Tall tale of a gritty hoopster

Tall tale of a gritty hoopster

Battling brain tumour, the six-foot 11-inch Poonam Chaturvedi has made her mark

Tall tale of a gritty hoopster

She makes for an intimidating sight on court. Standing head and shoulders above the rest at six feet and 11 inches, Chhattisgarh’s Poonam Chaturvedi is a dream ward for any basketball coach. She can score points with ease, dunk even without taking a leap and moreover, it’s not easy to get past her in the defence.

These are a few skills that have helped her become a notable figure on the Indian basketball circuit, even as she battles early stages of brain tumour to stay afloat in the game.

After guiding her State side, Chhattisgarh to the Senior National title in Rajasthan in 2015, Poonam was back as the champions went all out to defend their title at the 66th Senior Basketball Championships in Mysuru. Though their attempts at retaining the crown fell short, Poonam once again went on to make a statement with an emphatic performance that saw her score 182 points and 15 rebounds in five matches she played.
Poonam was the cynosure whenever Chhattisgarh took to the court in Mysuru. The towering centre would stand under the basket and tap in points at will as her team thrived, thanks to  her encouraging run.

“That’s how our game has been for some time. I see (my height) as God’s gift. And I want to ensure that I use this gift to the best of my abilities. Today I am the tallest hoopster of my country and that’s something I am proud about. I can dunk easily standing at one place. Sometimes the opponent cannot even reach my chin,” says Poonam.

Her tryst with the game started when she was 13. Poonam was pushed into playing the game, because many of her close relatives and friends felt her height could be best used at a basketball court.

“It was one of my father’s friends who told me that I should try basketball. Because they thought there is no other place where I can use my height in a much better manner,” says Poonam.

“And like any other small girl from Kanpur, even I initially ignored it. But during my school days I started enjoying it and slowly fell in love with the game,” she said.

Though she soon became a noticeable figure at the junior level – mostly due to her height – her game didn’t match up to the potential she carried along. The primary reason being lack of proper training and guidance.

“Back in Kanpur we didn’t have proper playing facilities. The team used to assemble a week or two in before a tournament. We never had a practice session going on throughout the year. We barely could manage 6-7 girls and we used to practice,” said the 20-year-old Poonam. But after a slow start to her basketball career, in 2010, Poonam caught the eye of Rajesh Patel, the coach of the Chhattisgarh women’s team. At the National Women’s Games held in his home State, a man with a shrewd eye for scouting and grooming successful women’s basketball players, Patel soon decided that the towering player will be his next assignment.

“I saw her play for the UP side at the National Women’s Games in 2010. Back then she was 6’5’’. But then I couldn’t see her using her height to its full potential. So I spoke to the UP coach and asked if I could take her to my academy in Bhilai. He put me through to her parents. It took me some time to convince them, but eventually they did agree and Poonam was a student in my academy,” says Patel.

Five years with Patel and Poonam’s game has taken a tremendous leap. “It’s (improvement) been tremendous. My on court movements, positioning, ball control, shooting, every aspect has developed in the past five years I hope to continue the good work,” says a confident Poonam.

While a determined ward and her trainer have done every bit to ensure that Poonam becomes the next big thing in Indian basketball, life has been harsh on the Kanpur-born player. Poonam suffers from first stage of brain tumor, something that stops her from giving her best in training and has ruled her out of crunch matches on many occasions.

“That’s how it is. My treatment is on. Many times I have severe headaches and I’m forced to miss practice. The headaches have also forced me to sit out of a few crucial games in the past. I missed most of the Kerala National Games to this and even here I had to pull out of a few games because the headache would resurface and I couldn’t play,” says Poonam describing her struggle.

While Poonam seems confident about recovering well from the tumor, her coach – Patel – admits that her prolonged fight with tumor also means that he can’t push his ward to the limits in the training.

“She has been fighting brain tumor for a some time now. We have been having ayurvedic treatment. Because of this, I can’t force her to go that extra mile in training or put her through a weight training regime. All I can do now is hope that her family agrees to the operation and that she is cured of the disease soon,” says the coach.

However, with age on her side and guidance of a determined coach showing her the way, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Poonam becomes the stalwart of Indian women’s basketball in future.