Sim Bhullar embracing place as 1st NBA player of Indian descent
Toronto-born centre has attracted a worldwide audience
Sim Bhullar is used to people staring at him.
At seven foot five and 360 pounds, Bhullar's big frame draws attention everywhere he goes. Even for him, though, the last few days have been unlike anything he has ever seen.
As the first NBA player of Indian descent, Bhullar has attracted a worldwide audience since signing a 10-day contract with the Sacramento Kings. He's fully aware of the cultural significance and wants to make the most of the opportunity — for himself, his family and every kid in India with a basketball and a dream.
"It's a big moment in the history of the NBA and the history of my country in India," Bhullar said following Sacramento's morning shootaround Friday. "I know my family's going to be proud of me and everybody's going to be proud of me and cheer me on the court."
Bhullar's visibility has soared. At one point Thursday, he was trending on Twitter. He said he finished the day with about 20,000 mentions, including from Indian celebrities.
"I got a phone call yesterday and the first thing the person said was, 'How does it feel to be the most popular person on Earth?"' Bhullar said. "That's what it feels like right now.
"All the emails are blowing up on my phone. I walked into the gym and my battery was at like 95 per cent and I left after my workout yesterday and it was like five per cent. My whole phone was just buzzing for that hour-and-a-half I was in the gym."
Bhullar, who has spent this season with the Reno Bighorns of the NBA Development League, will have more eyes on him Friday night when the Kings host the New Orleans Pelicans.
The game is being shown in India, though Bhullar is not expected to play a large role. Instead, Kings coach George Karl told him to prepare to play a few minutes behind all-star centre DeMarcus Cousins and other veterans.
"I'm just enjoying it right now. I don't feel any pressure at all," Bhullar said. "I know there's a lot of people — probably a billion people — that will be watching the game. I'm just going to enjoy my time on the court and have fun right now."
Bhullar was born in Toronto to Indian-born parents and played AAU basketball with two recent No. 1 overall picks from Canada — Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. He spent two seasons at New Mexico State, twice winning Western Athletic Conference tournament MVP and leading the Aggies to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
Undrafted in 2014
Undrafted last year, Bhullar joined the Kings in training camp before signing with Reno. He's averaging 10.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 blocks in the Bighorns' fast-paced system, which he said has whipped him into better shape — along with his improved diet.
"I needed that to develop. I think my game's really at its peak right now. I'm ready to go out there and show what I have," Bhullar said.
Sacramento is intrigued by Bhullar's size and heritage. Kings owner Vivek Ranadive is the NBA's first Indian-born owner and is trying to expand the league's presence in his native country, which he calls the league's "next frontier."
The NBA opened its first office in India in Mumbai in October 2011. The league says that, according to the Basketball Federation of India, basketball is the second-fast growing sport in the cricket-crazed country (behind soccer) among boys and girls.
A notable NBA player with Indian roots would certainly help expand the league's popularity in India, and Bhullar believes he can be that guy.
The Kings consider Bhullar a project. The 22-year-old centre has worked on his conditioning and on keeping up with the pace of the professional game, which remains an issue, but he has shown spurts of being a valuable presence in the middle — particularly with all the space he occupies on defence.
He's just the eighth player in the NBA to measure at least seven foot five and, according to Basketball Reference, has the heaviest listed weight in league history. While he's thankful for all the attention, Bhullar hopes one day people can look past his size and heritage and appreciate his game just as much.
For now, he's just happy to live every basketball fan's dream of playing in the NBA. Everything else, he said, will change in due time.
"I'm just enjoying the ride right now," he said. "It's a great feeling."