Tanveer Bhullar has gotten used to the stares and the photo requests because it happens almost everywhere he goes. He admits that he can rarely walk through a highly-populated public space without being looked at or asked to stop and pose for pictures.
It’s become part of his daily life and for the most part, he's fine with all of the attention.
“If you’re having a good day you don’t mind,” the 18-year-old Toronto native said in a phone interview. “If you’re kind of in a hurry to get something done and people come up to you and ask for a picture, you can’t say no because that’s not the right thing to do . . . It doesn’t bother me [most of the time] but it does get to me sometimes when I’m in a hurry.
“If if we go to the mall or Canada’s Wonderland people always ask for pictures and ask me how tall I am.”
Most, likely know little to nothing about who Bhullar is or what he’s capable of on the basketball court yet he immediately grabs people's attention because of his physical stature: he’s 7-foot-3, 260 pounds. He’s also a potentially large piece of the future for the New Mexico State Aggies men’s basketball team.
And he’s only half of the story.
His older brother Sim is 7-foot-5 and heading into his sophomore season with the Aggies. During the 2012-2013 college basketball season Sim garnered plenty of attention because of his size and made a significant impact on the court, averaging 10.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, helping lead the Aggies to a March Madness berth.
“It was a crazy experience,” said 20-year-old Sim when asked about what it was like to be a part of the Madness. "You’re playing in a 20,000-seat arena. We didn’t play in an arena like that the whole year and the atmosphere was crazy. I’ve dreamed about playing on that NCAA court since I was a little kid and to see it come to fruition is a great feeling.”
The elder Bhullar seconds Tanveer’s point about being pulled aside often in public. No matter how much attention they receive in and around Toronto, however, they both agree nothing quite compares to the reaction people had towards them when they visited India, a place that could be considered a second home, considering both their parents are from Punjab.
“Going back to India was crazy because we couldn’t be normal people, we couldn’t walk on the streets because people would crowd around us and follow us so we just had to stay inside,” Tanveer Bhullar recalls. “Whenever my parents wanted to go out as a family our uncle acted as our bodyguard. When we went to the Golden Temple it was crazy because we got out of the car and the people who worked at the Golden Temple led us through . . . Before we got inside there were probably 150-200 people just following us.
“There were two people walking around with us the whole time, I felt like a celebrity for sure. I’m not really sure if it’s because people knew who we were or they were just following us because we were tall.”
Though neither of the Bhullar brothers were born in India it’s been said if either one of them makes the NBA it could have a profound effect on the growth of the game in a country that boasts a population of just over 1.2 billion. ESPN analyst Paul Biancardi said in a New York Times story in 2011 that Sim making the NBA would help popularize the game and spark interest in India much like Yao Ming was able to do for the game in China and Dirk Nowitzki in Germany.
That idea brings a certain amount of pressure to the Bhullars. Tanveer tries to pull positives from the situation.
“There’s 1.2 billion people living [in India] and zero people playing in the NBA,” he said. “But all my coaches have said we need to take it as a positive and put it to the side . . . We’ve been told not to forget about the pressure, and at the end of the day if you do make it to the NBA think about how many people you’re going to make proud.”
The Bhullars were first introduced to the sport in the early stages of elementary school and Tanveer says though he always had the size that many associate with those who play the game, he knew nothing about it prior to picking up a ball for the first time.
He was in Grade 4 then and people had told his parents that he and Sim should get into basketball because of their height – Tanveer remembers being around 5-foot-8 when he was in Grade 3, which is about a foot and a half taller than the average nine-year-old. So they enrolled in an after-school program and their rise in the sport began, though it didn’t happen quickly.
“I didn’t know any basics [shooting, dribbling, passing] at all,” Tanveer said. You just have to start from the bottom . . . I just remember when we used to do drills I had to sit out and do them on the side.”
Eventually he and Sim drew interest from prep schools in the United States and they both moved to Saltsburg, Pennsylvania to attend The Kiski School after Tanveer graduated Grade 8.
But you don’t get to the NCAA level solely on size.
Paul Weir, an associate coach at New Mexico State, said that while he was immediately first drawn to Sim because of how big he was, it isn’t the only attribute he brings to the court.
“He’s got phenomenal hands [and] he’s very well coordinated for someone his size,” said Weir, a Toronto native himself and the one who's led the charge in bringing Canadian talent to New Mexico State. “He’s got great basketball IQ. He’s a very intelligent player. You just can’t teach his hands, his passing ability and just the things he can do with the ball, again for a kid his size.”
He feels Tanveer may have more work to do on the court, yet he’s farther along on the physical side.
“As big as they are I think they’re actually two different types of prospects basketball wise,” Weir said. I think Sim being the sheer size that he is, his challenge is going to be his weight and conditioning.”
It remains to be seen whether the brothers will ever step foot on the court at the same time for the Aggies and Weir says that really depends on whether or not Tanveer redshirts this year and if Sim is still around for the 2014-2015 season.
Weir is certain though that both Bhullars have a future in basketball.
When asked if both have NBA potential Weir’s answer was quick and straight to the point: “Oh without a doubt,” he said. “No question.”
As for who has been the biggest influence on them outside the game, both Sim and Tanveer are quick to point to their dad, who instilled in them the importance of hard work when it comes to being successful both on and off the court.
Their father, Avtar Bhullar, spent 22 years as a taxi driver when he first immigrated to Canada, eventually saving up enough money to open his own business – A1 Petro Biz, a gas station and auto garage in Etobicoke – which he still runs today. On a wall behind the cash register inside the station his sons’ basketball accomplishments are displayed in the form of newspaper articles.
“He’s the hardest working person that I’ve ever met in my life,” Sim said. “It’s crazy the amount of work he’s put in just for us so we can live how we live today. He’s someone I really look up to and hopefully if everything goes well I can repay him in the future.”
The boys lived in a small apartment just above the gas station for a year and a half prior to heading off to prep school in Pennsylvania and in that time they helped out their dad wherever they could.
“[We didn’t] really [work] shifts but when we went to school in Toronto we’d go to school, come home, walk downstairs and start working with my dad,” Tanveer said. “We worked in the morning, afternoon and at night. Whenever my dad needed help one of us went downstairs to help him.
“It taught me how hard I have to work for myself because he always said he can put the food on the plate, but he can’t eat it for us which means he can do a lot for us but we have to finish it at the end.”
Sim added: “He works 15 or 16 hours a day for most of the year and he always tells us ‘nothing is ever going to be given to you, you’re going to have to work for what you want’, and we definitely put that towards our basketball lives.”
And while there’s still plenty of work to be done for the brothers to reach their ultimate goal of playing in the NBA, their older sister Avneet is proud of how far they’ve come thus far.
“We’ve kind of always been together, I’ve gone to all their tournaments and their games so it’s a proud moment to see what they’ve grown into and all that work that they did and all the effort and support my mom and dad gave them is actually turning into something,” she said.