Jaskaran Dhillon, Sim Bhullar hoping to make it to the CFL, NBA and be role models in the community.
When Jaskaran Dhillon was drafted in the third round by the Toronto Argonauts last month, he was deluged by ethnic media outlets in Vancouver celebrating the occasion since players of Indian descent are rare in the CFL.
On Wednesday, Sim Bhullar, a 7-foot-5 centre, worked out for his hometown Raptors, also attracting a media horde. He’s a 21-year-old who can dunk while standing on his tip-toes.
And last month, the movie Million Dollar Arm came out, based on the story of an agent who went to India in 2008 to recruit two talented cricket players with the hope of developing them into major league pitchers.
Even if their pro dreams die, these athletes are the leading edge of what some hope will one day be a wave of athletes with Indian backgrounds filling roster spots on North American pro sports teams.
The Toronto-born Bhullar, whose family is from the state of Punjab, hopes to be the first Indo-Canadian ever drafted into the NBA on June 26. He left New Mexico State following his sophomore year where he was voted Western Athletic Conference tournament MVP in leading the Aggies to the championship.
The interest in the Indian and the Punjab communities in Canada was so big for his Raptors workout, local ethnic media showed up excitedly at the Air Canada Centre to interview Bhullar. His college games were covered in Toronto’s Punjabi newspaper, Parvasi.
Bhullar said he hopes he can do for India what Yao Ming did for basketball in China, where the game became even more popular with kids and consumers in the world’s largest economy.
“Hopefully if I can make it and get to the next level, I can really go back there and impact the community,” Bhullar said. “I want to give back to the community out there. Especially growing up being a little kid, I always wanted to one of the NBA players to come to my community.
“I really want to be a role model for the kids and just open their eyes and know they can do anything they want. Anything they put their mind to.”
Bhullar said he doesn’t feel any pressure carrying the flag for India and wants to be a role model for others.
He’s used to such talk. In 2011, the New York Times wrote that Bhullar was poised to become the world’s first prominent men’s basketball player of Indian descent.
“There’s not really any pressure for me,” he said. “I had it for this long this far.”
He said there are more players in India with basketball talent, but they are lacking a place to showcase their skills.
Bhullar wants to make a difference in that area.
Bhullar said basketball courts are being built across the country and many more are picking up the game.
For his part, Dhillon doesn’t see this opportunity as pressure to prove something to his community.
“It’s more pride,” he said. “I just want to be the best I can be and inspire some young guys. It really helps our community take a step forward. It brings a positive light to our community.
“We’re breaking down barriers. We have the capabilities.”
Dhillon, at 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds, can also trace his family roots to the Punjab area.
Dhillon felt family pressure to play soccer growing up in B.C., but he didn’t really like it. He fell in love with the gridiron game watching the NFL and the Denver Broncos became his favourite team.
When he saw the players crashing into each other, “that was it for me.”
Rupan Bal, of Punjab-based PTC (PTCnetwork.ca) that broadcasts out of Toronto, grew up playing basketball in India and cautions that developing more talent will take time.
He played high school basketball in Amritsar, and the only reason he played was that it was a Canadian-oriented school. He started playing basketball in Grade 5, but “it was not really that great.”
He said the national basketball program is on a par with high school basketball in Canada.
Social media is also responsible for raising the profile of emerging stars like Bhullar in the Punjab community.
“In Canada, in every Punjabi community, he (Bhullar) is really popular because of his height and the fact that he is the first one to make it to the NBA draft,” Bal said. “People want to take pictures wherever he walks.”
Bal added that he thinks there is pressure on Bhullar to do well in basketball because of his heritage.
“As Punjabi Canadians, we are looking for someone from our community to break the barrier and bring two generations together. What happens is the generation from my parent’s era didn’t really support sports. They don’t believe in sports. Studies is the only option. So someone breaking through this, they will visualize a new picture.”