Why did the NBA pay a YouTube star to fly halfway around the world for All-Star Weekend?

Check out all the celebrities in town of the NBA All-Star Game

Celebrities have been spotted all over Charlotte during NBA All-Star Weekend.
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Celebrities have been spotted all over Charlotte during NBA All-Star Weekend.

Not so long ago, Bhuvan Bam — a resident of India’s capital territory of Delhi — wouldn’t have been able to find his way to the three-point line on a basketball court or even give you the definition of a layup, much less be able to tell the difference between Lebron James and Stephen Curry.

Then last year, he got a call from the NBA that we’d imagine went (very roughly) like this: “Hey Bhuvan, we want to put you on a plane, fly you halfway around the world, and give you great tickets to a Boston Celtics game.”

He accepted the invitation, and in April 2018, he received his introduction to the National Basketball Association.

“It’s probably the most swift sport I’ve seen in my life ... but I don’t think it’s just a sport,” he says now, recalling becoming a convert overnight. “It’s a phenomenon. It’s a spectacle, where people don’t come just to see the players put the ball in the basket. They come for what’s happening around it. ... It’s magical. I was excited to go back and talk about it in my country.”

That’s exactly what the NBA wants to hear from Bam, a 25-year-old comedian, singer and social media star not just in India but also Bangladesh, Dubai, Nepal and Pakistan.

He’s got an incredible reach, boasting 2 million-plus followers on Twitter, 4 million-plus followers on Facebook, 5 million-plus on Instagram, and 12-million-plus on YouTube. Therefore, he’s a powerful grassroots way for the NBA to market itself to an increasingly valuable audience the league wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. Therefore, he’s the recent recipient of another all-expenses-paid trip by the NBA — this time to Charlotte for All-Star Weekend.

And he’s not alone: Bam is one of a small army of influencers from eight countries who are getting the VIP treatment at various events in and around Bojangles’ Coliseum and Spectrum Center up to and including Sunday night’s main event.

It’s the second year the NBA’s international influencer program has played host during All-Star Weekend. In Los Angeles a year ago, a total of 17 influencers — actors, musicians, TV personalities, social media stars — came from overseas to be wined and dined; this weekend, the NBA says, 27 are here visiting from China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa and the United Kingdom, all nations where the league is gaining a foothold.

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Members of the NBA international influencers program rub shoulders with the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Dončić before the Rising Stars Game in Charlotte. Julio Manteiga NBA

“We want to create experiences that they can take back to their local markets,” says Kelly Flatow, the NBA’s senior vice president for global events. “It’s really about getting the influencers behind the scenes during All-Star, and making sure that they have a great experience and they can share it with their fans.”

The program is a small piece of larger global puzzle that the NBA has been assembling for years — decades even.

The idea? As NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told the Associated Press in October, he believes that basketball can be the No. 1 sport in the world. The way to get it there is, obviously, is to take it there.

Overseas preseason and regular-season games have been a longstanding tradition for the league, but it’s stepping up efforts to move into new territory. In December, it was announced that the Indiana Pacers and the Sacramento Kings will play two preseason games in Mumbai on India’s west coast this coming October.

If you walk the security perimeter around the Spectrum Center it will take about 20-30 minutes. This video is running at 20x normal speed.

And literally just a few hours ago, the NBA and the International Basketball Federation announced a plan to launch the Basketball Africa League (BAL), a new professional league featuring 12 club teams from across Africa.

The influencer group in Charlotte, in fact, includes six members from Africa: South Africans Loyiso Gola (a comedian), Sho Madjozi (a rapper), Scoop Makhathini (a TV personality) and Cassper Nyovest (an artist and producer), along with musician Tekno and rapper/songwriter YCEE, who are both from Nigeria. The African contingent is tied for the largest with China.

The smallest is the group from the U.K. — which numbers only one: North Londoner Josh Denzel, who has gained a massive following for his work with social media and entertainment company LADbible and offshoot SPORTbible but also for his breakout stardom on a reality-dating show in England called “Love Island.”

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An Instagram post by Josh Denzel from the floor at Bojangles’ Coliseum on Saturday. Instagram

Denzel, 27, says his first All-Star Weekend experience was in New Orleans in 2017, when he covered the event for SPORTbible.

“That was really the first proper interaction I had with the NBA. But about two months ago, they were like, ‘Listen, you’ve got this opportunity to come out here and experience All-Star Weekend as just you on your own — as Josh Denzel — so I was like, ‘Absolutely. I’ve gotta take that opportunity.’”

After all, it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.

For what’s basically pocket change to the NBA, the league gets organic content for much cheaper than the cost of an elaborate marketing campaign. And for the influencers ... well, it’s not exactly like they have to work hard while they’re here. It’s more like they have to play hard, and then maybe post the best photo or video from their adventures each day.

The itinerary has included — among other things: tickets to a huge private Jack Daniel’s-sponsored party on Thursday night and to the hard-to-get-into All-Star Legends Brunch on Sunday morning; private tours of the Nike + Jordan Brand installation at the Mint Museum and of Charlotte Motor Speedway; a meet-and-greet with several of the famous folks playing in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game on Friday night; and of course VIP seats and access at the Slam Dunk and 3-Point contests and the All-Star Game.

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Chinese professional basketball player Ding Yanyuhang takes in the scene during the group’s tour of Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord on Saturday. Julio Manteiga NBA

It’s like Disneyland for a die-hard basketball fan like Rannvijah Singh.

“I used to play ball going up, and this is my dream to watch an NBA game,” says the 35-year-old actor and MTV India VJ. “Now I’m here at the All-Star Weekend and it’s crazy. And Charlotte’s really special for me because I’m a big Michael Jordan fan.”

Even if you’re not quite as wild about hoops as him, it’s still an extraordinary adventure for a guy like Bhuvan Bam.

“It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful,” says the Indian YouTube star. “Every child in India dreams of coming to the U.S. And I’ve been here four times ... twice because of the NBA. And I’m looking forward to more trips.

He smiles: “Free trips.”

Celebrities have been spotted all over Charlotte during NBA All-Star Weekend.

Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.