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One In A Billion Review: Hoop Dreams In India

A documentary on Netflix follows the stirring journey of basketballer Satnam Singh Bhamara from a poor village to being the country’s first NBA draft pick

Lakshmi SankaranLakshmi Sankaran

February 8, 2017 | 03:02 AM

Satnam Singh, Documentary, NBA, Chandgarh, Punjab, Netflix, Basketball, Texas Legends, Lakshmi Sankaran, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, One in a billion, Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban,

To master a new language, it is often said, you need to start dreaming in it. American basketball, specifically the NBA and its ostentatious pageantry, can feel alien to most Indians. The sport’s celebrity superstars (like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James) register only peripherally on our collective radars and the game is far from being appointment viewing for us. So, is Satnam Singh Bhamara the man to unleash India’s basketball dreams?

The NBA, for one, is counting on it. Their hopes are not unfounded. Satnam’s basketball trajectory is rousing and moving. And, as this documentary attests, the stuff of genuine inspiration. In 2015, Satnam became the first Indian to be drafted by an NBA team – the Dallas Mavericks, owned by billionaire Mark Cuban.

One In A Billion, directed by Roman Gackowski and available for streaming on Netflix, is the faithful chronicle of his transformation from a gawky and unusually tall youngster in a remote Punjab village to the tentative rookie awaiting draft announcements in New York.

Satnam’s basketball trajectory is rousing and moving. And, as this documentary attests, the stuff of genuine inspiration. In 2015, Satnam became the first Indian to be drafted by an NBA team – the Dallas Mavericks, owned by billionaire Mark Cuban.

The docu opens with Satnam returning home to Ballo Ke with an American camera crew. You can see why basketball was the sport for him. At 7 feet, 2 inches, he towers over everyone in his village. His physicality lends him a natural advantage on the court. His father, a farmer, was smart to send his son away to Ludhiana for full-time training at 10 years of age. However, Satnam’s fate dramatically changed after he was spotted by Troy Justice, director of basketball operations for NBA in India.

From here on, a major part of the documentary captures the rigorous preparation he underwent at the IMG Academy in Florida. His coaches and instructors, who feature in the docu, all praise Satnam’s raw potential but are at pains to explain that just having the goods is not enough. Playing in the NBA requires a sure-footed command of your talent.

There are times when One In A Billion can come off as an NBA recruitment video hammering home the message: if the “big kid from India” made it, anyone can. The league’s top brass talk of India’s untapped demographic (over a billion viewers!) with an enviable glint in their eyes. American shores conquered, the NBA has always been hungry for fans abroad. Showcasing foreign players like China’s Yao Ming (who also was the subject of a documentary) is part earnest adoration and part canny marketing strategy. 

It is Satnam who infuses this sanitised Cinderella story with soul. He is a hulking presence with a mumbling cadence but he carries himself with humility and grace. There is a striking contrast between him and his training mates in Florida. During his early days, he can’t speak English or understand his coaches. The process of acclimatisation is disorienting. But once he settles in, the young player’s sincerity shines through.

Satnam currently plays in the NBA D-League (developmental league) for the Texas Legends. At 7 feet 2 inches, he looms large over his villagers in Ballo Ke, Punjab 

One of Satnam’s braggadocious pals jokes to the camera that he has taught Satnam a lot about girls. He then pops a dance move while Satnam shyly laughs the attention off. Even before they enter the professional arena, it seems American kids imbibe the swagger projected by NBA athletes. Satnam, uninitiated into the culture, is different.

Like any quintessential underdog tale, there are moments of anxiety. Satnam’s disappointment at not being enlisted by prestigious college teams is heartfelt. You root harder for him as he travels with his agent Travis King to the NBA pro draft picks ceremony in Brooklyn. And although anyone who had read the headlines knows how it all unfolds for Satnam, the tension before his name is called out in the final moments is palpable.

His coaches and instructors, who feature in the docu, all praise Satnam’s raw potential but are at pains to explain that just having the goods is not enough. Playing in the NBA requires a sure-footed command of your talent.

In strictly realist terms, Satnam is yet to play in an NBA team or a match in the major league. Since being picked, he has featured in the D-League (developmental league) line-up for Mavericks affiliate, Texas Legends. As this documentary makes clear, the future could go either way for 21-year- old Satnam. Not to sound discouraging, but there is a chance that he never gets the big-time breakthrough and remains a long way from greatness. But even in being simply average, Satnam would have accomplished nothing short of a milestone for a nation like ours.

Watch the trailer of One In A Billion here: