Hoop dreams

There are more young Māori than ever pursuing their basketball dreams at colleges across the US. Mana spoke to a handful of our talented NBA and WNBA hopefuls.

Issue 133 Feb/Mar 2017 / 26 January, 2017

Hoop dreams

WITH ONE minute and 41 seconds left on the game clock, Tai Wynyard (Tainui, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāpuhi) whips off his jersey, gives his legs a quick stretch—and enters the beating blue heart of Kentucky.

For the other 38 minutes and 19 seconds of the college basketball clash between the University of Kentucky and University of Arkansas at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Wynyard sat on the bench, only rising and falling as the tempo of the game dictated.

He'd jump up and fist-pump with his fellow reserves as his teammates produced spectacular plays. A dunk by star point guard De'Aaron Fox. A massive defensive block by big forward Bam Adebayo. Back-to-back three-pointers from forward Derek Willis.

Wynyard could look up and see the championship banners and retired jerseys hanging from the ceiling. Earlier, he'd watch a trumpeter play reveille as a giant K–for-Kentucky flag was pulled across the court. He'd hear Rupp Arena roar—24,322 passionate fans rising together. For them, Kentucky basketball isn't just a team—it's a whole way of life. It's their tribe.

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Tai Wynyard on the court at the University of Kentucky's Rupp Arena, one of the most storied basketball colleges in the US. Photo: Getty

Onto the court, the 18-year-old Māori boy from West Auckland would run, surrounded by history and the expectations of the present. After all, to be at the beating heart of Kentucky is to carry a state's hopes on your back.

By virtue of a roster spot at Kentucky—one of the most storied basketball schools in the United States—Wynyard is arguably now New Zealand's most high-profile college recruit.

Even Kiwi Oklahoma City centre Steven Adams—who last year signed a four-year US$100 million (NZ$141 million) extension to stay with the OKC Thunder—went to a smaller school; the University of Pittsburgh.

With College Hall of Fame super coach John Calipari in charge at Kentucky, and with a raft of top NBA draft picks joining the senior circuit every year, it goes without saying: Wynyard, in his first full year in Lexington, is on the ultimate launching pad for basketball success.

"Tai's a lot like Steven—he's born with it," Tai Webster, a Kiwi point guard in his final year at the University of Nebraska, tells Mana.

"He's got massive hands, he's a big dude and extremely talented. I honestly think he could make the NBA if he gets his head down and works hard.

"He's at a great school—obviously they send numerous players to the NBA every year. He's in a great position, and I think he'll do well."

Wynyard, son of world champion wood-choppers Jason and Karmyn, is one of dozens of young Kiwis who now find themselves in the spotlight of US college ball. Fellow Aucklanders Matt Freeman and Jack Salt play at Oklahoma and Virginia respectively, while Dunedin's Sam Timmins plays for Washington.

Yet the towering forward represents more than just another talented young Kiwi on the college courts. The Tainui teenager is the top young Māori doing his thing in the States, amongst a small, but talented group of rising Māori college basketballers.

“Just to know you’re playing with and against soon-to-be NBA players is pretty cool. Obviously you’re going to get a lot better practicing against those sort of dudes every day.”

Matangiroa Flavell (Ngāti Rangiwewehi, Ngāpuhi, Taranaki, Ngāti Ruanui, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui), daughter of Māori Development Minister Te Ururoa Flavell, plays at Midland College in Texas. Nikau McCullough (Ngāpuhi) plays at St Mary's in Texas, while Laken Wairau (Te Arawa, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Rongomaiwahine) is in Indiana and Kayla Manuirirangi (Ngāti Ruanui) is at Tulane University in New Orleans.

"My dad reminds me of it all the time," Wynyard, the 2014 Māori Sportsman of the Year, says of the importance of representing his culture abroad.

"You've just got to rep yourself, rep New Zealand and the Māori culture. People over here don't really know anything about my culture. They think we just do the haka. It gets annoying."

It is the morning after the Kentucky versus Arkansas clash at Rupp Arena, and Wynyard is eating breakfast at the Joe Craft Centre in downtown Lexington. The US$30 million complex is the home of the Wildcats men's team.
Recruits live, practice and train in the world-class facilities there. They even have access to a basketball court 24 hours a day, meaning if they can't sleep, they can head down and shoot some buckets.

It's a world as far removed from Rangitoto College and the Breakers academy as it gets. Wynyard was recruited by Kentucky in January 2015, after impressing with his burgeoning abilities in New Zealand and on the international stage when he, Freeman, Timmins and McCullough won the Under-18 3-on-3 World Champs in Hungary.

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Wynayard (left) with his 2015 world champion under-18, 3-on-3 team Nikau McCullough (middle), now at St Mary's in Texas, and Matthew Freeman, now at Oklahoma University.
Photo: Photosport

Kentucky beat out Texas and Villanova for the teenager's signature.

Munching away on peanut butter bagels, Wynyard—who is 2.08 metres tall—still looks like a bit of an overgrown boy. He has the size, but not yet the physical definition of an Adams-type player.

That has been reflected in his limited minutes for Calipari's Wildcats this year. At time of writing, Wynyard was averaging less than three minutes a game and had only registered nine rebounds, eight points and one assist all season.

Yet opportunities are coming, Wynyard reckons.

“[Calipari] is really harping on about rebounding,” he says.

“We haven’t been winning the rebound count for most games recently. Usually Kentucky basketball gets every rebound, you don’t let the other team get any.

“That’s why I’m getting a bigger chance now. The bigs aren’t rebounding as well. I’m just trying to crash the boards and get every rebound I can.”

Some of Wynyard’s Kentucky teammates are amongst the best young players in college ball right now. Fox and fellow star guard Malik Monk have been predicted by most college experts as likely to be drafted in the first round this year, while other players are likely to be picked up later in the Draft too.

Wynyard says they are the perfect people to learn off. “Just playing with these guys—it’s great,” he says.

“Next year, there’ll probably be three or four draft picks. Probably more.

“Just to know you’re playing with and against soon-to-be NBA players is pretty cool. Obviously you’re going to get a lot better practicing against those sort of dudes every day.”

During the build-up to game time the night before, a massive video screen showed highlights of recent Wildcats graduates like Anthony Davis, John Wall, Karl-Anthony Towns and Julius Randle.

Yet just playing for Kentucky doesn’t guarantee a spot in the NBA. Players must ensure they have a 2.7 grade point average to keep their athletic scholarship.

Wynyard says it can be difficult to juggle basketball and schoolwork but his mum Karmyn, who played college basketball for the University of Alaska in Anchorage, stays on his case about it in his regular FaceTime chats with whānau back home.

“She says ‘you’ve gotta get your academics done,” Wynyard says.

“My dad warns me about my mind, and being the best player I can be. It’s different pulls, you know? Mum wants me to focus on academics and get a degree so I have something to fall back on. She helps me a lot.”

In the days before meeting Wynyard, I travelled to Eastern Kentucky coal country to report on a political feature of what voters there expected of the incoming President Donald Trump.

It was real Appalachian backwoods country, where a Kiwi accent is as rare as a day with Trump tweeting. It’s hard country, with high unemployment and dependence on welfare.

It’s hardcore Wildcats country, too. People worship the team, which helps provide levity for tough, and desperate lives. Almost to a person, everyone I spoke to knew about Wynyard—and knew he was a New Zealander. 

The young Māori basketballer admits it’s only starting to dawn on him that he’s about to become a regular part of dining table conversation in heartland Kentucky.

“The first time I came here, I was like ‘holy heck. What have I got myself into?” he says.

“Everyone knows who you are. You can’t do anything stupid. You can’t go out or anything, because people will be like ‘oh, I saw him out’ on Twitter or something. You’re pretty much a mini-celebrity in this sort of town.

“You don’t have that freedom of just going out to eat with your girlfriend. People come up to you and ask for your autograph or photo while you’re eating. It gets annoying, but that’s what it is to be a UK [University of Kentucky] player.

“[On court], you can hear them yelling ‘do this, do that’—they’re real vocal,” he continues. “Especially Kentucky fans, bro. They harp on and on. You go on social media—you see what they say about their players.

“If you have a good game, they all love you. If you have one bad game, they all get on you. It’s pretty cool like that.”

Just before Christmas, Wynyard’s nana passed away. He flew back home for her tangi—missing three games—but has returned with a renewed sense of what is important for him to do in Lexington.

“Having my grandma pass away was hard, but at the same time, it really helped me move forward,” he says.

“You know when someone passes in your family, and they really wanted you to do something, like, for me, make it to the NBA?

“It just pushes you that little bit harder. You can feel them behind you. You know how Māori people say those spirits are always with you…That’s a huge thing for me. She’s always going to be there with me. Definitely, I’m using that for motivation to become a better player. I’ve already noticed the difference since I came back—I’ve been playing better.”

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Kayla Manuirirangi was offered her choice of colleges in the US after a highlight reel of her playing went viral.
Photo: University of Tulane.

OTHER COLLEGE basketball players are also adapting to a life—and lifestyle—completely different from home. Games, training and practice, combined with schoolwork, is undeniably exhausting.

“This is the first time in my life I’ve actually made sure I’ve napped every day—you’re exhausted all the time,’’ says Kayla Manuirirangi, who has just finished her first year at Tulane University.

“In season, it’s a different type of tired. We’re not practicing as much, in season, but we’re on the road all the time, in and out of classes.

“Every third day you might be travelling to Tennessee or something. It’s definitely time consuming, and a lot of work—but it’s exciting.”

After a YouTube highlights video of her went viral, the Hawera-born point guard was offered basketball scholarships by dozens of American universities but decided on Tulane to train under veteran coach Lisa Stockton.

Manuirirangi says the constant pressure of performing has been a massive step up from high school and representative basketball in New Zealand.

“Over here, it’s like every single game matters like it’s a game against Australia,” she says. “It’s day in, day out. You continually have to perform. There are some insane athletes over here. Everyone works so hard—I don’t think Kiwis realise how good the players are here.”

Wynyard agrees.

“When you get really good in New Zealand, they think they are good ‘everywhere’ but they don’t realize what kind of talent there is around the world,” he says.

“We’re stuck in our little area, and we think we’re really good down there, but you come here and you’re like ‘dang. They’re doing all this stuff when they’re 13 or something.’ Oh my goodness.”

Yet the current ‘golden generation’ of Kiwi college basketball players is undeniable. All the college players you ask will echo the importance of Adams’ success in the US opening up American eyes to Kiwi potential, but they also credit the programmes and exposure to college pathways back in New Zealand.

“It means a lot to me to be able to say ‘hey, I’m a Māori and I have come all this way.”

“There’s a lot of camps that teach fundamentals early on,” says Nikau McCullough, who originally hails from Hamilton. “I had a lot of good coaching growing up. I was always in good systems and was taught the right way to play.”

“[It’s] the Breakers Academy [too],” Wynyard adds. “A lot of those kids who play at that are on the national level—most of those kids come out at the college level too.”

“I think back in the day, college wasn’t that big. Maybe people weren’t looking over [to New Zealand] for college basketball. Now that Steven Adams went to the States, it has opened up a lot of pathways for New Zealand kids.

“The colleges are like ‘oh wow. This guy is really good—let’s go back to his hometown and see what the other kids are like. Clearly, they’re pretty good.’ I think that’s opened lot of doors for us.”

Laken Wairau, who plays for Indiana in Bloomington, says the current college generation has started a culture of success that could help spur on other young Kiwi basketball players pursuing their on-court dreams.

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Laken Wairau, Indiana University Bloomington, says this generation's success can help inspire other young Māori players.

“I think we’ve started something and made it possible for lots of other kids, especially Māori,” the Christchurch teenager says. “They know it’s possible now, because we’ve done it. It’s started a culture—if everyone buys into that, you never know where you’ll end up.”

“In the last couple of years, people have been brave enough to say ‘hey, this is what I want. I want to play in America,’ Manuirirangi adds.

“It’s just like a catalyst from one person, to the next one, of just wanting more. Not wanting to just finish at high school and call it quits. It’s just exciting seeing other Kiwis achieving their dreams.”

“The colleges are like ‘oh wow. This guy is really good—let’s go back to his hometown and see what the other kids are like."

Like Wynyard, the other Māori college players in the States carry the pride—and responsibility—of their culture in places like New Orleans, San Antonio and Bloomington.

“It means a lot to me to be able to say ‘hey, I’m a Māori and I have come all this way,” Manuirirangi says.

THE FINAL hooter has sounded at Rupp Arena and the applause rings out.

Leading for the final 27 minutes of the game, the final result was obvious for most of the second half as Kentucky ran out 97-71 winners.

While Monk had an off-night, Fox was on fire—scoring a college career high of 27 points, including two spectacular dunks. In his one minute, 41 seconds on the court, Wynyard played well but failed to register any identifiable stats—though he still isn’t really expected to. He is a willing piece of clay, ready to be modeled and sculpted over the next three years by coaches, teammates and experiences that will smooth the rough edges of boyhood and leave behind a man.

Off the court, he high fives teammates and pats the Razorback opposition on the back, before heading to the locker room. Another night in the beating blue heart of Kentucky is over.

The crowd starts to flood out, and the cheerleaders take the court standing in a K-formation. They start to sway side-to-side, and music starts to play. It’s the classic folk number ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’

“The day goes by like a shadow over the heart, with sorrow where all was delight,” the cheerleaders sing, and remaining fans joins in.

“The time has come when the people have to part, then my old Kentucky home, good night.”

 

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Article appears in issue 133, buy now here (international shipping available) and from all good booksellers.

 

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