SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Sim Bhullar is used to people staring at him.
At 7-foot-5 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 percent and I left after my workout yesterday and it was like 5 percent. 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, did not play Friday night in his first game in a Kings uniform, a loss to New Orleans at Sacramento. The game was shown in India. 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-fastest 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 center 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 defense.
He’s the eighth player in the NBA to measure at least 7-foot-5 and, according to Basketball Reference, has the heaviest listed weight in league history. “I’m just enjoying the ride right now,” he said. “It’s a great feeling.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.