“Humaari bitiya basketball nahi khelegi” (our little girl won’t play basketball), Basant Singh Yadav said categorically, when he heard of his second daughter’s curious new affliction. “Kyun nahi, use pasand hai” (why not, she loves it!) retorted Anita Devi, the better half. As it often happens inside an Indian household, the wife prevailed over the husband, and the daughter in question, Preeti Kumari, smiled in delight.
Preeti began playing basketball in sixth standard after she saw her friend going to the Udai Pratap College courts in Varanasi. “I actually belong to the Gahmar village in eastern Uttar Pradesh. But my father decided to send us to Varanasi because it is a bigger city with better educational opportunities.” A large family of five children, Preeti has an elder sister besides two younger brothers and sister. During the agricultural season her father is busy overseeing farming in the historic Gangetic plains of their ancestral village, while in the remaining months he jointly runs a photography shop with his brother in neighbouring Bihar.
Being the first in her family to take up sports, it seemed unlikely that Preeti would succeed, especially in an alien western game like basketball. But within months of stepping onto the court, Preeti distanced herself from the other youngsters and started getting invited to play with the ‘seniors’. “SAI Coach Harjinder Singh was my first teacher, but he left soon after.”
Preeti is the latest in the line of promising talent to have come out of Udai Pratap College, Varanasi. The world’s ‘oldest living city’ is a well known basketball hotbed in India that has produced as many as eight international hoopsters in the last decade— the four Singh Sisters, and men’s players Mihir Pandey, Trideep Rai, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Arjun Singh.
Easily transitioning into the Uttar Pradesh (UP) state team, Preeti began drawing considerable stares last year, when she scored a mammoth 51 points in an overtime win against perennial powerhouses Tamil Nadu at the junior nationals. The UP women’s team, which until then had seen a steady slump in its performances after the migration of the Singh Sisters to Delhi, was suddenly rejuvenated by the presence of this skinny 5ft point guard. It is now re-establishing itself as a state to be feared by opposition teams at the age group circuits.
Earlier this year, with her knee wrapped in bandages, Preeti hobbled onto the court against Maharashtra in the second half and somehow managed to score 17 points, literally willing her side to an u-18 national bronze medal finish. Indian Senior Women’s coach Francisco Garcia, who was on hand to witness these heroics, couldn’t help but state publicly on his Facebook page later:
Today a girl called Pritti Kumari, only 154 cms tall, but with the biggest passion and heart for basketball, has given an example to everyone what it is to have a competitive character and mentality, with a total damage knee, limping, biting her lips to handle the pain, came on the court in the last quarter and made 4 three pointers on a row to help her team win an otherwise very equal game.
I just have to say to her that I am very lucky and proud to coach her and she has the biggest of my respects.
Thanks Pritti, even many professional players who earn big money should take your example.
Her tales of prowess aren’t limited to the national stage. At the beginning of this year, Preeti was even invited to the senior Indian women’s team where the barely 45 kg, then 17 year old, went head on against African Giants Mozambique during the Lusofonia International Games in Goa. “I think my biggest strength is that I am never afraid. I just work hard knowing that people will support me in my ambitions.”
Big words from a small girl. But such confidence doesn’t come out of nowhere.
“Do you know how many hours she trains?” Shiba Maggon, Preeti’s coach from the junior and youth India camps in 2012-13, had asked me rather rhetorically last year, when I quizzed her about this pocket dynamite. “More than 10 hours each day.”
Her untiring workout regime has helped Preeti become a complete player on the court with no perceptible weakness—who can shoot, pass and dribble equally well with both hands. “It angers me when people keep commenting about my height. I have seen other small players in the Chinese girls team. Nobody questions them, so why me?”
Having just completed her 12th standard, the young star is now on the verge of joining Sri Venkateswara College in Delhi University for a three year undergraduate arts course. “Current India player Akanksha Singh, who is a coach at ‘Venkys’, convinced the authorities to recruit me on a full scholarship.”
Upon graduating, Preeti hopes to get employed on sports quota by the Central Railways, just like countless other talented girls from smaller towns in search of livelihoods. “I do know about the women’s professional leagues abroad, especially the WNBA. If given the chance, I would definitely like to play in foreign countries.”
So the question now arises: where will such opportunities come from?