Sim, age 19, stands 7-foot-5 and wears size 22 sneakers. Tanveer, 17, is 7-foot-3 and wears size 19s. The attention comes with the stature, not to mention their status as accomplished basketball prospects, both of whom have represented Canada on the international stage.
Still, when they took a family vacation to their parents’ native India a few years back, they were shocked by the reception. One moment the Bhullars were making a solemn pilgrimage to the Golden Temple, a sacred shrine of the Sikh religion. The next they were enshrouded in a sea of curious humanity. An awed throng wanted to touch them, take their photograph, exclaim “Oh my God, you are so tall!” Site security ushered the family into a private room and arranged for a car to pull up close and ferry them away from the fray.
“Whenever we turned around there was like 40 or 50 people following us,” remembered Tanveer.
Said Sim: “There were hordes of people . . . It was just a crazy, crazy day.”
The crowds on this side of the planet haven’t been nearly as crushing, although both Sim and Tanveer have been known to raise a considerable ruckus in various hoop-inclined venues. Sim is currently a freshman at New Mexico State University, the frequent March Madness entrant, where the coaching staff is hoping his arrival will help the Aggies gain a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years. Tanveer, after a handful of seasons spent playing at U.S. prep schools, is back home playing at Rexdale’s Father Henry Carr Secondary School, where he’s the starting centre on what is thought by some observers to be the best high school squad in the country.
The Bhullar brothers are coming of age at a time when their ancestral homeland amounts to one of their beloved sport’s only unconquered frontiers. India, with its population of about 1.2 billion, is in the midst of an enviable economic boom that has seen more than one global brand put down roots of late. The NBA recently opened an office in Bombay, the country’s most populous city, in an effort to expand its fan base on the Asian subcontinent.
Key to the game’s successful rooting in the world’s second-most populous country, most experts agree, will be the emergence of an NBA player of Indian descent. While there are no certainties in the business of developing elite athletes, both Bhullar brothers are in the running to be that player.
“They would be embraced, because India is a country where family comes first. Everyone’s connected, and everyone has large families. Whether you live in London or Toronto or Chicago or India, we’re all one family,” Troy Justice, the NBA’s director of basketball operations in the country, said in a telephone interview from Bombay. “(The Bhullars) would have a huge impact.”
Certainly their potential as international icons comes with considerable stress.
“It is a lot of pressure, but right now we don’t think that far ahead,” said Avneet Bhullar, 21, Sim and Tanveer’s older sister. “It does carry a lot of responsibility, having everyone looking at you. You’ve got to watch what you say and how you act. But it’s welcome pressure and I trust that they’re very well raised. They’re good boys and good men.”
Sim, who arrived at New Mexico State more than a year ago but did not play for the varsity team last season, has used the past dozen months to drop some 60 pounds from his frame. Currently weighing in around 350 pounds, he says he’d like to be about 310 pounds by the spring.
“I had to change my diet completely,” said Sim, speaking over the phone from New Mexico. “The food I was eating wasn’t really good. It was unhealthy. A lot of pizza, wings. I went to McDonald’s once in a while. Teenager stuff like that. I basically had a whole life change.”
The change has already paid dividends, albeit early in his first collegiate campaign. In a pre-season game earlier this week, Sim racked up five points, four rebounds and two blocked shots in 16 minutes of playing time. In those modest numbers was proof of a quantum leap.
“There wasn’t anyone in the world who thought he could do 15 minutes on the floor in a college game when he first got here,” said Paul Weir, the Mississauga-raised associate head coach at New Mexico State, where Bhullar is one of four Canadians on the roster.
Said Scarborough’s Daniel Mullings, the 6-foot-2 guard who is the Aggies’ best player: “I’ve seen a lot of dedication from Sim.” Added Hamilton’s Tyrone Watson, a 6-foot-5 senior: “Sim’s been running his guts out on the treadmill.”
Tanveer’s presence on the local high school hardwood has already been impressive. In a game this week he blocked a handful of shots while barely leaving his tippy toes; opposing players who challenged him were mostly left to reel off wild attempts that missed their mark. The season is young, but the younger Bhullar is already earning plaudits for his level-headed maturity.
“He’s very personable, very polite. A gentleman,” said Paul Melnik, head coach at Father Henry Carr. “I haven’t seen a negative interaction between him and anybody. He’s just a pleasure to be around . . . So much of basketball success is about the social interaction between those guys on the team and the camaraderie. And for that he’s just a huge bonus.”
If height is a family trait — the boys’ great grandfather is thought to have stood 7 feet while father, Avtar, is 6-foot-4 and mother, Varinder, is 5-foot-10 — hard work is the family ethic. Avtar, who came to Canada with Varinder in 1988, spent many years as a taxi driver before the family took up residence in a three-bedroom apartment above the gas station it runs on Islington Ave., north of Finch Ave. All three Bhullar children have worked at the station; Tanveer and Avneet still help out, working the cash register and filling propane tanks, on a daily basis.
“Just part of the family duties,” Tanveer said.
If the beginnings have been humble, the ultimate endgame is ambitious: Global sporting icon is no easy gig, and certainly the game is littered with forgotten 7-footers once gifted opportunities they never seized. Roy Rana, the Ryerson University coach who doubles as the coach of Canada’s junior national team, laments the outsized hopes piled upon a pair of teenagers.
“It’s huge expectations for those kids, not only to just be normal kids and to try and develop as basketball players in a sport they love, but to carry the hopes of a country of a billion — that’s a lot of pressure,” said Rana, whose parents were both born in India. “I’m not sure they feel it, because they are here, not there. But I know when they’ve gone to India they’ve been treated as celebrities. We all hope they’re going to be successful. But at the same time, they’re bright kids, they come from a great family. Basketball will only be one piece of their success.”
Do the brothers feel the pressure?
“Always, always, yeah,” Tanveer said. “But you always try to stay humble and keep working hard and keep getting better, so we can actually make that happen and not just fade away . . . If we work hard, it’ll be a great accomplishment. We can leave a legacy.”
Said Sim, thinking back to that day at the Golden Temple, when the masses converged slack-jawed and with awe in their eyes: “That was just because I’m tall; nobody even knew about the basketball player. Hopefully in the next couple of years I can make it into the NBA and people will know me for more than just being tall — for being a basketball player.”