Transforming Dreams and Seas with NBA’s Purpose-Driven Initiative

Leo Burnett Dubai and the NBA join forces for “Nets for Change,” transforming abandoned fishing nets into dreams for aspiring young girls in India, one hoop at a time.

In an innovative move to merge sports, social impact, and environmental consciousness, the NBA has launched a transformative initiative, “Nets for Change,” in collaboration with Leo Burnett Dubai and Publicis Groupe Middle East. The campaign’s core objective is twofold: repurpose abandoned fishing nets as basketball nets while nurturing love of the game for aspiring young female basketball players across India. 

India’s marine ecosystem suffers from a staggering presence of discarded fishing nets, constituting a significant portion of marine debris and causing irreparable harm to marine life. At the same time, numerous basketball courts lie neglected across the country, symbolizing untapped potential and unseen athletic talent, especially among aspiring young girls in the community. “Nets for Change” aims to address these dual challenges by recycling fishing nets to create basketball nets, addressing environmental concerns but also broadening opportunities to engage more young female athletes in the basketball community. 

At the heart of this initiative lies the compelling short film “JUMP,” which narrates the journey of a young girl named Ananya through spoken word poetry. Ananya’s story symbolizes the leap from neglect and abandonment to empowerment and recognition, paralleling the transformation of overlooked basketball hoops into vibrant ones. Accompanying the film is an original soundtrack titled “Udh Le” (meaning “Go Fly” in Hindi), composed to encapsulate Ananya’s journey of resilience and determination. 

In a Q&A with Tahaab Rais, Chief Strategy Officer at Publicis Groupe Middle East & Turkey, the creative force and film director behind the campaign shed light on the inspiration and execution of “JUMP.”

When the NBA engaged Leo Burnett Dubai, what was the brief and what challenge(s) were you asked to solve? 

Basketball, in its nascent stage in India, stands in contrast to more established sports like cricket, badminton, and soccer. While cricket enjoys a fervent following deeply embedded in the nation’s cultural fabric, basketball made its Indian debut only in 2011. Resulting in only a few million out of 1.4 billion people in India playing the sport. Lack of widespread media coverage, challenges in infrastructure, and limited visibility restricted the prevalence of basketball in India predominantly with the middle and upper classes. However, the essence of any sport’s prominence lies in grassroots engagement and widespread love. 

As an up-and-coming brand (and category driver) in India’s sports landscape, the NBA wanted to make an impact that was purpose-driven and would resonate with audiences while building love and support for the game. 

What are some cultural truths and insights that helped to inspire “Nets for Change”?

Neglected fishing nets in the sea make up 80% of marine debris in India, devastating marine life and their natural habitat. Neglected basketball nets abound in courts across India, as do many neglected female talents – both remaining unseen. The NBA had a chance to make an impact on the sea and on land. 

It seems that the team was working with the theme of abandonment and restoration – from fish nets to basketball courts. Most would never marry the two. How did you uncover these two very different and distinct insights? 

The core thread was giving a second life to those who were neglected at large: Female basketball talents on the streets and gullies (alleyways), and the lost fishing nets in the seas. Taking those neglected nets, repurposing them, and sprucing up basketball courts, along with aesthetic upgrades to those courts, and importantly, taking those neglected talents and giving them the training and then, the limelight on the courts helped make a dual impact, ticking off two very important Sustainable Development Goals. And in doing so, making the game of basketball more accessible to more people, one neglected hoop and female talent at a time. 

This campaign comes to life in a compelling visual in the form of the film, “JUMP.” How did you learn of Ananya’s story? How did this film idea come about? 

I was walking down a street and saw birds fly out of a window of an abandoned villa. They were flying from a place they were comfortable in and settled in, into a place of unfamiliarity. That leap of faith those pigeons took got me thinking about the brief we had from the NBA. Those birds flying up from their today to their tomorrow, forged the core premise behind the film – to fly, to jump. 

When casting for the lead protagonist who would carry the story, we cast from the streets and small towns of India, looking at talents who loved basketball. We found Ananya during these casting sessions. Then, with a sports coach from the NBA we trained them over a period. And we featured Ananya as our protagonist in the film, following her journey. She was not an actor, and that helped make the performance raw, genuine, and authentic, hence, believable. As there were no dialogues in the film, it was essential and imperative the girl could emote through her eyes and had expressive eyes. Ananya did just that and delivered a captivating performance.  

The use of music and narration was a big component of the film. What was the significance of the original soundtrack and how was it used to shape the film and complement Ananya’s journey? 

We didn’t want to buy a track off the shelf or use a known track. We wanted to give this film its own melody. We first wanted to give it a name and create our hook from that name. We called it “Udh Le” (“Go Fly” in Hindi), as the entire story was around a child flying out of her today to her tomorrow. Then, working with 2 talented musicians, Raghav & Arjun, we worked on the composition of the track, to create its own journey. The track encompasses the hope she holds yet balances it with the pain she goes through struggling to find her purpose with basketball and persevering to win the game. It starts soft and builds up, but then picks up and elevates the film to a tantalizing crescendo. Using a consortium of Indian and western instruments, it creates a truly global track worthy of the NBA. 

Then, we need to compliment the beautiful musical journey with a vocal melody too, and I looked up young, upcoming singers in India and found Meba Ofilia who absolutely nailed the melody set forth by Raghav & Arjun.  

And the poem? Why did you choose to tell Ananya’s story using spoken word as the narrative format? 

When we came up with the idea for the film and the title, ‘Jump’, we didn’t want to do a typical voiceover, or use a well-known soundtrack. To give Ananya and others like her their voice, we had to create our own voice for the film. Basketball’s a poetic sport. It’s poetry in motion. And the choice was made to complement the visual poetry on screen with poetry delivered via the human voice too.  Plus, I love writing poetry, especially spoken word poetry! So, this was a golden opportunity to let that side out for a brand, for a change. 

What’s the ultimate goal for the NBA in India? What impact is the NBA hoping to have regarding female sports participation and environmental stewardship in India? 

The NBA is seeking to bring basketball as a game to everyone in India, inspired from its global vision. It aims to include those who don’t get the chance to get access the quality and infrastructure for top-class basketball training This encompasses getting more girls playing basketball at a junior and grassroot levels for sure, but also unlocks the opportunity to include others such as people with disabilities and of determination who are thus far excluded the world over from the game.  

Do you have any anecdotes or memorable moments from the development or execution of the campaign that you can share? 

Firstly, the final shot in the film of the girl jumping and the bird flying was a fantastic coincidence. We were shooting on Phantom to get that extremely slow-motion shot, and suddenly this bird flies in as the girl is jumping. It was serendipity. I literally cried with glee before yelling cut and screamed happily when that shot was done. They have that somewhere in the BTS reel, I am sure. I still get goosebumps thinking of it! 

Secondly, we wrapped the shoot before time on all days! We had a great cast, yes, but we also had a fantastic cinematographer in Satchith Paulose (and his team, of course), a creative yet an “in control” AD team led by Bhavna Gautam, a brilliant art team led by Tanisha Goswami, and a fantastic crew put together by our production partners, Liwa Content.Driven and Jumping JackFilms.