From Prayagraj to Pensacola State: Vaishnavi Yadav sets sights on WNBA after grafting budding career against all odds

With her friendly demeanour and easy-going nature, Vaishnavi Yadav speaks with the casual air of a practiced pro, conversing as if she were catching up with a long-lost friend and filling them in on everything that's been going on in her life, which is a lot.

17-year-old Vaishnavi has been signed up by Pensacola State in the USA after a string of strong performances for the Indian youth basketball teams. Yadav represented India in various U18 and U16 tournaments. Her big break came when she scored a mammoth points tally of 71 in a single game, which seemingly catapulted her into the spotlight overnight. Soon enough, American universities came calling for the 5’7” guard.

"When I got the call from Pensacola State, the first person I told the news to was my mother. However, to my surprise, she gave no reaction at all,” Vaishnavi said.

 From Prayagraj to Pensacola State: Vaishnavi Yadav sets sights on WNBA after grafting budding career against all odds

Vaishnavi Yadav has been signed up by Pensacola State women's basketball team. NBA India

For someone whose daughter is often travelling around the country playing in various basketball tournaments, Shimla Yadav thought that it was just another tournament her 17-year-old daughter would be going for. However, when it dawned upon her that Vaishnavi would be off to the States for longer than she expected, Shimla baulked at the aspect of sending her daughter away.

"For some reason my mother thought that I would forget her when I go," Vaishnavi says amidst giggles, "she didn't realise how big an opportunity this was and feared that I would end up marrying a foreigner."

"It took my father and I a lot of time to make her realise that I was getting a one-in-a-million opportunity to achieve something big. Now that she knows, she goes around our village boasting about how her daughter is going to the US to become a basketball player," the 17-year-old says.

Winning over her mother was one of the many hurdles Vaishnavi has overcome in her journey so far. As a girl growing up in the village of Jawahar Ganj, she faced objections to playing ball from outside and within her family.

"Everyone in my mohalla (locality) used to tell my family to not let me play as I was a girl. The fact that my grades weren't good only convinced my family that they should stop me from playing basketball. They beat me and stopped me from playing for a month and told me to focus on my studies," Vaishnavi says in a very matter of fact way.

Yet, her love for the game, was far greater then her family's resolve to keep her away from it.

"I used to cry and run away to play, return and get beaten again. But I was getting to play and that's what mattered to me," said Vaishnavi.

That desire and persistence finally paid off for Vaishnavi after she got to play in the national championships, which in turn, got her father's support. Sujeet Yadav sold his dairy business and started a men's hostel to devote time to nurture his daughter's obvious talent.

Vaishnavi Yadav credits her father for paving the way for her career to take off once she proved herself to him. Right from waking up at the crack of dawn and taking her for practice in the morning and in the evening to dropping and picking her up from school, her father became a hands-on parent. Sujeet, who earlier believed that his daughter’s dream were just wishful thinking by a child, is now her staunchest supporter.

If the first part of her story is all about Vaishnavi’s perseverance and grit, the second part is all about her social circle rallying around her when she lacked motivation.

While Sujeet pulled out all the stops to keep her focused on her budding career, her coaches at the NBA India Academy encouraged her to apply to US universities to have the chance of playing in the NCAA.

"I was scared after seeing how fat the SAT books were! All I could think about how difficult it was and why couldn't they just let me in? I thought if I wanted to study, I might as well just go for IAS," says Vaishnavi with a laugh.

While struggling with her SAT studies, Vaishnavi sustained a knee injury, which she thought had all but ended her career. Her coaches at the NBA Academy helped her cope with the knowledge that injuries were a part of any sport and did not mean the end of her career. With Prayagraj having no coaching centres for SAT exams, Vaishnavi relied on the help of fellow baller Sanjana Ramesh, who lent a virtual hand, courtesy of WhatsApp, and a brother coaching her through video call.

"I barely thought I’d get any marks. Bas Jai Mata Di bol kar jo answer mann me sahi laga, woh tick karte gayi aur pass ho gayi (I just said a prayer and ticked whatever I thought felt right)," she says mischievously.

Her SAT score was good enough for her to get an offer from Pensacola State, which she accepted without second thoughts. She got offers from Arizona and California but is happy with her choice.

Vaishnavi has big plans to inspire the next generation of basketball players from Prayagraj once her career is over. “After I started playing, many girls from Jawahar Ganj have also started playing now. I’m happy that because of me there’s a shift in people’s thinking,” Vaishnavi says.

While in the US, she hopes to see her idol Steph Curry drain three pointers and hopefully get drafted in the WNBA herself. Before all that happens, she will need to brace herself for the highly-competitive world of US college athletics while also adapting to a different life. Fortunately for the plucky 17-year-old from the small village in Prayagraj, her story has only begun.

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Updated Date: May 24, 2019 15:16:47 IST