Tall Fern wunderkind Charlisse Leger-Walker is being prepped for US college life by her elder sister, Krystal – who’s also a NZ basketballer and her new team-mate at the Washington State Cougars.
“Don’t be scared and just go hard,” Krystal Leger-Walker tells her younger sister Charlisse.
The Tall Ferns siblings sit side-by-side on a Zoom call in lockdown at their parents’ home in Hamilton. The elder sister is in the best position to help prepare the younger for the next quarter on her basketball score sheet – a four-year scholarship at Washington State University.
Krystal knows just what to expect. The 22-year-old is heading into her fifth year on a basketball scholarship in the United States. And for the first time in her college career, she will be right beside sister Charlisse playing for the Division 1 college team, nicknamed the Cougars.
“When I first went over [to the US] I was really hesitant. I was the youngest in the team so I wasn’t very assertive. I think the biggest piece of advice is to just get stuck in,” says Krystal, looking over to Charlisse.
Another thing Krystal wished she’d known about starting out in the States are the small cultural differences – both on and off the court.
“I think there’s a big difference in their style of play and their confidence. They play a lot more emotionally in comparison to New Zealand,” she says.
“And you know how we all don’t like to make a big deal about things in New Zealand? Well over there it’s the complete opposite.
“They’ll talk trash during games and stuff, and I don’t think I was ready for that. It’s something I wish I had mentally been a little more prepared for.”
It’s this kind of personal insight that will serve the pair well, considering both want to play professional basketball after college.
“Both of us love to compete and just being able to do it every day in the same gym, both with and against each other is just a cool opportunity,” says Krystal. “And I think it will be a great lead into the professional scene.”
The supportive older sister points out what the “humble” Charlisse won’t tell you: “She definitely had a lot of offers to play pro straight away instead of coming to college.”
But that option was never on the cards for the 18-year-old Charlisse, who was head prefect at St Peters in Cambridge last year. Both young ballers say they want to finish their schooling before taking a shot at the professional leagues.
Krystal understands the importance of getting her degree – aware of the glass ceiling and limitations women have playing professional sport.
Charlisse agrees and says another big reason for her going down the college route is the development opportunities.
“I really trust the [Washington State] coaches, their vision and how they can help me become the best version of myself, as a player,” she says.
The pair know the new Washington State coaches well. Kamie Ethridge, an All-American and gold medal winner at the 1988 Summer Olympics, coached Krystal at the University of Northern Colorado before they both made the move to the Pac-12 school.
Krystal was a stand-out player for the Northern Colorado Bears, leading them to 69 wins in three seasons, including winning the Big Sky Conference in 2018.
Coach Ethridge was a main drawcard when Charlisse weighed up her recruitment offers, but overall the sisters were interested in the community around the Cougars – the people, their values and culture.
“Their [coaches’] values really align with how we were raised and the people we’ve always been around,” says Krystal, who sat on the sidelines this past season because of eligibility rules after transferring from the University of Northern Colorado.
Family has been a major influence for the Maori, Samoan and Tongan siblings and is one of the main motivating forces in playing basketball.
“I’ve taken a lot of different lessons from a lot of people, which has really helped me. But at the forefront are my parents, they’re our role models” says Charlisse, who was the youngest player to ever take the court for the Tall Ferns (at just 16 years and 202 days) in her debut at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
“Even though my dad doesn’t play basketball, I can see it in the way they apply themselves to everything and how much work they do behind the scenes.”
It is no secret that basketball is in their blood. Their mother, Tall Fern legend Leanne Walker, who is originally from Opotiki, represented New Zealand at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics and has been her daughters’ coach from the beginning.
The instilled lessons have been put into practice and their parents are proud of their achievements.
“Playing for New Zealand is always a big thing for the family because we are representing our country. And it’s kind of cool we get to follow in our mum’s footsteps a little bit with her playing in the Tall Ferns and going to the Olympics,” says Krystal. “We definitely picked up her competitive nature.”
And following through on their heels is the youngest sister, Tannika. They are excited to watch the 13-year-old’s potential grow as she also makes her way through familiar territory in the New Zealand age groups.
Krystal and Charlisse did not think they would get to play together at college because of the age difference. But they’re now gripping the opportunity with both hands.
Being exposed to a bigger conference, and the best players from big-name teams like UCLA and Stanford, gives the Leger-Walker sisters the best opportunity to make their dreams a reality.
“It will be cool to see how we compete and fit in at that level,” says Krystal. “It will be really cool to take that New Zealand style of play and implement it in the culture and college system, so I think we’re both really looking forward to the next season and seeing how we go.”
In the most recent NCAA basketball season, 21 Kiwi women and 19 men were at Division I universities, and those numbers have grown steadily during the past decade. Across all US universities 101 New Zealanders played during the 2019-20 collegiate season (with another six playing in Canada).
Krystal admits the college experience is not for everyone, but she thinks Charlisse will enjoy her time in the US. “Who wouldn’t love to play basketball everyday, go to university, hang out with friends, and live with them? I think she’s going to love it.”
Asked what they’re most looking forward to at college, both respond they want to get back on court. And the part they’re least looking forward to is school-work for Charlisse, and snow for Krystal.
“I’ve been on holiday since November, so it’s going to be hard,” Charlisse laughs. “I can see Krystal still doing assessments online every day and I’m just chilling out here.”
Krystal is studying business majoring in management and finance; Charlisse is looking to study environmental science and business, and hoping to merge the two disciplines in a role after basketball.
Balancing study and sport has been hard at times Krystal admits, but she feels the New Zealand education system has set her up well.
And there will be a lot of support staff who help with structuring their schedule – a timetable which consists of training most days during the season for two or more hours, and includes their own weight sessions on top of team commitments.
The college is aiming to have their new recruits back in the States by the end of June. But things are still up in the air with Covid-19, so the duo are waiting for the US Embassy to reopen and confirm their next steps.
Steps they’ll be making side-by-side.