Tall Ferns three-point shooting wizard Ashleigh Karaitiana has signed up to the Melbourne Boomers for this season’s WNBL, wanting to show athlete mums they can continue living their dream. 

Besides the obvious goal to walk away with a championship title, Ashleigh Karaitiana wants nothing more than to prove that women can do anything.

Karaitiana is the latest Tall Fern to sign up to the Melbourne Boomers for the 2020 Australian Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) season. She brings the total of New Zealand internationals in the side to five. 

As mother to 17-month-old daughter Kalea, Karaitiana has the full support of the Boomers in her return to the WNBL – with Kalea travelling with the team around Queensland this season.

“Coming back to the WNBL after having a baby and being able to still compete at this level, as well as on the international floor with the Tall Ferns, is a massive achievement,” Karaitiana says.

Even though a path to success sometimes may have to change and adapt to reach a goal, the 28-year-old Waikato native is determined to set an example.

“My hope is to show other women and athletes that it is possible to continue living your dream,” she says.

Karaitiana’s signing probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, when Tall Ferns head coach Guy Molloy also heads the Boomers. She joins New Zealand team-mates Stella Beck, Penina Davidson, Kalani Purcell and Toni Farnworth in the side.

“Obviously we have formed a strong synergy between the Sky Sport Tall Ferns and Deakin Melbourne Boomers,” says Molloy.

“The cultural values and playing style is very similar. Since the only firm date in our international calendar in 2021 is the Asia Cup in September, the Tall Ferns’ quest to qualify for the FIBA Women’s World Cup in Australia in 2022 could be made difficult by a lack of opportunity to get the players together.

“So, this is a great example where our synergy can really help both programmes.”

Ashleigh Karaitiana shooting for the Tall Ferns in the 2019 Asia Cup. Photo: Masanori Udagawa

Karaitiana admits a couple of key factors swayed her decision to join the Boomers, but linking up again with her Tall Ferns mentor was an easy decision.

“I absolutely love Guy as a coach, so when I received a call from him, it was a no-brainer for me,” she says.

“I’ve heard so many great things about the team culture and am really looking forward to being part of it. I also love the colour purple [the Boomers’ principle team colour].”

Although the season is condensed and played around a North Queensland hub, Karaitiana is happy the league is even able to take to the court.

“We are all going to face adversity and challenges, but at the end of the day, I’m grateful that we can all come together and be back on the floor playing the game that we all love,” she says.

Karaitiana’s off-season hasn’t been straight-forward, but living in Queensland has meant she’s been able to compete in the Queensland State League (QSL) for RedCity Roar.

The Roar bowed out at the quarter-final stage of the QSL play-offs, but Karaitiana enjoyed an outstanding season averaging 21 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.

That good form caught Molloy’s eye.

“Ash is a tough and highly respected player in Australian basketball circles. With the unique set of circumstances surrounding the upcoming season, the short timeframe and Ash having played in QSL, it worked both for Ash and the Deakin Melbourne Boomers to bring her in,” he says.

Not long before the QSL season began, Karaitiana had to return to Australia when New Zealand National Basketball League (NZNBL) season was cancelled due to Covid-19.

“I was initially going to play in the NZNBL this year to help promote basketball in New Zealand. But it wasn’t long before the season was cancelled, and I immediately came back to Brisbane,” she says.

“In saying that, I think I’ve been pretty lucky living in Queensland. Having the luxury to go out and do somewhat normal things have been great, including still being able to play basketball during the off-season.”

Kalea Karaitiana was just three months old when she travelled with the Tall Ferns to India last year. Photo: FIBA

The 183cm forward’s favourite things to do in her spare time include spending time with family.

“Kalea challenges Matt [her dad] and I to be better every single day. You’ll usually find us in the swimming pool, at the park, or on the couch watching some Disney movies,” Karaitiana says.

“Sometimes we manage to plan a sneaky date night when my parents can watch Kalea too.”

Karaitiana was a standout NCAA player having played four years at the University of Hawaii, making 121 appearances for the Rainbow Wahine. In 2016 she was MVP at the Big West Tournament where Hawaii were crowned conference champions. She finished her career with 1167 points and led Hawaii in three-pointers made for three straight seasons.

She went on to make her Tall Ferns debut at the 2018 William Jones Cup, where she was named tournament MVP after averaging 22 points per game.

Last November, Karaitiana scored 17 points against China at 2019 FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament in Auckland.

Beck, Davidson, Purcell and Farnworth all played alongside Karaitiana at that tournament.

Now the quintet are preparing for the WNBL season which tips off on November 12, with the season played over six weeks in North Queensland.

The 56-game regular season, plus a four-game final series, will see games played in Townsville, Cairns and Mackay.

Tall Ferns and Melbourne Boomers coach Guy Molloy. Photo: Masanori Udagawa

Molloy admits preparation for the season is far from ideal: “Right now, our greatest challenge has been not being able to prepare the team together.

“Ezi Magbegor has been with Seattle winning a WNBA championship, whilst Cayla George, Kalani and Ash have all been kept in Queensland intentionally due to the Covid situation in Melbourne.

“So, whilst the hub will create its own challenges, I have to leverage on the knowledge the players have of our game style to quickly form a cohesive group before games begin.”

Another challenge Molloy faces is being able to keep tabs on two leagues simultaneously.

The Australian WNBL will be played from through to December 20, while here in New Zealand, the Sal’s NBL 18IN18 begins on November 19 with the grand final scheduled for December 5.

“I’m really pleased that the clubs and BBNZ could collaborate to provide a New Zealand NBL season. The players and coaches absolutely need something to focus on and set goals about,” Molloy says.

“I hope to see as many of the games as possible on live stream so I can continue to evaluate and select for the Tall Ferns. I am looking for players who demonstrate superior fitness, aggressive play, are great teammates and lead by example.

“Travel permitting, I am hoping to be in New Zealand around February to work extensively with many of the junior and emerging Tall Ferns players.

“We are steadily climbing the world rankings, and although Covid has hurt our momentum, I hope we can reclaim it as quickly as possible.”

Plenty to play for then on both sides of the ditch.

Mike Lacey is a writer and commentator of basketball in New Zealand, particularly women' and high school basketball, and works closely with the Tall Ferns.

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