Tall Ferns attracts new professional basketball league

Basketball

A new professional basketball league, Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa, has attracted some of New Zealand’s best players this winter, better preparing the Tall Ferns and exposing more young women to the game, writes Sara Essig Webb

For the first time in 15 years, Tall Fern Olympian Micaela Cocks is coming home to play a season of basketball.

On a star-studded resume, what stands out is that Cocks played all 15 professional seasons away from home.

The only big fern to win medals at the 2006 and 2018 Commonwealth Games, Cocks has played for the Townsville Fire in Australia’s WNBL since 2011, guiding them to three league titles.

Now she has signed up to be part of the Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa North team, New Zealand’s new women’s professional basketball league, from June.

Until now, Kiwi women at the top of their game have not been able to return home without giving up their careers.

“I haven’t been home since I was 18. I can’t wait to get back to where it all started,” says Cocks, mum to one-year-old Hazel.

With young wāhine in the stands, Cocks hopes they “will see that passion and fun and want to be there.”

The 35-year-old has vivid memories of the encounters that shaped her love for the sport.

“I remember going to training camps and watching Megan Compain, Jody Cameron, Sally Farmer and Leanne Walker – being in awe and wanting to perform at the highest level,” she says.

Tall Fern legend Jody Cameron will coach the North side at Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa. Photo: Supplied

Huw Beynon, managing director of the NBL’s Basketball NZ, said the aspiration factor has been a huge motivation to create the new women’s league and bring home players from around the world.

One of Beynon’s favorite sayings is: You have to see it to be.

But when the Tall Ferns play overseas, it’s not easy to watch them.

“It’s hard for young people to see; it’s usually in the middle of the night, halfway around the world,” Beynon says.

The new five-team league running for eight weeks from June 29 will change the game here, and what girls who love basketball believe is possible.

“Parents can take them to games. They will see women who went to their school – women who grew up in their town. That inspiration will now be there. The inspiration was not there. And if so, it’s hard to find,” says Beynon.

“And now everyone is going to have that chance.”

The five teams are Northern, Whai (Mid-North), Tokomanawa Queens (Central), Mainland Pouākai (Upper South) and Southern Hoiho (Lower South). Matches will be played at multiple venues in each region, not limited to central cities.

It’s a moment that generations of basketball players have been waiting for.

Megan Compain knows firsthand the difficult and often heartbreaking choices New Zealand’s basketball players have had to make, with the lack of a path in their own country. Now a member of Basketball New Zealand’s board of directors, she was the first and only Kiwi player to be drafted into the WNBA in the United States.

“That’s why this league is so important. If you choose to get into sports, you have the opportunity to play professionally,” says Compain.

“There is an opportunity to be recognized and valued in your own country. That is one of the biggest barriers that has existed here in New Zealand.

Megane Compain. Photo: Supplied

As Compain once did, many of New Zealand’s top basketball players go overseas and stay in the American university system and in European competition between stints as Tall Ferns.

“It doesn’t necessarily suit everyone to go abroad for four years. It’s not for everyone — and neither should it be,” she says.

“It’s an opportunity for young women to play the game, get good at the game…and stay here in New Zealand.”

Compain wears many hats, from commentator to co-owner of one of the new franchises. But on opening night, she’ll take her front row seat – as a fan.

“I’m so excited to see these women who have incredible careers overseas being able to shine here in New Zealand, and what that will do for the next generation of female basketball players.

“This is an opportunity to celebrate those who came before us, who are still at the top of their game.”

Mary Goulding, from the North Canterbury town of Rangiora, was entering her third season abroad when she made the decision to sign with the new home league. Goulding is a great example of players who have received accolades all over the world and who remain mostly unknown in New Zealand.

She played in Sweden in 2019 and last year with Bendigo in the Australian WNBL.

In January, she announces to her parents an unexpected news: she signs with Mainland Pouākai. “They were over the moon,” she said.

Goulding says the ability for players to advance and improve will change significantly now that current and future Tall Ferns can play at the highest level throughout the year.

His enthusiasm, however, is personal as well as performance-based.

“We have the opportunity to promote women in sport, but especially basketball in New Zealand. I have had the privilege of being part of the Canterbury Rams community programs in the past,” says Goulding. It really motivates me and gives me joy.”

His motivation goes well beyond the promotion of a course. Goulding appreciates the perks that come with playing a game you love, at any age.

Mary Goulding warming up to play for the Bendigo Spirit in the 2022 WNBL. Photo: Getty Images

“I think basketball has not only encouraged me to immerse myself in different cultures, but also to meet people from such different backgrounds.

“I learned so many different life skills – teamwork, resilience. I had to move a lot. There are a lot of skills you don’t really think about, like time management.

“What you get in any other job, you get twice as much with basketball. That’s the stuff off the court – the life skills…it’s just mind blowing.

Sophie Bishop has been playing basketball at home with her three brothers since she was nine years old. He’s a star on his school’s mini-ball team. The 6th year student from East Christchurch lives and breathes sport, and basketball is a favorite.

On Thursdays, players from the Canterbury Rams men’s team come to Bishop’s School. She loves these skills and drill sessions.

“There’s always a positive,” says Bishop. “They always teach you something new. If you don’t get something good one week, you can try it the next week.

She agrees that a women’s league could sow a seed of inspiration and confidence for young girls considering their options.

“It will be good to see that there are different people who can play [basketball]. It can be anyone,” Bishop says.

The league partnership between Basketball NZ and Sky is a five-year deal designed to increase the visibility and accessibility of home games and ultimately elevate New Zealand basketball globally. Each of the five new teams are “funded for the long term”, according to the new league preview, with resources to provide more opportunities locally.

“It’s at the heart of what we’ve done,” says Beynon. “When we went to find the owners of these new franchises, we asked, ‘What are you going to do with the professional team? How are you going to find the next generation of players?

“This community involvement is the beating heart of every sports club. These are the people who buy tickets and merchandise, part with their money and help you run the club.

“And one day it’s the people who want to put on the shirt and play for you.”

Compain was a true pioneer; it is now 26 years since she became the first, and still only, New Zealand athlete to play in the WNBA.

It helps explain why she is as much a champion as an advocate for wāhine on the pitch and young women in the stands.

It’s time to soar, says Compain. Soar is part of the language around the new league – the meaning of tauihi in Te Reo.

“This is our chance to give them wings and set them free. Hold your head up, chin up, and look up,” Compain says.

While the obvious outcome is a platform for talent here in New Zealand, it is also about hauora and wāhine wellbeing – when grassroots participation and trust grows.

Through Aotearoa, more girls will have role models. Athletes will enjoy the best of both worlds – the highest level of competition and a return to basics.

Goulding agrees. From a current player’s perspective, it’s a win on so many levels.

“It’s great to be able to give back to the community and for the kids to have these role models. It’s great for women in New Zealand to have the opportunity to come back and play in front of people we love, for a country we love.

*All Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa matches will be broadcast live on Sky Sport, with the competition starting on June 29. The finals will be played in Nelson on August 26 and 27.

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