For about 24 hours last week, Sydney Kings coach Andrew Gaze thought the signing of Indian captain Amritpal Singh had fallen through his fingers before the NBL season had even started.
Singh notified Gaze and the Kings administration late last week that he’d missed his flight from Delhi to Sydney due to rioting in the north of India, and wouldn’t be arriving as scheduled.
A day later, public transport in India’s north resumed and Singh began his journey to Sydney, where he was unveiled on Tuesday as the first Indian-born player to represent an Australian team in the NBL.
As it turns out, Singh was caught up in widespread rioting throughout his home province of Punjab. Self-styled Guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of religious group Dera Sacha Sauda, had just been found guilty on two counts of rape and his followers had taken to the streets in protest.
“That’s why cult people did a lot of things like blasting the cars and [setting] fire on all things,” Singh said.
“Trains and buses from the north, my place to Delhi, all things were totally cancelled.
“It was the first time it had happened like this. I missed my one flight.”
Thirty-eight people were killed in the rioting, and more than 200 people injured. Police were again on high alert earlier this week when the cult leader was sentenced – he received 20 years,10 for each case.
When Singh received an opportunity to attend the NBL Draft Combine earlier this year in Melbourne he jumped at it, desperate to pursue his dream of leaving India to play basketball professionally.
That’s where Gaze first spotted the 212cm 26-year-old, and he had an even closer look at Singh when the Punjab native paid his own way to attend Kings preseason training.
So impressed was the coach with Singh’s potential, he picked him to play in the Kings Invitational team which won the Atlas Challenge tournament in China.
Singh starred in the final against Lithuania, pulling in 16 rebounds and draining 17 points, and earned himself the 11th and final spot available on the Kings roster.
“You can’t use one of those spots just for some token reasons or for marketing, there’s none of that, as a coach I wouldn’t do that, he’s absolutely here on merit,” Gaze said.
“We’ve got to keep this in perspective, he’s got a long way to go. This is not the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon, he’s a player I believe has huge upside.
“He’s a quick learner, he’s got a good IQ, he’s got a good instinct for the game, a natural instinct. He’s got a lot of upside on the basis he’s only been playing the game for five or six years.”
Singh played cricket as a youngster, and was of a normal height until midway through his teenage years when he shot up and broke through the two-metre barrier.
At 19 years of age he took up basketball and in seven years he’s risen through the ranks to become India’s national captain.
“It shows there’s just enormous potential there, the big fellas generally can go on a little bit later in life in terms of their basketball careers because they don’t get any smaller,” Gaze said.
“He’s a good athlete, and he comes from a relatively small town in his area with not a lot of resources to refine his skills. It’s testament to his work ethic and his love for the game and passion that he’s been able to make this type of progress.
“One of the things is he doesn’t have a lot of the wear and tear. At 26 it’s not like you’re old but the nature of the game it can be physically demanding.”
Singh will travel with the team for its historic pre-season clash against the Utah Jazz before the NBL season begins on October 7.
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