Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 11am

#JBBSir: Meet J B Bernstein - The Man who inspired Disney's Million Dollar Arm

Everything is relative, some people say.

Take Premiership footballers, for instance. 

For all the bashing that Wayne Rooney receives for his £300,000-a-week pay packet (not to mention his questionable after-hours hook-ups with grannies in leather cat suits), his doubtless ridiculous salary (don't forget, to kick a ball around) pales in comparison with what athletes earn out across the pond in America.

Floyd Mayweather makes more for a single fight than Rooney does in an entire year.  The highest-paid quarterback in American Football (which isn't really football) made more than twice as much as Rooney last year.  And that too in a sport that only Americans 'get' and watch.

American sport - even at university-level - is so competitive and flush with money that each discipline - be it the NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball or the professional Lacrosse league - requires a management style that's comparable to the trading floor of a commodities exchange: men (and occasionally women) hustling each other, screaming down phones, making deals, scrapping for a piece of the pie.

While the boxers and the quarterbacks and the pitchers hog the headlines, American sport is underpinned by these trading floor scrappers. 

Scrappers like J B Bernstein.

Bernstein however, has a quite unique story, one which is the inspiration behind 'Million Dollar Arm', Disney Pictures' marvellously entertaining drama about a jaded baseball agent who comes up with the outlandish idea of staging a talent contest in India in 2007 to find a Major League pitcher from amongst India's countless millions of dreamers.

The film, directed by Australian filmmaker Craig Gillespie, features an exceptional turn by 'Mad Men' star Jon Hamm as the hard-nosed Bernstein.

The idea for s contest, ironically enough, was the direct result of money and the corrupting influence large amounts of it can have on sportsmen, especially young players.

It's 2007.  Bernstein is living the dream of the sports agent.  Among his clients is the legendary and controversial baseball player Barry Bonds.  He had the million-dollar home, the sharp suits, the most expensive watches money could buy, the obligatory Porsche. 

But, as is always the case, there was something amiss.

Months before he dreamt up 'Million Dollar Arm' he had been in talks with a rookie footballer who had promised that he would sign with Bernstein.  

However, days before the deal is finalized, the player asks Bernstein to cough up a cool one million dollars in cash as a sweetener for the privilege of representing him. 

"That was an emotional moment when I saw that on screen.  It was very real, very authentic",  Bernstein says.

"It was the breaking point for me being a sports agent.  I was asking myself, 'is this what my business and my work has come to?'  It was deeply frustrating and terrible. 

"Essentially my career had become bankrupt, not necessarily monetarily but morally and spiritually.  It just wasn't fulfilling to sit across from a young kid who had never really done anything, demanding money for me to help him build his career.  I felt emotionally exhausted at that point."

One young kid's extraordinary greed would turn out to be a blessing of sorts for two young kids thousands of miles away in India. 

But Bernstein's mind at that point was even further afield, in China.  He was thinking of Yao Ming, the 7' 6" tall, Shanghai-born basketball player who had become a global phenomenon just as Bernstein began his soul-searching.

"I started asking myself: what kind of client did I want to represent?  Yao Ming immediately came to mind.  The kind of guy with whom there's a huge upside and it's not all about the parties and the riches.  The kind of guy with whom you can actually impact on other people's' lives and make a difference. "

New York-born Bernstein had been a sports agent since 1994 and had represented some of the biggest names in the American sports business.  Now he was looking outside. 

China had Yao Ming.  Where else could he go where another Yao could help sell a billion t-shirts, a billion hats and get hundreds of millions tuning in to watch baseball?

Although Bernstein is today hazy about when the idea exactly hit him, he acknowledges that credit is due to Scottish 'Britain's Got Talent' sensation Susan Boyle, Simon Cowell and a re-run of an old World Cup cricket match, a sport that Bernstein's on-screen version describes as a bunch of guys running around in a lunatic asylum.

"I didn't use those exact words but it was pretty close to what I then thought about cricket", Bernstein assures me.

Bernstein with Jon Hamm at the US premier of 'Million Dollar Arm'

The rest, as they say, is the stuff of, well, a quintessential Disney feel-good movie, the kind that gets men blaming non-existent dust inside the movie theatre for their watery eyes.

"My business partner Ash Vasudevan (played in the movie by the brilliant Aasif Mandvi) and I came up with the title and we were inspired by Mr Cowell.  But we were careful not to call it a baseball contest because we knew that nobody would know what we were talking about, but the concept of winning a million dollars, throwing a ball, having a strong arm were things that we thought that they were able to relate to a little bit more easily."

Despite travelling the world, Bernstein had never been to India and Jon Hamm's pitch perfect bewilderment in the film - complete with perpetually harassed demeanour and soaking wet shirt - captures Bernstein's own disorientation when he first landed in sweltering Mumbai in the summer of 2007. 

"It was the most dramatic place that I had ever visited for sure.  It was pretty crazy when we first got there and Ash had told me some of what I was supposed to expect.  But I immediately fell in love with the place and I'm not just saying that".

Quite apart from the battle to overcome traffic, chaotic logistics, vague head-shakes and the bane of human existence in India, the new telephone line, Bernstein was also up against a religion called Cricket.

But India, for all its pandemonium,  seemed to spark something in the worn-out sports agent. 

"The one thing that struck me was that Indian people are genuinely happy in a way that you don't find in the west.  They have this cosmic view of life and a longer-reaching view of things.  Americans tend to think that the world didn't exist more than 250 years ago.  

"I was also struck by people's sense of family and love and life, taking pride in their accomplishments, and the sheer fulfilment they got from supporting someone else." 

In spite of the positive vibe, the talent search was frustrating.  Most young Indians didn't have the physical strength to throw a baseball at 90 mph.  Even when they found someone with the right-sized shoulders the throw was, to use cricketing parlance, "wide even in  a Test match".

But the search went on as vans were dispatched to hundreds of colleges, school campuses and even public parks in dozens of cities across India.  Ultimately, the contest organizers chose two winners instead of one.

The two boys were Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two teenagers from poor farming families from Lucknow (played in the movie by Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal, respectively).

Bernstein with Dinesh Patel (Centre) and Rinku Singh

Just as the two javelin throwers are turned to baseball, Bernstein fell for the charms of cricket by way of Indian spin legend Anil Kumble.

"Anil and his brother Diinesh took me to a lot of IPL games.  I'm fully converted.  I can watch Tests and ODI's but T20 is really my game.  Anil really hammered a lot of cricket into me.  Knowing that I was in town to find a baseball star!"

The whole endeavour had been financed by a baseball tycoon back in the United States who wanted a quick turn-around on his investment: namely one or both of these new prodigies to make it big in Major League Baseball and in-turn inspire their countrymen to start tuning in and buying millions of baseball jerseys and hats.

But Rinku and Dinesh were raw, to say the least.  Initially they would use their baseball mitts as defensive shields.

But Bernstein had enlisted the help of Tom House, a top pitching coach from California, to mentor the duo.

The pair showed extraordinary diligence and determination and were eventually signed for the second tier sides of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a side which has a reputation for championing minority players having previously signed the first ever Arab American Major League Baseball player as well as being the first ever team to field an all-African American side.

The Assistant General Manager of the Pirates at the time, Kyle Stark, said about Rinku and Dinesh: "They both were quality kids.  They were very respectful, and they were raised right.  From the beginning there was an element of, 'There's no turning back now. This is our chance.'"

The duo's small-town sensibilities and warmth began to impact on Bernstein's life as well and he found himself going from being a sergeant major type to a protective father figure.    

Despite their rigorous training schedules, Rinku and Dinesh were particularly concerned with 'JBB Sir's' love life.

Baffled as to why their benefactor was not married, they proceeded to play Shaadi.com between Bernstein and his pretty and painfully charming neighbour Brenda.

Bernstein recalls: "I hadn't paid much attention to Brenda until Rinku and Dinesh came along.  They kept harassing me to get married and there I was trying to get these guys to get practicing and meeting the deadline I was set. 

"And that's the other thing.  Even after they came over to America, sure they were in awe of everything around them but they weren't overawed by anything.  They were more concerned about the fact that, according to them at least, I was lonely and I should have a companion in my life."

A lovely scene in the film shows how the boys organize a romantic Diwali  dinner for the couple.

"That dinner took place exactly like it does in the film.  Even the sari used in the film is the same one that I once brought back from India for Brenda.  When I related it to the screen writer, he said he's going to put it in the film exactly as it is without changing anything."

Despite the cynics, who thought Bernstein's show was a gimmick, Rinku and Dinesh's new contracts garnered plenty of attention in India although for Dinesh it would turn out to be a short journey. 

After 13 professional innings, he was released by the Pirates with some experts saying that he could not maintain the 85mph speeds that the top league sides demanded.

He returned home, bought some land for his family with the money that he had earned and enrolled in a Hindi and English course at a university in Varanasi.  Weeks before the film was released in the US this summer, he got married.

Rinku remains with the Pirates but has struggled with injuries. 

Irrespective of their professional tangents, Million Dollar Arm utterly changed their lives.  They hobnobbed with sporting royalty and visited the White House to present their jerseys to President Obama.

Rinku and Dinesh, in turn, changed the life of a jaded sports agent.

"I remember sitting with Rinku and Dinesh and watching the film for the first time and it was extremely emotional because it was the culmination of this amazing journey that we had all gone through as a family", Bernstein says.

"We all had so much invested in this story and it had been such an emotional roller-coaster and then to re-live it by watching the film was a slightly surreal experience.  It felt jubilant." 

"From crippling poverty, they went on to meet the President of the United States, to have their uniform enshrined in the White House.  They were interviewed in more than one hundred countries.  There are no real words to describe what they achieved.  And it was such an honour and a source of pride for me as kind of their pseudo father.   It changed me forever".

But does he wish that Rinku and Dinesh had advanced further than they actually did?

"I would say that first of all they surpassed my expectations in a way that has made me more proud than I could ever have been.  Having said that, professionally it's really difficult.  For every Sachin Tendulkar there are millions of young kids who aren't going to make it.  For every Michael Jordan there are millions of really good players doing their thing in thousands of basketball courts everywhere in the world. 

"You need to understand what these two guys were up against.  They didn't know what baseball was until we came calling in India.  If it wasn't so difficult to make it, Major League Baseball teams aren't going to be paying twenty million dollars a year to someone to throw a ball.

"Rinku and Dinesh showed the world that they were real prospects.  Rinku still very much has the chance to go all the way to the Majors and if he continues at the pace that he is progressing currently, then he can very well make it.  And he's still so young.  I really believe that our contest will yield the first Indian player and I believe it is going to be Rinku. 

"The process itself has been an immense success no matter how you look at it because it has proved that there is talent in India.  We have proven that it's a fertile ground to recruit and it's a potential market for baseball.

"Above all, Rinku and Dinesh did something that had never been done before in the history of the world.  And for these two lads to accomplish what they did in just a year, becoming the first Indian men to participate in baseball in America was almost a miracle."

The reality TV contest returns to India this winter and Bernstein says he's in talks with Disney-owned UTV as well as Major League Baseball on potential collaborations.  He is convinced that baseball can exist alongside cricket in India.

"Nothing is going to supplant cricket.  It's a religion.  But the potential for baseball is there.  In America, for instance, we have more than five dozen professional sports leagues, everything from baseball to bull riding.  And all of them are highly competitive and offer significant financial rewards.

"In India the sports industry is not so fragmented.  Fans  are quite nationalistic.  They are fanatical about sport.  I'm hoping for the kind of conversion that happened with me.  I still love baseball and I now love cricket.  The fact that Twenty20 Cricket, a short format, is so popular is good for us.  Imagine, even if we get 100 million of India's population interested in Baseball, my work would be done."

JB and Brenda

Even if that doesn't happen, Bernstein is content. 

"The best job and most important job that I have now is that of being a husband and a father.  It's probably the most gratifying of all the jobs that I've ever done and I spend the most time on it."

Worryingly, his and Brenda's three-year-old daughter is a gifted equestrian.   

But what of the kid, who demanded a million dollars, who started it all?

"The same player is a good friend now.  He's a lot older and a lot more mature now.  I forgave his abuse of the situation and ultimately I thank him because without that one act of insanity, I don't I would have embarked on the journey that I did."

'Million Dollar Arm' is in cinemas now.




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