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Setbacks and bouncebacks: On Eban Hyams, India's first pro ballplayer

Setbacks and bouncebacks: On Eban Hyams, India's first pro ballplayer

In life, opportunity is everything. In sports, it’s a necessity to succeed.

Holding the honor of being the first native of India to play professional basketball on an international stage, Eban Hyams found his chance elsewhere. 

Having recently turned 42 years old, he shared his life story — a tale of hardship, perseverance and purpose.

“If I can inspire somebody and change someone's mind and help somebody get through something in life, then why not?” Hyams told Basketball News over the phone. “Because I didn't have a silver spoon. I grew up in a single-parent house. My father passed away when I was seven. So we came through hard times, but hard times make people stronger. 

“So that's why I tell people, 'Don't worry about your situation now and how hard it is. Believe me, it's actually making you stronger for the long run.’”

Born and raised in Pune, Maharashtra, India, Hyams dreamt of being a professional athlete. At that time, he hadn’t even thought about basketball with only a 10-foot hoop and one Size 7 ball to use. Instead, he played cricket (the most popular game there) and soccer (the first game he loved), and Hyams excelled at both at The Bishop’s School. A career in sports, though, was a rarity without the proper connections and finances. 

Tragically, when he was just seven years old, his father Erick died. Hyams and his two siblings lived near their uncle’s army base with their mother Marilyn, who worked late hours to support her children, so Hyams’ aspirations appeared to be a fantasy. However, young Eban was quite persuasive, and his mom kept an open ear. 

With family living over six thousand miles away in Australia, Hyams and his family moved abroad to Sydney when he was 12. He was met with many challenges he hadn’t faced, including racism, but pushed through.

Soccer wasn’t as big of a deal in Australia as it was back home. Two sports were: Basketball and rugby. Trying his hand on the pitch, a scrawny, teenage Hyams “almost killed myself a couple of times,” which led him to a hardwood floor for the first time in his life.

“I couldn't touch the nets, couldn't make a basket to save my life. I didn't even know that much about the game,” Hyams said. “We didn't come from a basketball background, didn't have the fundamentals. I just was so far behind. But, I just had passion and I just blocked out all the noise and just kept at it, kept playing 'til I just eventually started growing and getting better.”

While his uncle and siblings were in his ear telling him to stop wasting his time and work in information technology, engineering or the medical field, Hyams was busy watching NBA games and improving in the gym. He had ambition, and was dead set on making it to the Association.

At 15, Hyams began competing on the court as he attended Cambridge Park High School. As he grew in size and stature, so did his game. Eventually, he earned a scholarship to Terra Sancta College (now known as St John Paul II Catholic College) and suited up there. His talent was so special that it caught the attention of the Penrith Panthers, a semi-pro club in the Australian Basketball Association. He played there for three seasons before deciding a move to the United States was his next toward achieving his objective. 

Hyams needed to be around good players and good coaching, and his first stop was the College of Coastal Georgia, a junior college in Brunswick. After one year in the States, Hyams came back to Sydney. Awaiting him was an open invitation to play against the Boomers — the Australian national team.

“They were going to the Olympics at that time in 2004. It was like my coming out party because no one knew who I was,” Hyams said. “And I just came and showcased, and I balled out in that game. I even had probably one of the best poster dunks on the best defender who used to guard Kobe (Bryant) and LeBron (James) for the Australian team [Glen Savel].”

The showing impressed Aussie head coach Brian Goorjian so much that he tried to convince Hyams to go to Metro State in Colorado to play under Mike Dunlap, who Goorjian had coached against in the National Basketball League in previous years. Even so, despite having the chance to play for a powerhouse Division II school with two recent championship seasons, Hyams he’d only get to the NBA by being a Division I athlete. So, he declined the offer and went back to the U.S.

Hyams instead chose to transfer to Perimeter College at Georgia State University in Decatur. Unfortunately, his playing time wasn’t up to par with what he was looking for. With talented guards already there, it was tough sledding to find a spot in the rotation. Any possibility of going D-I and previous offers he had vanished. And just like that, in 2005, Hyams’ college career was over.

Again, Hyams returned to Australia. Garnering little interest from teams, he figured a new short-term goal was in order: Reach the NBL. Thankfully that summer, the AND1 Tour hit his part of town. Daniel Moldovan — who nowadays represents talents like Josh Giddey, Dyson Daniels, Xavier Cooks, Mojave King and more from the country through Octagon Sports — was able to get Hyams on the team. 

“I went on tour with them in 2005 across the country. I just held my own and I got the nickname 'Do It All.' Cause I was shooting, passing, dunking, rebounding, getting blocks, getting steals. And nobody got me in AND1,” Hyams recalled. “Like, they were trying to get every player that played on the team (to do it). The best thing is that I held my own and it was the best opportunity and a great way for me to get exposure for the NBL.”

And so, following another stint in the ABA with the Sydney Comets, another team came calling. In their first season as a part of the NBL in its efforts to connect Asia and Australia, the Singapore Slingers offered Hyams his first professional contract ahead of the 2006-07 campaign.

“It was like such a sign of relief because I think there were so many naysayers around me that were like, 'You're never gonna be a pro player, man. You're wasting your time.' They just wanted to prove me wrong, you know? And I didn't necessarily want to prove them wrong. I wanted to prove myself right, that I knew that I could do that,” Hyams said. 

“I think just being able to say that I made it and I didn't listen to (those doubters) and I didn't give up. I said when I signed that first contract and finally was a professional athlete, that is a moment that I'll never forget and that's something that nobody can take away from me.”

Even with achieving what he set out to do, Hyams’ debut season didn’t go quite as planned. For one, after putting together a successful summer league with the team, he wasn’t afforded the minutes he believed he earned. On top of that, the travel from country to country was exhausting.

“Joe Ingles and me were rookies that year. I had better numbers than Joe Ingles (during the summer). The difference is that he got to start on the team and I really wasn't getting (the same chance),” Hyams said. “I was averaging 5 minutes of court time and I was averaging 5 points at the same time. And I really wasn't too happy sitting cause I felt like I was good enough to play and I proved myself. 

“We kept flying back to Australia every weekend to play. So a nine-hour flight to play three games and then to fly right back. And it was a lot of other different challenges. It was tough.”

He felt coming back to the NBL for another year wouldn’t be the best idea, so he turned down the Slingers and played for the ABA’s Bankstown Bruins for a bit. He then trekked west to Israel to try out for Hapoel Galil Elyon in the Israeli Basketball Premier League. 

Galil Elyon liked what it saw and extended a three-year offer to Hyams in the 2007-08 season. In addition to being Indian, Hyams is Jewish, which allowed him to participate in the Maccabiah Games in the past, so he was thrilled to be headed to the IBPL. Yet, as it was in the NBL, Hyams did not find himself on the floor in his first season there. 

“The coach didn't even wanna sign me. It was the management that signed me,” explained Hyams, who was grateful for Danny Franco — who became the organization’s next head coach — recruiting him at the Maccabiah Games.

This time, though, Hyams was going to stick with it and figured he could work his way up the ladder with Galil Elyon. In the offseason that followed, he was preparing to make the trip back to Israel before his life changed forever.

“I had a going away party. I was with my friends and I figured I wasn't gonna see everybody for about 10 months. I'm not a person that likes to, per se, drink,” Hyams said. “But, because there was a celebration, I was kind of forced into drinking and got to the point where I was so outta control, where I didn't even know where I was at and ended up getting into a big fight with somebody. Later on, come to find out, it really changed my pathway. And that's the difference of being young and not having the right mentorship and also, being intoxicated.”

Hyams woke up the next morning with pain in his left hand. Initially, X-rays didn’t show his doctor any sort of significant issue. Two weeks later, Hyams found out he had a fracture in his fourth and fifth metacarpal, meaning he’d been misdiagnosed. A callus began growing over the bone as it healed itself, so he couldn’t open it for eight months. Due to malpractice, Hyams was convinced by his circle to take the physician to court. 

He found a lawyer and went through with it. One hearing in, Hyams was paid out. All of this happened over the course of two-and-a-half years, and he never suited up for Galil Elyon after the fact. On the bright side, Hyams healed up and played for a couple of more semi-pro teams, got back to form and sought to go back home to play for the Indian national team.

Upon his arrival in 2011, the NBA began its outreach in the country. While training with the national team, Hyams met Troy Justice, who was heading the program in India. Justice told him he was the kind of representative the league was looking for and asked him to help promote the game. Things were finally looking up as Hyams was at his highest level, preparing for the FIBA Asia Championship to help India qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games.

But two weeks before the team took a flight to China, Hyams didn’t feel well. 

“I ended up getting dengue fever. I had got bitten by a mosquito and it almost always killed me in India,” Hyams said. “These mosquitoes, you don't realize it's like malaria and dengue. They're so bad that you can die in a week 'cause you just end up losing your blood.”

Dengue fever sidelined him indefinitely, destroying any momentum he had regained toward playing the game. While he was blessed to survive in the first place, the virus took a devastating toll on his body physically. Hyams lost all of his muscle mass, and doctors told him it would take a number of years to recover from the joint pain and other effects. 

With his playing career essentially on the backburner at this point, he found a pick-me-up. Justice and the NBA followed through on their proposition. Hyams had signed a two-year contract to become NBA India’s manager of basketball operations in Mumbai in Jan. 2012.

“That was the best opportunity that could happen off something negative that happened,” Hyams said. “(We) did about 400 camps and clinics all around the country. I had the opportunity to meet David Stern, just an amazing person. I met Robert Horry, Raja Bell, Luc Longley. We did basketball camps with these guys and a lot of amazing talented Indian players all across the country. So that was an amazing experience and I'll never forget that.”

The main thing Hyams suggested was having a pro league as he previously mentioned. The other was a more creative idea: Making a movie.

“A lot of things, they go around through Bollywood in India,” Hyams shared. “It's such a big culture, the Bollywood industry, that to do a proper basketball movie is a great way to get it out there, to get the game out there and to get more awareness about it and what the game can do for people. Not just if you're a professional baller. Just getting people fit and healthy, teaching about confidence and leadership.”

That point in his life showed Hyams how much he loved coaching and spreading his love of basketball. He still played — and even flew back to the U.S. to try out for multiple then-D-League teams — after sustaining the illness. He continues to lace up a pair of sneakers and hoop still, even as he gets into his 40s. With that being said, his priorities have changed.

Hyams desperately wants India to expand further into hoops at all levels. He enjoyed his experience in 2017 playing for Haryana Gold in the United Basketball Alliance, the first men’s professional basketball league in the country that the Basketball Federation of India ceased in 2018. He also enjoyed participating in 3x3 competition with the Hyderabad Ballers in 3BL, India's first three-on-three pro league recognized by the BFI and FIBA.

The problem, Hyams states, is the lack of sustainability and infrastructure. There aren’t available indoor facilities where anybody can just pick up a ball and shoot hoops. Considering the hot temperatures of the summer and the torrential rains in the three months that follow, a place to play inside is a necessity. Hyams concedes that there are outdoor semi-pro leagues for players to turn to, but by the time they hit 30, their bodies are broken down.

“They don't have the tournaments set up all year round or the training. And that's what's kind of hindering the sport,” Hyams said. “I played in the (UBA) myself. We were for the first time getting so much more respect and you could see the improvement. Players were improving so much because they were playing on a regular basis and had access to weight rooms and playing on an NBA surface, ‘cause the court was brought over from the U.S. By the time 2018 came around, (the UBA) was gonna have the biggest jump because they had people interested in buying teams. And the league, it had grown so much in two years that I think by now, it would've been a well-known league. 

“Unfortunately, they were shut down and it really hurts the local players mostly because a lot of kids who were playing were finally getting paid really well and treated like professional athletes. and even their games were shown on TV. And even the crowds, we played a couple of times in some gyms where it was packed houses and they were loud and it was so much fun to play in that atmosphere. So I think there's so much potential for the game in India. I think if we can really allow these leagues to happen, you're gonna see the growth of the game so much more ‘cause that's kind of what's been holding the game back a lot.”

(Hyams mentioned the Indian National Basketball League is great, but seeing as it’s tournament-based with prize-money incentives instead of a fully professional league, it isn’t the same level that he’s looking for.)

To Hyams, the NBA coming to India all those years ago and then launching an NBA Academy in 2017 is the best thing that could’ve happened for basketball’s growth in the nation. We’ve already seen alum go on to have success internationally, at NBA Summer League and in the G League. He worked closely with Palpreet Singh Brar and Princepal Singh, who played for the Ignite in its inaugural season and won a summer league championship with the Sacramento Kings in 2021.

NBA Academy India is viewed as only a start for Hyams’ vision. With recruits coming in from the southern and northern parts of the country well-prepared and ahead of the curve, he’d like to see East and West India — particularly Mumbai and Kolkata — put more effort into investing in the youth.

“It's great for them to be there, but it's a country of a billion-plus people. So, we need more than one academy. I think every city needs an academy like that,” Hyams said. “And then, these academies should be competing against each other on a regular basis. So they're playing good competition and they're living and training on a daily basis. And then also, I think it'd be great for them to go overseas and play different competition just to get that exposure. So then when they do go play for the national team, they're playing on a higher level. 

“And that's kind of how you can get a guide to potentially end up going to the US — whether it's NBA. I mean, a few guys have gone to college. But I feel like we just want that next step, and that's the NBA.”

As for who to look out for next from India, Pranav Prince and Josh Sharma are on his radar.

Nothing makes Hyams more happy than helping develop the next generation. It’s something he’s done since he was 19, and has been doing more frequently since the COVID pandemic at his self-launched International Basketball Academy. Oftentimes, he’s working in Sydney with his nephews — Klairus Amir and Zekyle Amir. Children of his sister, Aviva, the two just arrived back in Australia after spending time in the U.S.

The 17-year-old Klairus is a 6-foot-7 shooting guard who’s been reached out to by the NBL to participate in Next Stars, the same program that LaMelo Ball, R.J. Hampton, Josh Giddey, Ousmane Dieng and Mojave King took part in. Klairus also participated in Basketball Without Borders Global Camp during NBA All-Star weekend in Salt Lake City, and has heard from a number of schools over the years like Arkansas, Illinois, Oklahoma, Xavier, UCLA, Clemson, UCLA, George Mason, San Diego and Sacramento State.

Meanwhile, Zekyle is a 6-6 point guard already at just 16 years of age, and he’s only getting started.

“They're not even done growing. They both wear Size 16 [shoes] at the moment, U.S,” Hyams said. “So it's crazy. I had a really late growth spurt in 12th grade, so I'll assume that they're at least gonna grow a few more inches before they're done.

“We've just been at it every day. That's my main focus is getting them ready. “(Klairus) has got one more year of high school if he wants. But he's already got the pro teams looking at him. So there's a chance he might even sign in the Australian League next year. I want my nephew to go further than me. They're so much better than I was and they're so much more advanced than where I was at their age."

Asked about being India’s literal trailblazer, Hyams takes pride in knowing that he found a way to becoming a pro athlete. He didn’t sit on his hands. He acted on it and made it happen.

“I'm disappointed that because of my injury that I missed out on making the NBA, ‘cause I was one step away and that was my [ultimate] goal, and I would've got there if I didn't have that thing happen. But in life, sometimes things happen and it's about not giving up and not getting down, but getting back on the horse,” Hyams said. “We are gonna face different challenges. It doesn't mean that your life is over. You didn't exactly achieve what you wanted, but as long as you worked hard... I was a shy kid growing up. I was pretty quiet. I think basketball really helped me get confidence and self-belief, and I learned how to be able to talk to anybody and learned how to work hard. 

“All these skill sets that I learned from basketball, they've taught me life lessons. Anything I put my mind to, I can achieve it. I believe that I learned that, and I think that's what I'm really thankful for. That's what the game has taught me. And it's taken me around the world and it's introduced to so many people. I've met amazing people around the world, and I've got great relationships with a lot of amazing people through it. So I'm thankful for the sport and the game.”

Hyams wants those growing up with similar dreams to know that “it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re trying to go.” If you aim to do something great and follow the blueprint of your predecessors, it is realistic to accomplish.

“With sports coming to India in a big way, it's not hard to achieve those things like they were (before). I mean, there are still some challenges. I'm not saying there isn't in life. You could be in America, there's still challenges. It doesn't matter where you are in the world, there's gonna be challenges, but you have to block out the noise,” Hyams said. “And you have to find a way to just keep poised throughout the whole time. Believe in your dream and wake up every morning and find a way to get better and find a way to achieve that goal.”

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