Six months ago, Ella Fotu’s prospects of fulfilling her ambition to wear the Tall Ferns singlet seemed improbable. In fact, giving the game away completely was a more likely scenario.
Fotu had been through a whole range of emotions – enthusiasm, optimism, hope, disappointment, regret and embarrassment – along her road from high school prospect to potential basketball drop-out, and now a Tall Fern.
The 23-year-old Aucklander made her debut for the New Zealand women’s team against Japan in July, and is now on her way to the FIBA Asia Cup in India next week.
But she came so close to quitting basketball, after stints at two American universities on a sports scholarship left her disillusioned.
In the middle of last year, when Fotu returned from her time with the Hawaii Pacific Sharks college team, stepping onto a basketball court was the last thing on her mind.
“I avoided all basketball for the rest of the year – the thought of playing made me anxious,” she says. “I just had a break, did a bit of travelling, and found other things to do.”
She took a complete break from the game for six months, before starting to train again with the Harbour Breeze for this year’s Women’s Basketball Championship (WBC). Then a fortuitous call up to the Tall Ferns training camp in April reignited Ella’s passion for basketball.
“I was lucky. I only got called in because Tessa [Boagni] was injured,” Fotu says.
She was surprised to get the call up , but enjoyed the camp with Tall Ferns head coach Guy Molloy.
“I started to think ‘I can play at this level’. I was really stoked to get selected because I had always wanted to be a Tall Fern,” she says.
Fotu’s selection caught a few of her friends off-guard, especially when they’d had the impression she was going to quit the sport.
“I just told them ‘I nearly quit,’” says Fotu with a smile.
After her initial two international appearances against Japan, the Tall Ferns headed to the William Jones Cup in Taiwan where Fotu was given another surprise by Molloy.
“The day before our first game Guy said ‘just to give you a heads up, you are starting’. I was obviously nervous but at the same time very happy,” she says.
The Tall Ferns comfortably beat the Philippines, 106-72, and the Harbour guard impressed enough to retain her starting berth for all five games of the William Jones Cup. It wasn’t easy, she says, as she had to adjust to the pace of the game.
“I learnt a lot just watching the Japanese team who play so well together. They are tough to defend, but nice to watch. The pace is just crazy, so fast but also cool to witness,” she says.
Fotu enjoyed being under the tutelage of Molloy, and was encouraged when he told her and the other rookies: “There is no pressure on you; all you have to do is go out and do your best.”
“I think he knows how to get the best out of players and understands people as well as having a great knowledge of the game,” says Fotu.
All had seemed rosy back in 2014 when Fotu, a standout player at Rangitoto College, finished school and committed to Boise State University in Idaho. She would be following in the footsteps of Rangitoto alumni Brooke Blair and Penina Davidson, by embarking on an NCAA Division I basketball scholarship.
Fotu’s eldest brother – now Tall Blacks centre – Isaac Fotu was enjoying his college career at the University of Hawaii at the time, so following him into the American collegiate system became more of a goal for her.
“I was playing a lot of different sports, but when I got to my last year at school I started thinking ‘if Isaac can do that, maybe I can as well’,” she says.
“At the time of obtaining the scholarship there was a lot of excitement and hype, and I think I bought into that hype. Looking at the website of the school, because I never visited, it all looked great.
“It was a big college, and Idaho was a culture shock which I probably wasn’t prepared for. Also, the coach had his favourites, and as a rookie I wasn’t one of them.”
Looking back on her time at Boise, Fotu admits she wasn’t ready.
“I just wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. People tell you it’s going to be tough, but five years ago when I started, there weren’t so many people to ask about that,” she says.
“Also, if I was going through it again, I would definitely make visits and look into it more. Isaac had a nice set-up because Hawaii is similar to New Zealand in many ways, but Idaho is a bit different.
“Reflecting on it now I also think my mindset was wrong, and once you get down on yourself and your circumstances, it is hard to get out of it.”
After just one season at Boise State, Fotu transferred to the more attractive surroundings at Hawaii Pacific University, and the slightly less intense competition in NCAA Division II basketball.
In the 2016-17 season, the Hawaii Pacific Sharks were PacWest Conference semi-finalists, and the following season Fotu was a key member of the team who became conference champions.
From the outside it looked an idyllic world, playing a sport you love while studying in a beautiful part of the world. However the whole basketball scholarship experience wasn’t always enjoyable for Fotu.
“I really enjoyed my first year at Hawaii and I was happy to go back,” she says. “But the second year I think I put too much pressure on myself in terms of wanting to do well. Everything I did I was thinking ‘that’s not enough!’”
A combination of factors – some self-inflicted, others out of her control – resulted in Fotu ending her collegiate year with a further 12 months of eligibility still available. She admits there was a lot of soul searching before making her decision.
“It was hard not going back in 2018. I thought a lot of people would say I was being a quitter. Everyone knows about it and you think they are saying you are not tough enough or you are soft. But I was not enjoying it and doing the same thing day after day, week after week, it became too much.”
Fotu is quick to emphasise there was plenty to like about college and she has no regrets about her time in the United States.
“It certainly wasn’t all bad. My team was awesome and I still have a lot of good friends from college. A lot of them come and visit me in New Zealand,” she says.
“It’s definitely a great experience and I would do it again. It’s tough and everybody who has been to college says the same, but in addition there is so much you can gain from it. I learnt so much.
“Initially my friends and I were saying just do it for a free education, but basketball is life over there so it’s not that easy.”
Fotu also found it difficult to find the right balance with her studies. In her final year she switched from biology to environmental science, which she’s been able to continue studying at Massey University.
“Study is definitely different here – you have to think more. Much of the testing in the States was multiple choice, even in science,” she says.
“It took me a few months to adjust to being at home, and considering if I had made the right decision.”
It seems to be the right decision now with Fotu enjoying life both on and off the court.