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If basketball ever makes it big in India, credit fans like 14-year-old Bilal Shaikh. On a court in the Nagpada section of South Mumbai, down a sidewalk lined with shanties and beggars, he's been playing two hours every day for the past three years. He aspires to make it to the national team someday and even to the National Basketball Association in the U.S. And of course his idol is Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, which played for the NBA championship this month.

Thirteen-year-old Mohammad Arafat Shaikh is looking for something different out of basketball, but he's just as big of a fan. He says he used to play football but then switched to basketball two months ago. "I'll become taller if I play basketball," he says. Other children echo the same thought, saying their parents encourage them to play so they will gain a few inches.

Now the NBA is planning to put its formidable marketing muscle behind a big push into India. It began bringing in stars to teach basketball skills in 2006; it's been staging youth tournaments in Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore since November; and its games on ESPN now reach 120 million homes in India, nearly a third of the country. Later this year it plans to open its first office in the country and launch a Web site aimed at India. "This year our goal is to ramp up, establish a presence," says Heidi Ueberroth, head of the NBA's international business. "Our goal in five years is to be the country's second most popular sport, after cricket."

Big-time basketball has long been a pipe dream in India. The Basketball Federation of India has been trying to start a professional league for two years but hasn't found enough sponsors. India's national team, the Young Cagers, hasn't competed in the Olympics since 1980. NBA officials say many people there don't even quite grasp the word "hoop" as it pertains to basketball.

None of that has slowed the determination of the New York-headquartered league to stake its claim in India. Long set on becoming sports' preeminent global brand, the NBA has never been reluctant to plow headfirst into international waters. Wherever there's a massive future middle class to be wooed, the NBA plans to be there. No hoops junkies in the country? No problem. We'll create them ourselves. We've done it before.

Indeed, in March the NBA finished resurfacing and sprucing up the court where Bilal and Arafat play--leading the number of children joining a summer basketball camp there to jump from 70 last year to more than 150 this year, including 20 girls. The league says the court is the first of many that it plans to build or fix up around the country. The idea? You reap what you sow. "For us it's about growing the game at the youth level, the grass roots, while introducing the NBA through mass media," says Ueberroth.

The game plan worked in China, where the league has spent two decades spreading seed money around. Thanks to years of building courts, holding skills clinics and mounting promotions, more than 300 million people there play the game, with 89% of those aged 15 to 54 now aware of the NBA brand, according to the league. NBA.com/China, which features live game streams, averages 2 million unique users a month. Games are available to Chinese fans on 51 outlets that combined to draw 1.6 billion viewers last season, 34% more than in 2006--07. And China is now the NBA's biggest foreign market for its branded merchandise.

In January of last year Disney/ESPN, Bank of China Group, Legend Holdings, China Merchant Group and the Li Ka-shing Foundation bought 11% of NBA China, putting a value of $2.3 billion on the operation. The plan: to launch a professional league in a few years. The league already has a deal with Anschutz Entertainment Group in Los Angeles to build arenas in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

On to the next big Asian market. Economically, "India is not likely to catch up to China for the next 40 years," says Anil Gupta, coauthor of the book Getting China and India Right and a professor of corporate strategy at Smith Business School at the University of Maryland. India's per capita income, he notes, is still well under half of China's. But its domestically driven economy means that income tends to vary less around the country, unlike China's export-driven economy that skews incomes higher toward the coast. That means a real chance for a broader base of middle-class growth, Gupta thinks. He sees India's economy pulling no fewer than 500 million people up from the ranks of the poor by 2025.