There is only one basketball league on the planet currently playing games amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is only one game left in that league’s season. So I’m going to stay up until the wee hours of Thursday morning watching a 7-foot-5 guy try to win a championship in an empty gym.
The lack of sports in my life has been jarring. Normally, I write about sports during the day, because this is my job. Then I watch sports during the evening, because that’s when sporting events happen. I wouldn’t say I’m upset by the lack of sports so much as I am unsettled, like my circadian rhythms have been interrupted. So I’ve sought out basically any sports-like product and bet small amounts of money on it. The soccer leagues in Belarus and Nicaragua have recognized that they’re suddenly the most important sporting competitions in the world, and started streaming all of their games on YouTube. It’s alarming that I know this.
But nothing has been as compelling as Taiwan’s Super Basketball League. I learned the SBL was still playing games three weeks ago, in a New York Times article focused on the league’s decision to play in a “basketball bubble,” with all the teams training and playing in the same facility. That Times piece mentioned something important off-handedly: One of the league’s non-Taiwanese players is Sim Bhullar, the 7-foot-5 Canadian who became the first NBA player of Indian descent during a three-minute stint with the Kings in 2015. (That’s not an exaggeration—Bhullar played for exactly three minutes.) I’m extremely passionate about extremely tall basketball players; in 2014, I wrote that Bhullar was my favorite college basketball player to watch while previewing his New Mexico State team ahead of the NCAA tournament.
So I’ve been watching Bhullar and the Yulon Luxgen Dinos. Since I live in Los Angeles, their games take place in the middle of the damn night—but I’m not really sure when I’m supposed to be awake or asleep anymore. And on Thursday at 5 a.m. ET, I will watch the Dinos play in the winner-take-all Game 6 of the Super Basketball League Finals. (It will be streamed from the official FIBA YouTube account, which, oddly, keeps asking viewers for donations like it’s a teen playing Call of Duty and not a wealthy international sports federation.) I should explain the phrase “winner-take-all Game 6”: The Dinos’ opponent, Taiwan Beer, were given a 1-0 lead to open the series based on their 25-7 regular-season record. So even though the Dinos have won three of the first five games, the series is technically tied 3-3. Honestly, I never thought I’d root for dinosaurs, or anything, over beer.
The Dinos—cute logo, by the way—went 16-16 in the regular season, and thus are underdogs in the series. But they’re the better team, which is why they’ve won three of the five games. Bhullar is paired with Marcus Keene, who averaged 30 points per game for Central Michigan in 2016-17 to lead Division I. In the ultimate act of comedy, Keene is 5-foot-9 … 20 inches and 220 pounds smaller than the mountain to whom he’s passing. Sometimes, the Lilliputian Keene carries around his Gulliver; he’s the team’s leading scorer, and dropped 46 points to force Game 6. But Bhullar changes the shape of every game he plays.
I’ve watched a lot of super-tall basketball players, and Bhullar is different. Most 7-foot-5-and-taller players are stick figures with bodies that appear to have been stretched in Photoshop. When you’re roughly two feet taller than the average human, it’s difficult to add bulk. Bhullar, though, has a relatively normal frame that happens to be 7-foot-5. His listed playing weight in the NBA was 360 pounds, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that figure was too low.
Even at a relatively high level of competition, Bhullar is tough to stop when he gets the ball. He shot 72.7 percent from the field in his first G League season in 2015. In Taiwan, his performance is comical. Bhullar won the SBL title in 2017 by leading the Dacin Tigers to a sweep behind four double-doubles and a 21-and-19 performance. This year, he didn’t join the Dinos until March, and Bhullar won Player of the Week honors in four of the league’s final five weeks. In the first round of the playoffs, the Dinos swept Pauian, a team with no players taller than 6-foot-10. Bhullar averaged 23 points and 20 rebounds while shooting 71.7 percent from the field. Nobody has ever looked as simultaneously dominant and bored as Bhullar does while half-heartedly shoveling the ball into the rim with a cavalcade of Taiwanese men hanging off his shoulders. (He’s the big guy.)
2020/4/18 Super Basketball League Playoff Game3 HL#Yulon beats #Pauian in 3 straight wins. Advanced into Championship which starts on April 21st. They will faceoff with #TaiwanBeer. pic.twitter.com/ibcde6NTF5— ELEVEN SPORTS TAIWAN (@ElevenSportsTW) April 18, 2020
So how have the Dinos managed to lose two games? Taiwan Beer, which has a 6-foot-11 player in the Ukrainian Igor Zaytsev, has kept Bhullar in check, holding him to six points in Game 1 and four points in Game 5. (Bhullar is averaging 10.2 points and 14.8 rebounds for the series.) And Bhullar comes with his limitations, as he is quite possibly the slowest player I’ve ever seen. He moves like an ent. On defense, he looms in the paint while the other four Dinos scramble around frantically to make up for the fact that one of their teammates will not provide help defense or rotate under any circumstances. Yes, Bhullar is an imposing presence in the paint—in 2015, he led the G League in blocks per game—but that’s not as significant as it’d seem when opponents can get wide-open 3-pointers and midrange jumpers with a few passes and screens.
Watching Bhullar feels less like watching basketball than an experiment to see whether a team playing six-on-five on offense can succeed if it’s playing four-on-five on defense. I’ll be up in the middle of the night to see whether the experimenters can win. It’s the last basketball game in the last basketball league on earth, and I have no idea what I’ll do when it’s over.