Walking tall: The curious tale of India's 6'11" centre
Even seated, Poonam Chaturvedi can be hard to beat in height. Ambling her way across the court, the 6'11" Indian centre, also the tallest female basketball player in the country, is head, shoulders and torso above her teammates and most opponents. "Acha lagta hai...itni lambi player hoon main (It feels good to be such a tall player)", the 22-year old tells ESPN.
While height is her obvious and most visible advantage, agility is quite the casualty. Her usual brief before entering the court: Stay low. Go high only after you catch the ball. In a family of six-footers, Poonam's height didn't come as a surprise. Until high school, she hadn't played a sport and could barely run a few metres. Basketball was a suggestion thrown in by a family friend since she was already 6'3" in standard 10. Her hometown Kanpur though, offered little avenue for the sport so she moved to Chhattisgarh to train under coach Rajesh Patel.
Diagnosed with a brain tumour three years ago following persistent, severe headaches, Poonam smiles and says she's a lot better now. "I have been undergoing Ayurveda treatment apart from Japanese acupuncture magnet therapy. Now it's not all that bad." With spindly arms and frail built, Poonam often gets pushed around on court. "We play more zone-defence once she gets on court," India assistant coach Shiba Maggon says, "and ask her to go high once she's in possession of the ball so the referee can spot easily if she's being pushed."
The crowd loves the sight of Poonam on court. She makes her way to cheers of her name during the dying end of the second quarter during India's semi-final against Lebanon on Friday. Placing herself right under the basket she's immediately hemmed in on all sides by the Lebanese, hovering at waist-level, and can barely move an inch. They know once she raises the ball above her head, it could be out of bounds.
Since reaching the hoop is almost what she's born, built and expected to do, missing a basket is often crushing, says Poonam. "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)."
Shy by nature, her unusual physical built apart, a malformed upper lip have also added a measure of low self-esteem for Poonam. "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 physicality wherever she travels has also been hard for her to get used to. "We turned it around into a light-hearted banter," Maggon says, "we tell her we'll pose as her managers and every time someone comes up to her seeking a selfie she should pay us for it. She takes the joke well now."
What makes it difficult to work on Poonam's frame, Maggon goes on to add, are her food choices: of being a picky vegetarian. "She can't lift heavy weights, so we mostly 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, Poonam, who watches little basketball and has no idols in the sport, lists finding clothes her size particularly onerous. "We had to get two sarees joined together for her to drape for the opening ceremony of the Asia Cup," Maggon says, laughing.
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 to be slightly moody, her teammates understand when to step back and offer her space and what can cheer her up.
"She likes it when we stand on the chair and talk to her," says Maggon, "It's what makes her smile."