Whenever she walked, on the court or the roads, heads turned and necks got cramped. Poonam Chaturvedi standing at 6 foot 11 inches is head and shoulders above the rest. Growing up in small town Kanpur, her height and basketball talent helped her to get into Indian women’s basketball team. As of now she is the tallest woman basketball player to represent India.
Due to her physical attributes Poonam Chaturvedi can just stand and dunk effortlessly. In her own words, she says, “You don’t need to jump if your opponents cannot even reach your chin.”
Poonam Chaturvedi – From representing India to fighting Brain Tumour
Though she was born and brought up in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh,she plays for Chhattisgarh at the nationals. Given her height basketball must have been an easy choice, but life has not been a cakewalk for the 22 year old. Due to a malformed upper lip, she cannot talk properly and suffers from frequent headaches.
While tallness is her obvious and most visible advantage, agility is something she developed over time. Before entering the court, her usual brief is to ‘Stay low and Go high’ only after you have the ball.
In her family every member is 6 foot plus. So Poonam’s height didn’t come as a surprise to her close ones. Until she was in high school, Poonam Chaturvedi did not play any sport and could barely run a few metres. Basketball as a sport was a suggestion given to her by a family friend, as she was already 6’3″ in class 10. Her hometown Kanpur, didn’t offer any good avenues for sport. This is when she moved to Chhattisgarh to train under Coach Rajesh Patel.
Diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2013, following unending severe headaches, Poonam does not think about it at all.
She says, “I have been undergoing Ayurveda treatment apart from Japanese acupuncture and magnet therapy. Now it’s not all that bad.”
With skinny arms and frail built, Poonam Chaturvedi often gets overpowered by opponents on the court. To overcome this issue, Indian women basketball assistant coach said that, “We play more zone-defence once she gets on court,and also ask her to go high once she’s in possession of the ball so the referee can spot easily if she’s being pushed.”
Poonam Chaturvedi – Game gets affected due to Physicality
“Poonam has had two operations till date. As a child she could not even speak due to malformed upper lip. There will soon be a third operation,” says her Chhattisgarh team coach Rajesh Patel.
However, talking about her height, the coach stresses on its disadvantages. “Poonam cannot dribble swiftly, as the ball won’t bounce up till her desired level. She will have to bend down to move along with the ball.”
“Captivated with her height, I brought her to Bhilai five years back. At that time, Poonam had not played any sport and could barely run a few metres. But, she showed massive improvement once training started,” added Patel.
Coach Rajesh Patel, first saw her at the 2010 National Women’s Games in Chhattisgarh. At that time she was 15 years old and stood at 6 feet 5 inches.
“She needs to be fitter and gain weight,” adds Patel, in whose academy Poonam trains, practices and stays, along with 20 other players.
In Chhattisgarh, people were curious about her. Many people think she has some hormonal problem. But when they are informed that she is their hometown basketball player, all are pleasantly surprised.
Poonam Chaturvedi proved to be a big boost for the sport in the state. She attracts attention and that helps in popularizing the sport.
Poonam Chaturvedi – The everyday toiling she goes through
Talking about her lanky figure, Poonam Chaturvedi says, “Most of my family members are tall. Both my parents are above six feet tall.”
The everyday difficulties she goes through are sitting in a car or auto, having to duck every time she enters a room, finding a bed she can fit in; she even has difficulty finding a pair of shoes.
“I wear 14 size shoe,” she says. “which are not easy to find.”
Apparently, Poonam is taller than most NBA stars as well, but she does not have any favourite.
“I don’t have any favourite basketball player. Not even from NBA. I just want to be a good player myself,” adds Poonam. She started playing the game since 2009, after passing her 10th standard in school.
When quizzed as to why she relocated to Chhattisgarh? Poonam says, “Nobody bothered in UP. I am learning better here.”
Speaking about the opponents and how she intimidates them, she says that the defenders are wary when she is around the circle. “The players try their best to guard me.”
However, Poonam Chaturvedi feels that “too much height creates problems and I need to be balanced, and there should be performance and fitness too.”
Poonam Chaturvedi – Popular among the senior team
The head coach of India’s senior women’s national basketball team Francisco Garcia is mightily impressed with the young girl. “She is a test for opposition defenders when on the court, but I think she lacks intensity. She needs to do more.”
Not only the women’s team coach, but Scott Flemming, head coach of India’s senior men’s national team also has his opinion. He says, “I think it is amazing that a woman player in India can single-handedly score 20-30 points. She just needs to stand there and the job is done.”
A crowd favourite, whenever Poonam Chaturvedi is on court, she makes her way through cheers of her name. It was visibly evident during the dying end of the second quarter when India played semi-final match against Lebanon last year. Placing herself right under the hoop she’s was immediately surrounded by on all sides by the Lebanese. They were hovering at her waist-level, and can barely move an inch. They clearly knew that once she raises the ball above her head, it could be out of bounds.
Since reaching the basket is almost what she’s born, built and expected to do, missing a hoop is often crushing. On that front Poonam adds, “Score karne ki khushi se zyada miss karne ka dukh hota hai mujhe (the pain of missing a basket is more than the joy of scoring).”
Poonam Chaturvedi – Laughing off her Physical disabilities
Shy by nature, coupled with her unusual physical built and a malformed upper lip have added a measure of low self-esteem for Poonam Chaturvedi.
“Koi koi jaise dekhte hai mujhe, kharab lagta hai (The way some people look at me sometimes, it feels bad),” she says.
Being singled out for pictures for her unusual physicality wherever she travels, has also been hard for her to get used to. But the Indian women’s team turn this out into a light-hearted banter. They jokingly pose as her managers and every time someone comes up to her seeking a selfie, they demand that Poonam should pay them for it. Poonam also takes their jokes well.
What makes it difficult to work on Poonam’s frame is, her food choices. She is a fussy vegetarian. This makes it difficult for her to lift heavy weights. Due to this the trainers also restrict her workout to squats and lunges. Until she builds a stronger body structure it will be a punishment to push her on court.
Among the many challenges that everyday life throws up at her, Poonam, watches little or no basketball and has no idols in the sport. Sharing a funny incidence of her everyday difficulty, Poonam says, “We had to get two sarees joined together for me to drape for the opening ceremony of the Asia Cup.” Everybody had a good laugh.
Poonam too makes light of her situation. “No matter what I like I’m never going to get in my size. Bas jugaad se kaam chala lete hai (I just get by with whatever I can manage).”
Known as a moody, her teammates also understand when to step back and offer her space and what can cheer her up.
She likes it when her teammates stand on the chair and talk to her. All this things make her smile and in turn keeps the team atmosphere gleeful.
From battling physical difficulties to changing her hometown, young Poonam Chaturvedi has seen it all. We hope and pray that she gets cured from her illness, and bring laurels for India through her Basketball skills.