the country by a North American sports league.
The Jr. NBA program in India has reached 11 million youth and trained more than 13,000 coaches and physical education instructors nationwide. “We have this groundswell of excitement at the youth level in India,” Ebersole says. “There’s always this sort of chicken-and-egg challenge in markets where you don’t have a large number of recognizable NBA players from that place of, ‘Well, if you don’t have a player to inspire the youth, what’s sort of the spark to get kids playing the game and take it seriously?’
“But at the same time, it’s hard to get a player if you don’t have that groundswell. It’s exciting to see what Princepal represents, and a few of his compatriots from the NBA academy program. What they all represent is this tipping point of that youth groundswell.”
For one of the NBA games held in India in 2019, India’s basketball academy allowed only Jr. NBA kids to attend. The few adults present were chaperones. The energy in the gym was vibrant, and when a player made a jumper to break an early 10-10 tie, the kids cheered so loudly it was like they’d just witnessed a buzzer beater. “Like the biggest bucket ever had been scored,” Justice says. He realized how much this game meant to them: “They’re in heaven.”
Princepal, meanwhile, is trying to gain more playing time with the Ignite. One way he’s working toward that is by honing his English. At times, Singh struggles to understand what his coaches and teammates are saying. It’s difficult, thinking of the basketball terminology in Punjabi, then translating that to English, then blurting out that word—all in a millisecond.
Once, during an early practice this season, Singh was guarding a post player. The player ran to set a screen on Princepal’s teammate, a guard locked in a defensive stance at the top of the key. Singh didn’t warn the guard with the customary “screen coming!” because he didn’t know how to say that in English. The guard got clocked. He was pissed. Shaw used it as a teachable moment, asking players to redo the same scenario except with Princepal getting nailed by the screen. A rule was put in place: If Princepal couldn’t think of what to say in English, he would make some sort of noise, clap or scream, or even yell a word in Punjabi.
Since then, Principal has begun to make an impact. He drained a 3 and threw down a dunk in a February 26 loss to Salt Lake City. He scored four points in three minutes of playing time on March 6 against Austin. As he’s settled in, he’s continued to call his parents every day. Upon hearing Princepal’s updates, his dad can’t contain his delight.
“Sometimes I feel he is much more excited for me to make the NBA than myself,” Princepal says. “Maybe there are days I have to control their expectations.”
He smiles, remembering how much his dad has inspired him. How much his dad motivates him. And how much he wants to keep succeeding for everyone back home. “My community definitely knows that I am here,” he says. “There may be detractors, there may be well wishes, but they are all keeping an eye on what I am doing right now.
“That’s something I am always very mindful of. I may not have made it where I want to right now, but I still represent, so I am taking that as a responsibility.”
While he’s been away, his dad has inquired about building a court in Dera Baba Nanak. Gurmej says he’s received optimistic feedback from community leaders that it could happen.
Gurmej is excited about the possibility and often spends time imagining what it would look like. Dreaming about where it would be. And he thinks about his son. Maybe Princepal will make the NBA. Maybe he won’t. And maybe there will be another kid from the village in five or 10 years, who looks like Princepal, picks up a ball, and decides to shoot.