How 3x3 basketball brought 3 NRIs — Inderbir Gill, Bikramjit Gill, and Kiran Shastri — back to India

For the past few years, the three NRI hoopers — Inderbir Gill, Bikramjit Gill, and Kiran Shastri — have been living and finding basketball professional opportunities in India, an unlikely occurrence as they all come from countries with established basketball structures to a nation that still doesn’t have a fully-fledged pro league.

Karan Madhok August 09, 2019 12:16:15 IST
How 3x3 basketball brought 3 NRIs — Inderbir Gill, Bikramjit Gill, and Kiran Shastri — back to India
  • For the past few years, the three NRI hoopers have been living and finding basketball professional opportunities in India

  • Inderbir, Bikramjit, and Shastri are now ingrained in India’s growing basketball story, dominating domestic tournaments, playing in major international events, and coaching the game at the grassroots level

  • For the second consecutive year, the trio is taking part in the 3x3BL, an Indian 3x3 basketball league affiliated to the international basketball association, FIBA

Three foreigners fly from Manila in the Philippines to New Delhi in India. Two of them are Americans — from Washington State and California respectively—and one is a Canadian, from Toronto. They step out IGI Airport in Delhi, and one of them confidently finds a taxi-wallah to take them home. “Aye, taxi!” he hollers.

They’re all of Indian origin. They’re all massive basketball stars in the international desi community. They’re all giant human beings, tied together by the love for the game and a faint ethnic thread: Spokane, Washington’s Inderbir Singh Gill (6 feet), San Francisco, California’s Kiran Shastri (6’6”), and Toronto, Canada’s Bikramjit Gill (6’7”).

How 3x3 basketball brought 3 NRIs  Inderbir Gill Bikramjit Gill and Kiran Shastri  back to India

Kiran Shastri, Inderbir Gill and Bikramjit Gill.

They are driven from the airport into the city, back to their rented apartment in Delhi, where these three North Americans now spend the majority of their time, their unofficial home away from home, back in their parents’ former homeland. Outside their window, they pass by the particular qualities of India that they’d once found challenging: the bumpy roads, the noisy traffic, the unfriendly summer heat, the smells, the roadside poverty. Their culture shock is long over.

Halfway through the journey, Bikramjit turns to Inderbir and says, “Bro, this is normal to us now!”

For the past few years, the three NRI hoopers have been living and finding basketball professional opportunities in India, an unlikely occurrence as they all come from countries with established basketball structures to a nation that still doesn’t have a fully-fledged pro league. Accomplished and successful back home, Inderbir, Bikramjit, and Shastri are now ingrained in India’s growing basketball story, dominating domestic tournaments, playing in major international events, and coaching the game at the grassroots level.

For the second consecutive year, the trio is taking part in the 3x3BL, an Indian 3x3 basketball league affiliated to the international basketball association, FIBA. Last year, Inderbir and Shastri were in the team that won the title, the Delhi Hoopers. Inderbir took home the season’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. This year, all three have returned in different teams for the league’s second season.

During the first weekend of events in Jalandhar, Inderbir, Bikramjit, and Shastri told me about their unlikely journey ‘back home’.

“I knew I wanted to continue playing basketball after college,” said Shastri. “But I would’ve never thought that it was gonna be in India. It’s a very humbling experience, and I enjoy it because it has brought me closer to my roots.”

Leading the charge is Inderbir, the eldest (32) and most experienced of the trio. Born in Hoshiarpur in Punjab to footballer-father and basketballer-mother, Inderbir grew up near Jalandhar dreaming of becoming a cricketer. In 1998, his fortunes changed when his parents took him and immigrated to the US. Within a year of his arrival in Spokane, 12-year-old Inderbir began to discover his love for basketball.

That love helped develop his game astonishingly until he was suiting up for the University of Northern British Columbia in Canada, where he ended up winning the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association Player of the Year award in 2011. He ended up dominating the CCAA and led his squad to a Men’s championship.

In 2013, Inderbir returned to India with a new mission: try to play for India’s national team. However, unlike some other countries that allow for dual passports and ‘naturalisation’ of foreign players, Inderbir could’ve only worn Team India colours if he gave up his American citizenship. Despite being the best Indian-origin point guard in the world, he couldn’t see this dream come true. Instead, he chose the path of coaching, where he worked with both the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and the NBA.

In 2016, Inderbir was contacted by Rohit Bakshi, an Indian living in Japan who wanted to construct an all-desi 3x3 basketball team. The two formed an Indian-origin team alongside India’s own star player Amjyot Singh Gill and with Bikramjit Gill, who Inderbir had met in Indo-Pak basketball tournaments in North America.

“The Japanese, I’m sure they were wondering, ‘Can these Indians even play ball!’” Inderbir said. “So, when the chance came about… our whole thing was an Indian-origin team can go to Japan and show them that we can play.”

They jokingly called themselves ‘Team Gill’, with Inderbir (USA), Amjyot (India), and Bikramjit (Canada) turning heads in Japanese 3x3 events, and later, in other international tournaments. Inderbir himself turned Bikramjit to this opportunity, after years of knowing each other on the South Asian basketball circuits abroad.

Bikramjit (27) was born with basketball in his genes. His father, Dalwinder Singh Gill, was from Amritsar and represented India’s national team in his heyday. His brother played hoops, and for Bik, lacing up the sneakers as a youngster growing up in Canada was simply written in his kismat (stars).

“My dad was the one who pushed me into practice,” he said. “My mom was an academic person. She wanted me to study. She was the disciplinarian. But my dad understood.”

After starring in High School, Bikramjit ended up representing Ball State University in Indiana in the US. He went on to play in the Japanese JBA/B-League, and in 2017, was the MVP of the 3x3.EXE premier league.

“When Bik graduated in 2016,” Inderbir said, “he emailed me because he was looking for the same thing – playing for the Indian national team. I told him the problem… And when time came to form our Indian-origin team, I told Rohit [Bakshi] about him, and that’s how he came about."

Bakshi remains a central figure in this story; after playing a major role for the Indian side in Japan, he got the opportunity from FIBA to launch a 3x3 league in South Asia. This is the league that ended up becoming the 3x3BL last year, with Bakshi now acting as its commissioner. Inderbir, Bikramjit, and Kiran Shastri were recruited for Season one, and are now continuing their adventure into the second year.

Born to a father from Bihar and mother from Goa — both immigrants to the US — Shastri (24) grew up in San Francisco, California. Right from the early stage, he says, he had his parents’ support to go out and play the game.

“I was lucky to have parents who were very supportive as I tried different sports,” said Shastri. “[They] were persistent: they took me to practice, different tournaments and stuff. That kinda helped grow me as a player as well.”

Shastri played in Chaminade University in Hawaii, where he ended up as the university’s all-time leader in three-point makes and 6th all-time high scorer. He, too, played in the Indo-Pak tournament in Chicago and joined the Indian-Origin team of ballers in Japan in their second season.

Shastri, Inderbir, and Bikramjit spent ten months out of their year in India in 2018, and are set to have a similar calendar this time around. They are outsiders to Indian basketball who have quickly been adopted within the country’s small and tightly-knit hoops community.

Each have a signature style and approach to their game that has made them popular online and for the fans who’ve seen them play in person. Inderbir, ‘The General’, is known for his leadership from the point guard position, unstoppable MVP performances, and huge clutch moments, like the game-tying and game-winning long-range shots he hit in his first day of action of 3x3BL’s Season 2. Bikramjit,the ‘Bearded King’ (for his signature bushy beard), has an aggressive inside-outside game. Shastri, ‘The Tornado’, is known for that lethal combination of speed, size, and shooting ability.

“The community [in India] is very small that plays basketball,” said Bikramjit. “But there is a little craze to try and make it. We all get messages all the time about how to improve ball-handling, shooting. For me, I get asked how to get taller — I don’t even know what to say to that! People are very intrigued by the game.

“But they don’t have the right coaching. We had to learn the fundamentals at a younger age to develop as a player. Over here, you don’t learn the fundamentals till 15-16, when players back home already want to play Division 1 basketball. You've fallen behind here. That has to change, where the coach actually [cares] about the game and improving players.”

India doesn’t yet have an official, 5-on-5, federation-backed basketball league. Despite rare big wins internationally, India’s national teams — particularly the men — have struggled to perform well at the continental level. The rise of 3x3 has given some players and 3x3BL organisers the dream of hopefully playing in the Tokyo Olympics next year, but even that is a longshot. Although a couple of players have come close, no Indian yet has played at the game’s highest level: the NBA.

So, I asked the three assembled NRI hoop representatives how they felt about the future of the game in India.

“Look at all the NRIs,” said Inderbir. “For us, the favourite sport is basketball. You know that the market is definitely there.”

“I want to see someone make it to the NBA from here,” said Bikramjit. “I want to see India get gold in the Olympics. There are a lot of aspirations India should have. We want it for India, and we’re not even from here. We want it more than a lot of other people.

“With 1.3 billion people, there has to be talent here. You just got to find it. It’s kind of tough seeing even some of our friends here: it’s tough seeing them in the situation they’re in, battling with politics, with the federation. How can we be a better nation if we’re competing among each other? Now it’s not even about basketball: it’s about politics.”

Inderbir, meanwhile, felt that some of the players need to look themselves in the mirror, too.

“For the players — the makeup, your DNA — growing up here is much different,” said Inderbir. “You are not hungry to go get that. The players may say the ‘system sucks’ or ask ‘how do I improve my ball handling?’ But you can do your research on your own. Now everything is on Youtube, Just look it up. At the end of the day, you have to perfect what you’re doing, and you have to put the right effort in.”

“Here players have too many excuses. That negative energy: that’s got to change.”

“You have to have passion and love for the game,” Shastri added, “but India has the potential, the most potential in the world.”

For now, the three ballers are continuing their unlikely journey back home, coaching young players, reaching back to their communities, and playing exciting, high-level basketball.

“[Basketball] brought me here and helped me meet some great people,” said Shastri. “So I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Inderbir, meanwhile, has been in India long enough to get deeply entrenched with the culture. During his MVP acceptance speech in front of the students in Jalandhar, he thanked them in Punjabi instead of American-accented English, to great applause. He spends free days in his relatives’ pind (village) in Punjab and enjoys farm-fresh meat. He tells me the difference between his favourite local restaurants, where to go for Butter Chicken and which one to choose for Chicken Cream. He seems comfortable here, and that comfort lends to his on-court success, too.

“It’s funny,” said Inderbir. “Obviously our parents went over there (USA) to make a better living for us… and now, we’re coming back to India to make a living for ourselves! It kind of feels strange, but I think for me especially, it’s a dream for me. It doesn’t really matter where I am, as long as I’m doing what I love.”

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