With the blessing of her sport, Tall Fern Natalie Taylor is proving mums can return to the international basketball court – with kids in tow.
It’s game day for the Tall Ferns in the Indian city of Bangalore, and most of the players are going through their normal pre-game rituals.
But for long-time forward Natalie Taylor, her normal routine has changed dramatically, thanks to her roommate on the Asia Cup tour – her five-month-old daughter Charlotte (also known as Charlie).
“I’m speaking quietly because I’m in the bathroom of the hotel room and Charlie is asleep in the room,” says Taylor, 36, on the phone to LockerRoom.
With a laugh, she admits that in the past, it would have been her having a nap on game day, rather than wanting her daughter to sleep.
“I’m become much more flexible now with the kids, and we take a lot longer to get ready on game day,” she says. “I used to enjoy little things like having my nails painted in a certain colour with the girls, but that just doesn’t happen anymore.”
Following the birth of her first child, son Rocco (who’s now three), Taylor decided she wanted to return to the game she loves. She’s not ready to stop playing for good just yet, but admits she doesn’t want to be dragging her kids around basketball courts forever.
“If you asked me 12 years ago, when I debuted [for the Tall Ferns] that I’d be taking my babies on tour with me, I would have laughed. The fact that Basketball New Zealand have been so supportive of me returning has certainly made a big difference,” she says.
In 2017, 10-month-old Rocco Taylor became the first baby to ever accompany the Tall Ferns on tour – also to the Asia Cup in India. Taylor’s husband, Ezra – a former Samoan rugby international who’s now a strength and conditioning coach – came with the team to care for their son.
“It was a big deal for Rocco to come away with us and it was really Basketball NZ saying that ‘This is possible for mums to continue on the court and that we will support you’. It was huge,” Taylor says.
Taylor’s motivation to keep playing following the birth of her children lies not only in helping the Tall Ferns to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but also with empowering older athletes. She wants other women to realise that while it’s a juggle, you can still play sport with kids in tow.
“I wouldn’t be playing if I didn’t enjoy it. While I’m physically able to compete to the level I want to, I’m going to continue,” says Taylor. “I also feel like I’m still improving, and I’ve still got a lot to contribute to the team.”
Taylor first played for New Zealand in 2007 alongside her older sister Charmian Mellars (they went to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing together), and she’s now playing in the Tall Ferns with her younger sister Kalani Purcell (24).
Taylor admits her return to the game has been much easier second time around.
“I’ve enjoyed the process much more with Charlie. I’ve been more accepting of my body and the fact that I just gave birth to our girl. I’m in awe of what a women’s body can do,” she says.
The Taylor family live in Brisbane, where Natalie and Ezra own a gym, Brisbane Strength and Movement. They often train together, taking turns to hold the baby while the other does an exercise.
In fact, Charlie is often used as a weight by her mum during an exercise.
“Charlie has been held by so many helping hands. Ezra has been amazingly supportive and it’s a huge village helping us – our families, friends and other teammates,” she says.
Since Charlie’s arrival, Taylor and her Auckland Dream teammates won the national women’s basketball championship. She also won the Queensland basketball competition with the Southern Districts Lady Spartans.
Her outstanding form in both leagues warranted her Tall Ferns return, and coach Guy Molloy acknowledges the professionalism Taylor has shown to get back into shape so quickly.
“It’s unbelievable to think how quickly she has recovered from giving birth to returning to elite athlete,” says Molloy. “Nat has always been a fine leader and mentor to younger players, and this hasn’t changed at all.”
There were two babies on this latest Tall Ferns tour to India, with Ashleigh Karaitiana bringing her three-month-old daughter, Kalea, to join the Taylors. Molloy says having the babies with them provided a real bond for the team and they were also great talking points.
“Basketball NZ did a fantastic job to accommodate their needs, so that both mums could perform at their best,” he says.
Taylor’s friend Karli Currie, a team-mate from the Spartans, travelled with the Tall Ferns to look after Charlie while her mum was in game mode. All of Currie’s expenses on tour were met by Basketball NZ.
The Tall Ferns finished fifth at the Asia Cup, after beating Chinese Taipei in their final game, 71-56; Taylor scoring 12 points.
The team now turn their attention to their first home series since 2015 – taking on China, Korea and the Philippines next month at the Trusts Arena in Auckland, as part of the FIBA Olympic qualifying series.
It’s a big deal: in the last 10 years, the Tall Ferns have played just four tests in New Zealand.
“To play at home in front of our families means so much to us all,” Taylor says. “It’s going to be a huge series and a critical one for the team ahead of qualifying for Tokyo.”
The top two nations will advance to a final qualifying round of 16 teams, to be played in February. From those 16, the top 12 will go to the 2020 Olympics.
“It also means there’ll be a lot of hands on board to help with the kids,” Taylor laughs.
Having her children in the stands while she plays for her country brings Taylor a strong sense of pride, and the joy of sharing the experience with them.
“When I think about what women can do with the support of many, I’m just blown away.”