In 2015, Bikramjit Singh Gill looked a bit different than he does now. His broad 6-foot-7 frame still stands out in a crowd, but today the 30-year-old Malton, Ont. native has a bushy beard and long hair to match his size. After years of cutting his hair and trimming his beard in order to fit in with his peers, Gill decided to embrace his Sikh heritage and grow them out.
As one of the only Sikh-Canadian basketball players competing at the professional level, Gill has long been a role model in his community. He always welcomed that responsibility, but in 2015 he decided it was time to look the part as well. Gill wearing his hair long and leaving his beard untouched while playing professional basketball illuminated a path for young Sikh athletes to pay homage to their culture and pursue their sports dreams at the same time. He became the living example that you don't have to sacrifice tradition and blend in with the crowd in order to do what you love.
To a pre-teen Gill, doing what he loved didn't have anything to do with basketball. Family has always been the most important thing in his life, and with a father who played for the Indian national team and an older brother who played varsity basketball at Georgian College, his participation in the sport was more of an obligation than a passion.
After his father passed away when he was 13, Gill's relationship with basketball blossomed into a relationship with his dad.
"There's definitely an emotional connection with [basketball]," he said. "I wear my dad's number … it's like a promise. It keeps me going."
Court became 2nd home
He says he feels his father in every dribble, every squeak of his shoe against the hardwood, every swish of leather and mesh colliding as he sinks a basket. His bond with his brother, Inderbir, evolved as well. The elder Gill was thrust into a new role, acting as a father figure and coach to Gill.
Armed with a newfound love for the game and the support of his brother, Gill started taking basketball more seriously heading into his high school years. The basketball gym at the Malton Community Centre where Inderbir worked became his second home.
Inderbir remembers peeking through the glass window that looks into the gym and seeing his younger brother going through the monotony of a layup drill. Gill rose up with his left hand, kissed the ball off the corner of the white rectangle painted onto the glass backboard, collected it as it fell through the mesh, and did the same on the right side. He'd repeat this process over and over again, past midnight and into the early hours of the morning. Left side, right side, day after day, week after week until his skill rivalled that of the elite echelon of Canadian basketball players.
Brother Inderbir a coach and confidante
When a missing civics and careers credit barred him from going straight to the NCAA after high school, Gill was forced the junior college route in the U.S. He thrived at Owens Community College in Ohio, picking up several Division I offers before even playing a game in his second season.
All the while, despite thousands of kilometres of distance, Inderbir maintained his role as his brother's confidante and coach.
"When he was in JUCO, I would drive up to watch all of his games," Inderbir said of his de facto coaching role. "I let him know if he was the reason they lost."
With more than a dozen schools recruiting him, Gill chose to attend Indiana's Ball State University after the head coach went the extra mile, travelling north of the border to meet Gill's family in his recruiting efforts. However, largely sidelined by injuries, his NCAA career didn't go as planned.
Gill set his ego aside and made what he calls the best decision of his life in order to keep his hoop dreams alive. He joined the scrimmage team and worked on his game at a lower level, all the while posting his scrimmage highlight tapes online in search of professional opportunities. As luck would have it, Rohit Bakshi came across one of Gill's tapes on YouTube and was impressed with what he saw.
This is the best Indian origin team ever assembled. My expectation is just to let the [basketball] world know that [India's] rise is about to come. - Bikramjit Singh Gill
Bakshi, an entrepreneur who once played 3x3 basketball in Japan, helped Gill find his footing in Japanese professional basketball before starting a 3x3 league in India, known as the 3BL.
"3BL is the only basketball league in India," Bakshi said. "It is like [the] NBA for Indian ballers."
Gill joined the 3BL's Gurugram Masters, who compete internationally as one of the best 3x3 teams in the world. He shone in 3x3 play overseas, becoming one of the top 150 players in the world. Team Canada took notice, calling him to compete in International Basketball Federation (FIBA) play.
Despite becoming accustomed to 3x3 basketball, Gill still excels in 5-on-5 play as well. In fact, he's joining the first ever all-Indian team, India Rising, in The Basketball Tournament (TBT), which begins July 22 in eight regions around the U.S. The elimination-style tournament features 64 teams, awarding $1M US to the winning squad. Since Indians with dual citizenship are barred from competing with the Indian national team, Gill feels as though India Rising can do something special with their participation in the TBT.
"This is the best Indian origin team ever assembled," he said. "My expectation is just to let the [basketball] world know that [India's] rise is about to come."
When FIBA voted unanimously to allow turbans and other religious headwear on basketball courts in 2017, it lined up perfectly with Gill's plan to grow out his hair and beard. Between changing his image and the conception of India Rising, Gill's mission to inspire young Sikh-Canadian athletes to embrace their heritage in sports has taken a turn for the best.
"The kids see that being a professional basketball player … is a possible attainable goal," Inderbir said. "I think now with Bikram, they do have a role model to look up to."
Gill and India Rising tip off in the TBT on July 22 against the defending champion Boeheim's Army.