By Steve Keating TORONTO (Reuters) - When the National Basketball Association staged its All-Star Game in Toronto this year it was another subtle sign of a league's global ambitions. It marked the first time the mid-season showcase had been held outside the United States yet could hardly be considered daring or groundbreaking with the NBA firmly entrenched in North America's third biggest metropolis for over two decades. In a sense the NBA returned home to its roots since the sport was invented by Canadian James Naismith in 1891. But there are no such basketball bloodlines in China, now the NBA's biggest foreign market, and even fewer ties to India, the cricket-crazed subcontinent that the league has targeted for its next growth spurt. Decades ago the NBA dispatched missionaries around the world to spread the basketball gospel with hopes of seeing the game one day rival soccer as the world's most popular sport while making the NBA a flagship destination for players and fans. According to the NBA, 300 million people play some form of organized basketball in China and the league has India's 1.3 billion population in its crosshairs employing the same patient game plan to growing the sport from the grassroots up. "There are a lot of similarities when we think about the opportunity in India and how we thought about China. There is also some very big differences," the NBA's president of global operations and merchandising, Sal LaRocca, told Reuters. "Basketball has been played in China for over 100 years and basketball relatively speaking is relatively new to India. "The fan base is growing in India, we have done a lot of on ground grassroots initiatives the last couple of years. "We think there is a lot of opportunity and the best is yet to come." 'BIG WORLD OUT THERE' The NBA first cast an eye beyond U.S. borders in 1978 when the now-defunct Washington Bullets went to Israel to play Maccabi Tel Aviv. NBA teams have since played a combined 161 games in 45 cities and 20 countries all over the world. Long before India's name is added to that growing list of countries to host an NBA game - and there are currently no concrete plans - the league will have laid a solid foundation for its arrival on the subcontinent. What was once a labor intensive promotional effort has been overtaken by a viral volcano of tweets, videos and chatrooms with the NBA boasting that it has surpassed 1 billion followers on social media. "The U.S. together with Canada is roughly five percent of the global population. So there's a big world out there and they all seem to be following us on social media," said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. "Social media is the perfect example of the kind of following we can quickly generate in markets where we've never played games. "So I'm sure India is a market that we're going to be spending increasing amounts of time on developing our game." While the NBA has established a solid social media presence the footwear companies have provided the boots on ground with Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Under Armour leading the charge in into vast new markets. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry have provided the marketing muscle for the footwear giants on which the NBA has piggybacked. "Nike, Under Armour and Adidas had huge businesses in China and have done a great job in bringing players over there and exposing them in ways that frankly we would not be able to do," said LaRocca. "Kobe (Bryant) has been there (China) many times with Nike, Steph Curry has been there many times with Under Armour so our partnerships, our relationships with those footwear companies they really amplify our on-the-ground efforts to grow the sport." UNEARTH HIDDEN GEM Today the hoop dreams of kid growing up in Shanghai are no different to a kid in Compton -- to play in the NBA. The search for talent is worldwide. Basketball Without Borders brought 52 high school aged players from 27 countries across Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe to the NBA All-Star Game to give them exposure to scouts. Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri has his own initiative called "Giants of Africa" to help children through sport and perhaps unearth a hidden gem. This season, opening night rosters in the NBA featured 100 international players from 37 countries and territories. All 30 teams feature at least one international player. None were from India or China, but that is expected to change. Yao Ming, who retired in 2011, was a transcendent star who cemented the NBA's place on the Chinese sporting landscape. Now India is looking for its Yao. The NBA has an Indian owner in Sacramento Kings Vivek Ranadive, who was born in Mumbai, but the player to galvanize a fan base has yet to arrive. Last year Satnam Singh Bhamara, the son of a farmer, became the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA when the Dallas Mavericks used the 52nd pick on the 7-foot-2-inch center. "In our experience the most direct way that we can grow fan bases around the world is if there is a player that fan base can attach itself to," said LaRocca. "We have seen that in Spain with the Gasol brothers, in France with Tony Parker and Germany with Dirk (Nowitzki)." (Editing by Frank Pingue)
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