Search for basketball's next great 7-foot center leads to India and China

BRADENTON, Fla. – Inside a gym, at a sports school first built for the minting of young tennis prodigies, a group of basketball coaches conduct an experiment of sorts. This is not an experiment like most experiments, with charts or doctors or a system of controls. Instead it is the testing of a vision, the affirmation of the coaches' belief that there is a right way to build a certain basketball player today.

The two subjects of this experiment stand over 7 feet tall. In basketball language they are "super bigs" – men who loom like sequoias above the rest of their teammates. Only these super bigs aren't men but rather 17-year-old boys. The tallest of them, Meng Xiang Yu, is 7-foot-2 and from China. The other, Satnam Singh, is 7 feet. He is from India. And since they are young and raw and from places where basketball is new, they are blank canvases for the coaches at the IMG Academy, where Meng and Satnam have come to learn basketball.

Because inside this gym the coaches are determined to bring Meng and Satnam along in a way no one has before. They will not push their boy giants. They will not shove them hard toward a college and NBA future many want to project. Not right away. Not while their bodies are young, their bones are still growing and overzealousness can destroy a career before it ever begins.

"What do you do with these big kids at these sizes at these young ages?" asks Nate Vander Sluis, IMG's national varsity team coach. "How do you develop them from a basketball standpoint and from a physical standpoint? Developing a 7-2 Chinese kid is not the same as trying to develop a 6-foot, 16-year-old kid. Those two muscle groups are two different things given how much growth they have already had."

The answer:

"Very slowly," he says.

Which goes strong against human nature. For the temptation is to look at 7-foot teenagers with their snowshoe feet and monster truck voices and consider them invincible even when they are the most vulnerable players on the court. Their bones aren't ready for their size. In the high school and AAU world they are forced to play dozens of games on fragile feet, almost assuring them of serious foot problems later in life. In Europe they are hurried onto top-level professional teams to play with men in their 20s and 30s long before they are socially ready for such a lifestyle.

Breakdowns and burnout are common. Many get hurt before they get to college, let alone the NBA.

"I think it's learning from mistakes," says Dan Barto, the head skills trainer at IMG. "Think about a triathlon runner or a marathon runner. You don't go out and run 26 miles, you run 10 one day and 18 another. It's the same thing here. We are taking our time."

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So the coaches study. They look at what has worked in building super bigs in the past. They draw up workout plans designed to open new skills. They emphasize growth over victories. They build in long stretches of rest for Meng and Satnam when their feet get sore. They save them now in the hope of strengthening them for the future.

The coaches are confident in their approach. Barto has been preparing prospects for the NBA in predraft camps for a decade. Vander Sluis, at 6-foot-10, is pretty close to a super big himself. And the program's director, Kenny Natt, was also the coach of Satnam's national team in India, as well as a longtime assistant in the NBA. For 58 games in the 2008-09 season, he coached the Sacramento Kings. They have worked with giants before, many from other countries.

They also have seen injured American super bigs and unprepared Europeans. Barto has worked with enough Chinese prospects to know there's a reason more haven't flooded to the NBA after Yao Ming. Now they have two fresh, untested, uncorrupted players they can mold.

"There is not a next project, and I have a fascination with training the human body to get guys to move better," Barto says. "To take a kid who was 15 and now he's 19 and he's not injured and he's performing at a high level?"

Barto stops. He is an enthusiastic man with a wide face and eyes that pierce when expressing a point that he is sure is right.

In Meng and Satnam they have the next.

Late on a spring afternoon, Meng and Satnam are practicing with IMG's top national travel team. They do layup lines. They do rebounding drills. They help run pick and rolls. For much of the time they stand together: "the IMG twin towers," Natt likes to call them. They seem to lean on each other as if each is the only person who can understand the other's predicament in life. But as they stand together, like enormous bookends on the edge of the court, there is something else that becomes clear. They are nothing alike.

Satnam is strong, with arms and legs that are the thickness of small trees. The basketball in his hand almost looks like a softball. He has size 22 feet that require specially made shoes. He weights almost 300 pounds. His head is enormous and his forehead juts menacingly. When he talks, his voice sounds like a muscle car starting on a cold winter morning.

His English is not strong. The words get lost in the depths of his voice. But his dark eyes are bright. Inside the weight room he is the loudest of everyone, his chuckles booming in a low throaty roar. He is the funny one, they say, even as his scowl could send shivers through a room.

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He looks at Meng, who has barely grown into his frame, ponders his teammate's slender arms and spindly frame spread over 230 pounds and smiles.

"I could bench-press him," he says.

Meng is finesse to Satnam's power. His feet are smaller, which makes him more agile. His game is born of China's more open style of play, almost a European form of the game in which big men hang on the perimeter, avoiding the scrum under the rim and shooting 3-pointers.

"I like jump shot because I am not strong," he says in a broken English that he has diligently learned in his 15 months in the U.S. "That doesn't mean I am scared. My jump shot is better than the post because I am not that strong. When I first come here I don't like any physical [contact]. Right now I get better."

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Each is burdened by a man neither has met. The visage of Yao Ming looms large in their lives. Meng grew up idolizing China's great center who became the country's lone NBA star. He says Yao is his favorite. And like many young players in China he wants to be like him. He wants to be China's next Yao Ming.

Oddly, a similar line is used to describe Satnam. When he first arrived at IMG in the summer of 2010, a swarm of Indian journalists descended upon Florida. Satnam was news. Despite its 1.2 billion people, India has never produced an NBA player. And because Satnam was so large, wasn't it a certainty that he would be the first? No one mentioned his awkwardness, his difficulty getting into a defensive crouch or the fact he can't move from side to side. They all spoke of the same lofty goal no matter how distant. Satnam was their basketball hope. They called him India's Yao Ming.

Neither Meng nor Satnam speaks much of Yao. They are so far away from their homelands now that the comparison rarely arises. Meng likens his game to Lakers forward Pau Gasol – someone who can play both inside and out. Satnam relates more to true power centers like Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal.

They are oddities at a school where most of the kids are some kind of oddity. They walk around the campus with backpacks, dodging 10-year-old tennis stars and relatives of famous athletes. They lunch with future Olympians. Yet they can't help but stand out the most. Satnam needs a whole side of a classroom in which to spread his legs from a desk that looks like it could have come from a toy house once he settles into the chair. Meng tries to blend in, sitting with a group of kids in the front of a class, but all this does is emphasize the fact the top of everyone else's head is at his shoulder height.

"They understand, they're not stupid," Barto says. "They know they can be the next big thing. They've heard the conversation lots of times. Every kid in China wants to be the next Yao Ming or Yi Jianlian. Basketball needs it. The whole hemisphere over there needs it. Someone has got to break through some time."

More and more they have to wonder if it will be them.

Were Meng or Satnam from anywhere but India and China, they probably wouldn't be here. Basketball players this tall, holding this much promise, rarely slip from the grasp of European professional leagues or the American AAU system. In a place like Lithuania or Spain, a player like Satnam would have been snared by a club team and forced to play for the country's national team system. In the U.S., a lanky player like Meng might have been snared by hustlers and handlers. China probably wouldn't have allowed Meng to go to IMG had he been on the country's sports radar.

"They don't know me," Meng says with a shake of his head. "I was just a high school normal player."

Had he stayed home, who knows what could have become of Meng? He would have been used by the local club teams simply because of his height, but he wouldn't have been encouraged to lift weights or get heavier. No one would have taught him defensive rotations or showed him how to use his size to his advantage. He would have been locked to a club team. He might have been invited to try out for the national team, but the bigger possibility is that he wouldn't have become anything, just another kid lost in the labyrinth of China's sports machine.

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"They turn these guys into pro machines like Ivan Drago," says Barto, who once trained Yi, a 7-foot forward in the NBA from 2007-12. "They leave their family and go to this training regimen rather than intrinsically love the sport. It becomes a job. That job gets you a [big] paycheck that you never thought you would see."

And who at 16 years old needs an adult job?

"We are wondering if patience and vision will change the culture of basketball everywhere," Barto says. "That's the goal. If we do it in the two biggest countries of the world, why can't we do it in Europe? Why not do it in the United States? What if [NBA commissioner] David Stern allows guys to go straight to the NBA again? You have to have a plan for a kid. You can't send him to the local high school and score 30 a game. He won't be psychologically ready."

So the IMG coaches obsess about their players. They worry about Satnam's feet. They see his development into a professional as a five-to-seven-year plan. They remind him he is only in his second year of a lengthy project. Then they sit him for long stretches, sometimes 10 games in a row. They tell him this is for his own good.

"There is a scientific plan and reasoning behind him being here instead of some high-level American high school where he would play with great teams and get a Division I scholarship," Barto says. "He needs to take care of his body so if he does two years of college and goes to the NBA, his body is ready to go as opposed to breakdown, breakdown, breakdown."

The video was a mess; dark and grainy like something shot 40 years ago on a home camera. A gigantic boy clad in a green training outfit hovered in the shadows. He stood beside a half-bent basket in what is clearly China, towering over a group of children almost a foot and a half shorter. Across the picture appeared the words: "I am Meng. I am 16 years old." The letters were crooked. The words misspelled.

Meng's mother, Jingling He, shot the video with her phone early in 2011. Meng added the text with the help of Google translator. They made the film with the hope that Meng could be seen, that he could leave his club team in the Chinese city of Chaoyang and be able to attend school while also playing basketball – something China's basketball system didn't allow.

They passed the video to a cousin who lives in California and the cousin handed it to people he thought might have basketball connections. Eventually a friend of Barto's who works with Chinese players forwarded the clip to the trainer. Barto's excitement grew as he watched the video, which ran barely more than a minute.

"Even if the basket was 9-foot-7, you could see he was a legit 7-1, 7-2," Barto says. "It showed him running and it showed him taking some steps, and at 16 years old, I can project out what that body can do at 22 with the right kind of training."

Meng is the only child of parents who are tall by Chinese standards – his father, Fanping, is 6-4, his mother 6-2 – but the real height comes from his grandfather, Quingzhu, who stands 6-7 and played professionally for a time in China. Since Meng's parents both worked, he spent much of his childhood living with his grandparents.

When Meng was 6, Quingzhu took him to a court to show him the game he adored. At first Meng didn't like basketball, but Quingzhu forced him to keep playing. The grandfather loved Michael Jordan. He had, in his home, a small collection of Jordan videos he played endlessly. Meng watched as Quingzhu played Jordan's shot over Bryon Russell in the 1998 NBA Finals so many times the boy had memorized it. Slowly, Meng came to like his grandfather's game. At 14, he decided he wanted to play basketball for a living. Two years later, he and his mother made the tape.

"Before I came here I was in China. I was scared because nobody is there, no family," Meng says. "Also you can't speak any English. If you want help you want to say, but you can't say clearly. It's scary."

He looks down for a moment.

"The Chinese, we have a different culture," he says. "But America is the best basketball nation in the world. I come here because I want to learn the American way to play."

When Meng arrived in Florida, Satnam had already been at IMG for more than a year.

While Meng found IMG, it was IMG who found Satnam. In 2010, the basketball federation of India partnered with an IMG joint venture, IMG Reliance, to grow the sport. It worked to identify talent, hire coaches and oversee the national team’s operations.

Then Natt, in his first days as the Indian national coach, stood before a line of prospects in a New Delhi gym. The local organizers had lined up the kids in order of their height, and so the row stretched from small to modest-sized players to the last, who loomed like Sasquatch.

"How old is he?" Natt asked.

He was told Satnam was on the under-16 team.

"This guy, we definitely need him on our senior national team," Natt remembers saying.

Over time Natt would learn Satnam's story. He would hear of a father almost as big who owned a rice and cotton farm in a small village in the region of Punjab, which is in the far north of India, tucked up against Pakistan. He would be told that the father introduced Satnam to basketball despite knowing little about the game himself. He heard how the boy grew and grew as local clubs began to notice.

What surprised Natt most was how fundamentally sound the giant seemed to be and how well he could catch passes and hit hook shots. Yes, there were holes in Satnam's game. Huge holes. But holes could be fixed. Desire couldn't. His favorite moment came when he shook Satnam's hand and his palm felt like it was sliding into a human catcher's mitt. He looked with wonder upon one of the biggest 16-year-olds he had ever seen.

"He was so strong and he had no idea how big he was," Natt said. "I could see he had the body of an adult man, but his personality is so genuine in the way he said 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir' and 'can you really help me, coach?' That's how he presented himself to me. I cherished the opportunity."

When IMG decided to bring a handful of Indian athletes to train in Florida, Natt wanted Satnam. So did Barto, who had worked with him at a camp even before Natt saw him. How could they not? Here was a blank canvas, a player they would otherwise never have, someone already tall and strong. Maybe, just maybe, with the right training, he could be his country's first to play in the league that so desperately wants India to love it.

Sitting in a room outside the gym, Satnam turns to his translator and says a few words. Then he smiles. It is a wide smile filled with gigantic teeth. If you held a basketball to his face, the smile would be bigger than the letters on the ball.

"He believes because he has the strength, the power and the advantage of training here, he thought he would be picked for the national team," the translator says. "He was satisfied with the way he worked. Also Coach Kenny saw his performance over a period of time."

So where does this experiment go? How does it end? IMG's coaches say they believe Meng and Satnam can play Division I basketball. They say the goal is to get both to the NBA or at least a professional team overseas. They also figure both can play for their national teams – something Satnam has been doing for years.

Without saying the words, they seem to suggest both have a chance to be the next Yao Ming.

But that is in the future. They seem divided on what level Meng and Satnam could play if they suddenly had to go to college today. The general consensus is a low Division I school as long as the coaches there play Satnam around the basket and monitor his workload while also resisting the temptation to make Meng a center.

"It's just difficult sometimes," Natt says. "[People] say: 'Why aren't they dominating? They should be dominating.' But as we learned, even at the pro level, you find it's very difficult. The game has moved away from the tall guys. The best teams are average-height teams with quickness and athleticism. Those are the teams that are really succeeding. The big guys are really fading away; just like everything, it's an evolution where it comes back."

NBA Hall of Famer and Detroit Pistons general manager Joe Dumars, who is prohibited by league rules from discussing high school prospects, says that, in general, NBA teams continue to look for 7-foot players, but there are fewer prospects coming along. Some of his colleagues have said they won't even draft American 7-footers, believing the high school and AAU system has ruined them.

That's what makes the IMG experiment so important.

The IMG people don't talk a lot about statistics. Press for Meng's and Satnam's statistics and the best that comes back is Satnam had 24 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots in the recent Philadelphia Jam Fest AAU tournament. Satnam himself boasts of playing 40 minutes a game in a series of games for the Indian national team in December. The focus isn't on numbers. It isn't on wins. The experiment isn't about results right now.

Standing inside the gym at IMG, Barto shakes his head. He thinks about Meng, about the things he hears from other coaches and observers who tell him Meng is too fragile to play Division I basketball or that he'll have to be a four-year player if he does.

"I'm seeing the vision [where] you have no idea what he will become when he gets into a college system or a pro system because he has things you can't teach," Barto says. "Yeah, he's one-second slow as a 17-year-old and he's one step behind and he gets dunked on by a super athletic 6-6 guy, but two or three years from now those mistakes will be gone.

"His English will understand the teaching. His body will have caught up. It will make up for those deficiencies. Most coaches aren't patient. They are 'win, win, win.' They aren't patient enough to see the project through."

Barto crosses his arms and sighs. Outside, on a small artificial turf field under an awning to block the sun, Meng and Satnam are pulling steel sleds with ropes that are tied around their waist. They grunt. They sweat. They exhale.

It is a sight to behold: two teenagers in the bodies of giant men tugging these sleds that are big for most but look like toys behind them. There is no rush. No hurry to practice. A small breeze rustles under the awning. They are children still learning a super big man's game. There are no clocks anywhere.

They have nothing but time.

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