Gurmej Singh recalls looking through a telescope at Dera Baba Nanak to offer obeisance to the historic Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara in Pakistan, since the 57-year-old didn’t have a passport to cross the border. The proud father will need the document soon as the telescope refocuses on a shooting star rising on the horizon – his 19-year-old son Princepal.
Signed by NBA’s developmental team for a select squad announced on Tuesday, the step up takes the 6’10” hoopster closer to his dream of playing in the world’s snazziest league. “Today is a big day in my son’s career and once the Kartarpur Corridor opens, I will get my passport made and go to pray at Kartarpur Sahib,” says the elated father.
Six years back, the Punjab youngster from village Qadian Gujjran – five km off the Indo-Pak border near Dera Baba Nanak – was obsessed with volleyball – a sport he played voraciously in the fields. However, a visit by the sitting MLA from Batala, Lakhbir Singh Lodhinangal, to a school competition saw the then 6’4” youngster scouted out for the Ludhiana Basketball Academy, Punjab’s prolific nursery. “Back then, I only knew about volleyball and my whole time was spent in setting up the volleyball net. When Lodhinangal sir’s son Kunwar Mandeep Singh told me about basketball, I was fascinated by the game. Controlling the ball all over the court looked enjoyable to me,” Princepal says.
He looked up to senior Palpreet Singh. “Palpreet paaji was the first Indian to be picked for the developmental league and it feels great to follow in his footsteps.”
While Gurmej works as an Upper Division Clerk with the Punjab State Electricity Board, Princepal, his youngest, would move to Ludhiana in 2014 to train at the facility that has groomed Satnam Singh Bhamra, Palpreet and Amjyot Singh. Coach Jaipal Singh, assistant to legendary coach, the late Subramanian at LBA, and Punjab Basketball Association secretary Teja Singh Dhaliwal would spend hours thinking how to handle this exceptional talent.
Princepal was 6’4” at 14, and needed work on fitness to strengthen his core and add agility to his tall frame. A quick learner, his ball-carrying skills were immaculate. Two years later, Princepal earned a $75,000 scholarship with SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio, USA, but saw his visa rejected. But Jaipal ensured he didn’t stay dejected.
“It was a huge opportunity. But like any village kid, his English was poor and he couldn’t explain the purpose of his US visit to the visa officer. But he didn’t allow it to affect his confidence,” said Jaipal.
Picked by NBA’s India Academy, Princepal would soon head to the league’s Global Academy in Canberra, Australia. The stint improved his dribbling and he became versatile playing as a forward despite his immense frame. In 2018, Princepal would also play for the Indian U-18 team in the FIBA U-16 Championships where he averaged 22.17 points and 13 rebounds. The same year saw him captaining India at the FIBA U-18 Asian Championships where he averaged 15.5 points and 9.8 rebounds. In 2018, the youngster was also one of 25 NBA Global Academy prospects who took part in a winter showcase in Las Vegas, attended by top scouts and executives. Leading Punjab to the U-19 title last year, Princepal debuted for the senior Indian team at the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers earlier this year.
“Being in the same team with players from different countries and coaches in Australia helped me understand the technicalities of the sport more. I would play as point guard or a forward and understood how to be a good defender too. While we would try to match each other in terms of strength, we would also try to outdo each other in terms of rebounds and dribbling,” remembers Princepal.
Based in Las Vegas, the league select team spot is offered to elite players who become eligible for an NBA draft the following year. Princepal will be among other draft prospects such as Jalen Green, MVP of the FIBA U-17 World Cup in 2018, Isaiah Todd, Jonathan Kuminga, Daishen Nix and Kai Sotto and the team will be coached by five-time NBA champion Brian Shaw.
“I have heard about Jalen Green and 7’2” Sotto and I will be rubbing shoulders with players taller than me, which is rare in India. I have also been watching videos of LA Lakers’ Anthony Davis and I understand that USA will be a lot tougher in terms of competition,” he says.
President of the developmental league Shareef Abdur-Rahim said, “We are thrilled to be able to offer Princepal the opportunity to begin his professional basketball journey. We’ve long hoped that our development pathway for elite high school players would include roster spots for emerging international talent, including players who have participated in the NBA Academy programme, and we’re excited to have Princepal forge this new path and develop his skills in our league.”
Princepal’s mother Hardeep Kaur, herself a regal 5’10”, has already started preparing home-made pinnis for her son to take to the States. “He likes to eat pinnis and I will make sure there’s no shortage while he is in USA,” shared the mother. When their youngest was born, the priest had picked out ‘P’ for a name from the Guru Granth Sahib. “He is like a Rajkumar to us so we named him Princepal,” the mother recalls. He’s now the prince-in-waiting as India awaits his NBA coronation.