Sim Bhullar: a small step for a giant; a giant step for Indian basketball

SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 21:  Kwamain Mitchell #3 of the Saint Louis Billikens shoots over Sim Bhullar #2 and Renaldo Dixon #25 of the New Mexico State Aggies in the second half during the second round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at HP Pavilion on March 21, 2013 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Very briefly over the past few days, a Canadian big man – of Indian origin – was the most talked about college basketball player in America. Before we talk about the past, present, and future of Sim Bhullar, let’s take a moment to think about that.

Kwamain Mitchell #3 of the Saint Louis Billikens shoots over Sim Bhullar #2 and Renaldo Dixon #25 of the New Mexico State Aggies during the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. (Getty Images)

Bhullar – a 20-year-old 7-foot-5 giant center from Toronto – helped carry his New Mexico State side into the NCAA Men’s Tournament only to be defeated in the opening round to heavy favourites Saint Louis. The tallest player in US college basketball this year, Bhullar didn’t have a great game and the Billikens easily outran his team to victory. Still, Bhullar’s combination of extraordinary size and improving ability had him trending on Twitter in the US and sportswriters fawning over his potential.

That was the beginning and end of the national attention this season for this unexpected team built around this relatively unknown big man. Relative to all the other hoopla surrounding college basketball this time of the year, this was a small step for Sim Bhullar (nicknamed now as ‘Sim City’). But the college freshman has the potential to turn it into a giant step for his own career, and for the growth of other Indian/South Asian basketball players around the world.

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I admit that I know between little to nothing about college basketball in the US, tuning in mostly to pay attention to prospective future NBA stars. But this year was different: the rise of Bhullar, his WAC championship, MVP award and his chance to join the March Madness Bracket for one game added some masala into this year’s tournament. Sim – and his younger brother Tanveer – have been known names in these parts for quite a while now, but it has been his amazing improvement in his first year in college this season that could make a far-flung ‘Indian basketball superstar’ dream into a reality.

The dream began in Toronto. It began because Avtar and Varinder Bhullar migrated from Amritsar in India to live in Canada. Although neither parent had exposure to basketball (his father reportedly played kabaddi in Punjab growing up), they did the smart thing in enrolling their sons into youth basketball programmes in Toronto. Their two sons – Sim and Tanveer – started growing and didn’t stop growing. Sim was already 6 foot 3 by the time he reached sixth grade. And then they grew some more. They started making a name for themselves at the Kiski School in Pennsylvania, USA, and soon enough, big name colleges came calling for the older Bhullar.

Bhullar committed to Xavier University, but fearful that he wouldn’t receive full scholarship,chose to join New Mexico State instead. Weighing close to 400 pounds (181 kg) at the beginning of last season, Bhullar worked hard to get into shape over the summer, to ‘slim down’ to 360 (163 kg). That’s still a lot of weight, even for a 7-foot-5 guy. Early in the season, it was apparent that Bhullar was struggling to keep pace with the speed of Division 1 basketball, averaging only around 13.6 minutes per game in November for the New Mexico State Aggies in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). But as the season progressed, Bhullar’s conditioning improved. He played 28 or more minutes per game in the Aggies’ last 13 games, helping them to an 11-2 record in that stretch. He developed into a decent low-post scorer, rebounder and post defender in this stretch. And his efforts won him the WAC Freshman of the Year Award!

Finishing third place in the WAC, the Aggies played well in the WAC tournament Final Four and rose to win the conference championship for the third time in four seasons. In the final last week, New Mexico State rode on Bhullar’s dominating performance of 16 points, 15 rebounds and 5 blocks to defeat Texas-Arlington and enter the NCAA National Tournament. With averages of 15, 12.5 and 4 blocks in the semifinals and finals, Bhullar was named the WAC tournament MVP. New Mexico State’s gamble to bet on the development of a large Indian-origin player had paid off.

Their reward? A match-up against 4th place Saint Louis in the NCAA Tournament. Before the game, Saint Louis Coach Jim Crews heaped praise on the young big, saying, “He’s not just big — he’s good and big. That’s a real compliment to him because we saw some tape earlier in the year and how he has progressed has been really enjoyable to watch from a coaching standpoint.”

It seemed Coach Crews had watched enough tape, because his team was prepared to counter the big man. Saint Louis outran the Aggies to a blowout 64-44 victory yesterday, as Bhullar struggled to keep pace offensively or make a big difference planted in the paint on the defensive end. In his brief sojourn on the national stage, he had just 4 points to go with 11 rebounds and 3 blocks. That’s where his dream freshman season ended.

His positives and his negatives exposed on the national level, Bhullar now has to look ahead to come back stronger next season. As this year’s NCAA Tournament progresses, he will be largely forgotten, since there are so many other important teams and players playing at a much higher level around the country. But Bhullar should be encouraged by his progress as a freshman and how he burst into the scene. Now he is at his crossroads: either to continue getting in better shape and keep up his rapid development to stay in national consciousness for longer next year, or digress into a flash-in-the-pan player, someone briefly popular just because of his size and his Indian heritage.

Sim Bhullar #2 of the New Mexico State Aggies goes up over Dwayne Evans #21 and Kwamain Mitchell #3 of the Saint Louis Billikens in the first half during the second round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at HP Pavilion on March 21, 2013 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Sim Bhullar #2 of the New Mexico State Aggies goes up over Kwamain Mitchell #3 of the Saint Louis Billikens during the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.(Getty Images)

With age and size on his side, there is no reason for Bhullar to not work towards the first option. His giant shoulders carry a lot of responsibility now, directly for his team and as a symbol for the Indian community around the world. No player of Indian origin has ever made a serious dent in the basketball world. With a successful college year, Bhullar has the potential to becoming the most important basketball player of Indian origin (word to Pasha Bains!). Because of his nationality, he will of course always be a Canadian first; but because of his heritage, he will be an Indian, too.

It seems that the young man embraces this. He was featured by the New York Times a few years ago, where, when asked about being poised to become the first prominent basketball player of Indian descent, he answered, “I think it would be a blessing to be the first from an entire country to go to the NBA and be a role model.”

Indeed. Like how he can be a role model to his own younger brother Tanveer, currently a high-school senior and a talented 7-foot-2 giant himself. Like how he could be a role model to another 7-foot teenager – Satnam Singh Bhamara – he who is truly Indian by nationality and has developed into becoming India’s biggest basketball hope. Like how he can be a role model and a symbol to hundreds of thousands of young Indians with hoop dreams.

In 2013, Bhullar took the first small step for a giant: a successful freshman year, a championship, an MVP award and a visit to the National tournament. But it could potentially be a giant step for Indian basketball. For his sake – and for ours – we hope that the big man can soon take a giant leap forward.

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