St. John’s Edge Centre Satnam Singh grew up fast. Like literally. Before he was a teenager he towered over most of the men in the nondescript farming village where he was born: Ballo Ke, in rural Punjab, India.
There was only one man in the village taller than him – his father, Balbir Singh, who stood a shade over 7 feet.
His situation also forced him to grow up early. At 14,with no familiarity with English, he left his hometown of 800 on a scholarship to the IMG Academy in Florida, a renowned finishing school where the alumni include NBA legends like Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups.
At 19, he was drafted late in the second round of 2015 NBA draft by the Dallas Mavericks, making him the first Indian, in a nation of over a billion, to get drafted to the NBA.
From there, things didn’t pan out as many had hoped. The very thing that had set him apart so far, his gargantuan frame, was what hindered his future.
In the NBA, space for a lumbering center was quickly disappearing, and the traditional center was pushed into extinction by the small ball revolution that followed the Golden State Warriors’ success. In an era of floor-spacing, big men were expendable.
Singh never played a single minute in the NBA, instead spending two years in the G-League, the NBA’s development league, where he averaged about 7 minutes a night in 29 games over two seasons, barely registering on the box score. He eventually returned to India in mid-2017, and the experience shook him up.
But a good tournament for the India national team in the Commonwealth Games qualifiers earlier this year, where he averaged 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds a game, was a reminder to all including himself, that if given playing time, he can produce.
A move to the St. John’s Edge, and the 2018-19 NBL season, represents another opportunity for the 22-year-old, 7-2, 295-pound center, to continue his basketball evolution; a journey which first garnered the attention of the global media when he was barley into his teens.
One in a Billion: in addition to being the title of an inspiring Netflix documentary on his journey from a village in India to the NBA, the phrase also aptly captures the hysteria that followed Singh, as people got wind of the remarkable story of this teenaged giant, who was wearing size 18 shoes that a cobbler had stitched together, by sewing together two different pairs of shoes.
At 14, he had the projections of others thrust upon him.“The next Yao Ming.” The NBA wanted to break into the untapped India market, and felt Singh could have an effect similar to Yao Ming’s in China. The media lapped up the story. And at 14, Singh, who was already a seven-footer by then, had the weight of a nation projected on his wide shoulders.
But, Singh doesn’t consider himself a victim of expectations. He still maintains that basketball has been his vehicle to a life beyond his wildest dreams, when he was growing up in a farming village without paved roads, where electricity was intermittent, and farming the only occupation. He also takes his role as an ambassador for basketball seriously, and has hosted basketball clinics in India where thousands of youngsters turn up, eager to learn from his example, and follow in those size 22 footsteps.
A fresh start, that’s how Singh describes his move to the Edge. He maintains that his ultimate goal unwaveringly remains making it to the NBA. Except, his perspective has changed slightly. He doesn’t want to be one in a billion anymore, he wants to inspire his compatriots and become the first among a billion.
Article By Rohit Bhaskar