Indian Railways’ hoopster Poonam Chaturvedi is a crowd favourite.

Poonam’s 7-feet-tall stature quickly grabs eyeballs when she enters the arena with her teammates or when she gets a pass during the match and lifts the ball way beyond the reach of her opponents.

Minutes after her team had thrashed Delhi 120-66 in a group A fixture of the 71st Senior National Championship at the Nehru Indoor Stadium on Tuesday, people started clicking pictures with her and Poonam obliged with a smile every single time. After all, one doesn’t get to meet the tallest female basketball player in the country every day.

Her father, a constable with UP police, is nearly 5’10” and so is her mother, a homemaker. Even her younger brother is 6’4”. “ Main kuchh zyaada hi lambi hoon  (I am excessively tall)” says, the 26-year-old center. So tall that she has everyday struggles with doors, seats, clothes, shoes and much more.

From UP to Chhattisgarh to Indian Railways

Poonam had already shot up to more than six feet by 10th standard. Noticing her height, one of her father’s friends had suggested he push her into some kind of sport after which her father took her to Green Park stadium in her hometown Kanpur where she enrolled in basketball. Poonam played for her home State for two years.

“When I went to play Youth Nationals in Rajnandgaon, Chhattisgarh in 2010, Patel Sir noticed my height and called me. He then talked to my father and by 2011, I had shifted to the Chhattisgarh team,” says Poonam.

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The Patel Sir she refers to here is the legendary Indian basketball coach Rajesh Patel, who passed away in 2018 due to a heart attack.

Such a tall player is rare not only in India but also in other nations and upon asking, Poonam does mention that she had offers from foreign leagues. “When I was with Chhattisgarh, Patel Sir used to receive such calls but I did not want to go because I am a vegetarian and abroad, I might have had to resort to non-vegetarian food,” she says.

In 2019, after a successful trial, Poonam was employed by Eastern Railways and is currently posted as a senior clerk in Howrah.

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India's tallest female basketball player - Poonam Chaturvedi of Indian Railways.

 

Strength and weakness

While height is obviously her advantage, she has spindle arms and a frail build. Indian Railways coach Satya Barta Nayak mentions that they are working on making her more powerful with strengthening exercises. “However, we try not to push too hard since only last year, she got rid of a brain tumor that had been troubling her since 2014,” he says.

As far as the strategy goes, when Poonam is on the court, Nayak has simple instructions for the rest of his players: “Rotate and provide the final pass to Poonam. She’ll score comfortably.”

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However, Tamil Nadu women’s team coach R. Delhi Raj points out where the opponents can beat Poonam. He says, “We can't stop her from taking advantage of her height. We can only handle her outside the box, stopping her outside. Another disadvantage with her is her speed is less, so that's something we have to use. For her height, she can't run fast. So as an opponent, if you capitalise on that, then it will help your cause.”

India dreams

Poonam was a part of the Indian team squad that participated in the FIBA Asia Cup 2017 but missed out on making the roster for last year’s edition. “ Chance mila toh kyun nahin khelenge  (Will play for sure if selected)”, she says while adding that she still wants to represent the country and do well at the international level.

Shireen Limaye, captain of the national side, is one of Poonam’s Railways teammates and has seen a major chunk of her journey. “I met her for the first time at 2010 Youth Nationals. She was just 6’7” at that time but even then, she was all out and the tallest player on the court. Ever since then, I have always played with her. And she’s just grown taller and taller for the last 12 years.”

Shireen feels that playing with Poonam is extremely easy because she takes the pressure off other players by handling the rebounds but for the next level, she definitely needs to toughen up. “She becomes too weak at the international level but if she gets stronger by the day, she’ll probably be a great asset to the team,” she says.