Kings center Sim Bhullar embracing his place in NBA history
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) 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 before sitting on the bench during Sacramento's 101-95 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night. ''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 is still waiting for that chance.
He had hopes to play few minutes behind All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins and other veterans against the Pelicans, but the opportunity never came. Despite the game being televised in India and fans in Sacramento cheering his name, everybody hoping to see Bhullar play could only watch him on the bench.
Bhullar's visibility has soared this week. 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 spent this season with the Reno Bighorns of the NBA Development League. He's not expected to have a large role whenever he does play for the Kings this season, so he doesn't feel any burden of expectations.
''I'm just enjoying it right now. I don't feel any pressure at all. 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 said beforehand.
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 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 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 just 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. 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 hoping 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.''
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP