MUMBAI (REUTERS) - Basketball can become as popular in India as it is in neighbouring China and bringing pre-season games to Mumbai can prove a timely catalyst, a top NBA executive has said.
Cricket-mad India, with its population of 1.3 billion, has been for years on the radar of the National Basketball Association, which has arranged the visits of 35 current and former players in the country since 2006.
The NBA also runs an academy near New Delhi and opened an office in Mumbai in 2011 - one of its 12 offices outside the United States.
On Friday (Oct 4), Indiana Pacers beat Sacramento Kings 132-131 in Mumbai in the first of the two pre-season games in India.
"I have been with NBA for 20 years, I was at those very first games played in China. It reminds me very much of our early days in China," NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said in an interview.
"Today in China, basketball is the No. 1 sport. 300 million people play the game of basketball in China.
"It is very reminiscent of the early days of the NBA in China. And I think that basketball has the same potential here in India."
Since 2004, 17 NBA teams have played 26 games in Beijing, Guangzhou, Macau, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Chinese Taipei, with LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers scheduled to play a pair of exhibition games against the Brooklyn Nets in China this month.
The Lakers, 16-time champions, and Nets will play in Shanghai on Thursday followed by a game in Shenzhen on Oct 12, extending the trend of NBA squads competing in China.
According to the annual report on the teams' digital performance, the NBA franchises gained a cumulative 47 million new followers on Chinese social media platforms last season.
The popularity of Chinese basketball icon Yao Ming, who played nine seasons in the NBA with the Houston Rockets, opened the doors for the NBA in his native country but Indian players are yet to make a mark in the league.
"There is no doubt that the presence of Yao helped accelerate our interest in the game of basketball there," said Tatum, who is also the chief operating office of the NBA.
"And now even after Yao has stopped playing, that passion has been fuelled in Chinese fans and they continue to follow the game in record numbers."
Besides its academy, the league launched the Reliance Foundation Jr NBA Programme in 2013 to develop the game at the grassroots level in India and Tatum said the NBA was deeply invested in developing talent in the country.
"It's not to put a time frame on it. There is no doubt that I think in the next five to 10 years we will see an everyday starter in the NBA from India and hopefully an All-Star starter in that time frame," he said.
India is set to overtake China and become the world's most populous country by 2022 and with its young population and economic growth prospects, the south Asian country is one of the most important markets for the NBA, Tatum said.
More than 3.1 million fans follow the NBA India Facebook page while nearly 100 million people watched the NBA games last year on its broadcast partner Sony Pictures Networks India.