At 20, Satnam Singh Bhamara was certain his playing days were over. Warming the bench with his head hung heavy and his gigantic sweaty palms pressed against each other as his Texas Legends team-mates dribbled and paced across the court before him, the 7 ' 2" center felt his will slip and angst grow.
It wasn't entirely unfounded. After being drafted into NBA side - the first Indian-born player to be picked in the premier basketball league - Dallas Mavericks in 2015, Satnam had wound up spending the next two years at its off-shoot, G-League. He played just 7.1 minutes per game in 27 appearances, averaging 1.6 points.
"Dimaag kharab ho raha tha mera (I was going out of my mind). All the time I kept asking myself just one question: why am I not being picked to play? I thought my career was over."
His contract with the Mavericks ran out late last year and Satnam returned to his village Ballo Ke, a farming settlement in northern India, with the sting of rejection still raw. Now turning out for his home state Punjab at the ongoing National Championships in Chennai for the first time since he ran into stardom as a 19 year-old, Satnam is chalking out feverish plans of a return to NBA.
He knows it won't happen soon and is willing to wait his turn. At 22, age is his trusted ally.
"NBA changed my life but had I got more chances I would have been a very different player today. Probably even the best in Asia. I was told I was too young and new but unless a player gets onto the court he's not going to be any better. That's my only regret. But I'm happy I at least managed to get there."
Satnam is, as the feature-length documentary that chronicles his journey from rural India to an NBA Draft pick rightly calls him, 'One in Billion'. There are quite a few players today - Amritpal Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amjyot Singh - who're contracted with professional leagues in foreign shores but Satnam doesn't shy away from taking credit for being the first to kick open the door for India.
"Someone had to do that," he says. "It's also important that I bring back whatever little I've learnt and improve as a player and catch NBA's attention. I think the surest way for me to do that is by performing well at India games." In the last World Cup qualifier match against Syria in November, Satnam had top-scored for the national side with 21 points. His next chance to rise and shine could be the home game against Jordan in February.
Luck came Satnam's way early. At 14, while training in Ludhiana, he was selected for a three-month scholarship at the IMG academy in Florida. His inclusion in the NBA draft five years later set off revelry across sports pages in India and his tiny village, which still grapples to comprehend the sport.
"Overnight, people started talking about me. It all felt so good. There was pressure, yes, since I was the first Indian to reach that level but I managed to handle that. I knew very little English. Kuch samajh mein nahi aata tha ki kya baat ho raha hai ya mujhe kya bolna chahiye (I couldn't figure what was being spoken or what my response was supposed to be)."
Soon Satnam had even bigger battles to wage.
Fighting for minutes, he toiled in the G-League or what was formerly D-League, a 26-team developmental league which has been a proving ground for NBA, for two years. Last year, he grabbed some garbage-time minutes en route to the summer league championships for Mavericks against Phoenix. The time he spent on the bench pushed him into a dark, self-deprecating zone.
He took to boxing and began spending hours together cycling in the gym to stub out the dejection. "It took the anger out of me and brought my mind under control. Boxing also made my reflexes sharper, rebounding stronger and helped me lose more than 40 pounds in weight."
In November last year, Satnam was signed by United Basketball Alliance (UBA), the first men's professional basketball league in India headquartered in Pune, for its fifth season.
"There was something within me which kept telling me to return to India and play. UBA will be a good opportunity for me to work on my game."
He is, however, mindful of his shortcomings of being neither the quickest mover on court nor an above average shooter. "I need to pick up a lot more speed and focus on my movement, defense and rebounding. Once I build my game on all these fronts I think a second NBA chance could come my way. It will take time but it could happen."
The lessons and bruises aside, Satnam returned from his overseas stint with a heap of shoes. A size 22, he is well beyond what average footwear brands in India can imaginably cater to and finds company in his father who is also of a similar size.
Earlier, Satnam would cut shoes in the middle and use duct tape to hold them together but now he has a whole rack of neon shoes he bought himself from US to choose from. He has got his father a large collection too.
"Abroad it's not a problem at all to find such sizes. My father who's hardly ever worn any footwear in his life now matches the color of his shoes with his turban. Aaj kal toh who ghar pe bhi joote pehenke maze se ghoomte hai (Nowadays he even roams about at home wearing shoes)."