The other day Vaishnavi Yadav blew Kerala away, scoring 71 points by herself in a pool game at the basketball Junior Nationals in Ludhiana. It was a record by a long stretch for the Uttar Pradesh girl. Eventual champions Tamil Nadu’s organised technical set-pieces stifled her in the semis, though in one moment of pure magic, four players converged on her in a circle, as she pivoted in a flash, leant back and took a fade-away shot in a losing cause.
In the third-place match, the 16-year-old was back to scoring big – a staggering 53 points in a drubbing of Karnataka. At her first mini Nationals when she wasn’t much more than 5 feet, she’d logged in her first monster game – 63 points. At 5’7″ now, Vaishnavi’s wolfish appetite for scoring makes her Indian basketball’s most exciting talent. If she could distribute the ball much more playing forward, India might well have a star in its ranks in the coming years.
She started out in the sport at the Amitabh Bachchan Stadium’s Mayo Hall in Allahabad. “I’ve never seen Mr Bachchan there, but it’s named after him. I don’t think Mayo played either,” she laughs.
After the mini nationals, she was called to the All India Radio studio in Allahabad, where she grew very thirsty out of nervousness but continued chanting how Michael Jordan was her favourite player.
“They asked me about NBA, and I’d never watched NBA. I vaguely knew Jordan. They wanted me to name a contemporary star, but I didn’t know anyone then. Also I was thirsty, so I kept saying Jordan hoping to finish the interview. Bahut baad mein pata chala, woh game se sanyaas le chuke hai. He was almost 50 then!” she recalls.
An air of irreverence
She carries an air of irreverence which helps when up against bigger girls. “I have to score, that’s all I know. Whoever tries stopping me, I’ll deal with them,” she says.
At the FIBA U-16s last October, playing in Division B, Vaishnavi would once again compile a total of 102 points —averaging 20 per game, including close to 50 per cent field goal percentage, with a not-too-shabby rebound count. “Coach Zoran Visic only claps for us when we’re good at defence and rebounds,” says the hoopster known for her step-back jumpers – a quick jab step back to make space and then the balanced jump shot. It’s a Harden, Curry special – timing is important.
Against Kerala, Uttar Pradesh were trailing by 20 points and she wasn’t striking much in the first two quarters. Then Vaishnavi took off, raining three-pointers and free throws to rattle off a monster 71 points. “I’m a big fan of India captain Vishesh Bhriguvanshi (also groomed in UP’s elegant style of play). Watched him at Senior Nationals in Mysore once where they were trailing by 10 points. He stayed cool, no needless show of aggression and in a matter of seconds turned the game around, finding his shooting rhythm. I believe I can do that too,” she chortles.
Vaishnavi grew up playing with boys. “Not too many girls at our ground,” she says. Basketball wasn’t her first choice. “When I started, Sania Mirza was a rage. I loved her and wanted to play tennis like her,” she recalls. Tennis admissions started in August, she’d joined basketball in April to kill time, and shown her skill and ball sense.
“My coach Pratibha Chouhan taught me everything. But she had tricked me at the start. She told the tennis coach to reject my admission because I was doing well in basketball,” she recalls. She was so angry she blitzed her opponents in the next match.
Her uncle Rajender Yadav (she comes from a joint family) was her first support, with her cousin training for gymnastics. “My studies suffered because of basketball, so parents said I should leave it. I bawled to my grandfather, who paid my fees then,” she recalls.
Her grandfather had been a cricket fanatic, but never could gather enough money to support his son (Vaishnavi’s father’s) career as an all-rounder. “He used to beat up my dad for playing, so when I started in sport and he had sufficient money, he supported me completely. He always said he wanted to see me on TV. The AIR interview won my parents over,” she laughs.
The pressing need to put Vaishnavi into sport had arisen because she would steal her brother’s gents cycle and go spinning around town the whole day. “Once I started pedalling, I just didn’t want to stop,” she says. These days, the same’s true of her basket scoring-sprees.