George “The Iceman” Gervin didn’t even look up as he showed off his trademark move — finger-rolling basketballs into the net — while he gave a motivational talk to children in Mumbai.
“Teamwork is more than just passing the ball,” he boomed down a microphone, as ball after ball spun upwards from his bucket hands, slipped easily through the hoop and bounced down off the court.
“It’s about communication,” the 58-year-old former San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls star told the 70 or so boys and girls sat cross-legged on the ground in front of him, none of whom would have seen him in his prime.
Neverthless, his presence — 2.01m of it — and his shooting skills left a deep impression.
“I’m very much interested in basketball now,” said Amir Hussein, a slight-looking 15-year-old in sports kit. “I want to keep playing and play for India.”
“I want to become Katie,” added Zeba Ansari, a 12-year-old schoolgirl, after cheering as the Washington Mystics’ Katie Smith took on Gervin in a best of 10 shots.
The youngsters’ enthusiasm was exactly what NBA officials wanted to see, as they look to capitalize on the sport’s increasing popularity in cricket-mad India.
Gervin and Smith are on a week-long visit to coach classes in Mumbai and New Delhi as part of a US government-sponsored scheme to promote education and life skills through sport, particularly among the underprivileged.
Current and former NBA and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) players are also due to travel to the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Republic of the Congo, Uzbekistan and Venezuela this year.
The program is part of US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “smart power diplomacy,” which aims to promote greater understanding between people through softer aspects of US power such as sport, education and culture.
“It’s good to see that when you come around the world that you have people who care about kids,” said Gervin, who runs similar programs for deprived youngsters in San Antonio, Texas.
“All we want to do is encourage them, educate them, build up their self-esteem and their confidence and let them know that they can become anything they want to be,” he said.
The NBA is building its presence in India and is currently involved with the country’s largest multi-city basketball league, which this year involves some 6,000 players from 13-year-olds to adults in five cities.
But they also aim to identify potential stars of the future, with the law of averages suggesting that India must have a vast pool of untapped sporting talent among its 1.18 billion people.
“We’re trying to spot talent, getting them to the next level where they need to be, whether that’s state or national,” NBA India director Troy Justice said.
One male player was found in a local league in the northern city of Amritsar and sent for training with the Indian national team, while another potential gem, Satnam Singh Bhamara, was discovered in Punjab state, he said.
Farmer’s son Bhamara is 15 and 2.13m tall. He is currently training at a sports academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Justice expects that in the same way that Chinese players have made in-roads into the sport in the US, one day an Indian will play in the NBA.
“We’re very confident that this will happen,” he said. “In basketball there’s a saying that quickness beats height. In India I’ve found quickness and I’ve also found height ... There’s so many diamonds out there and they need to be discovered.”