For over four decades, Barbara Wheadon has helped to shape basketball – here and internationally – in her many roles, and has been recognised with the sport’s highest honour. 

There aren’t many who’ve impacted the sport of basketball in New Zealand, and around the world, like Barbara Wheadon.

A leader, player, volunteer and changemaker on the global stage, Wheadon has been involved at all levels of the game for over 40 years, diligently working in the background to help change the landscape to be fairer and more competitive. 

What started out as getting on the board of her local basketball association so the voices of the team she played for could be heard, ended up with Wheadon serving on FIBA – the  sport’s international body – for over 10 years.

She spearheaded changes to structures set in stone for 75 years, when others told her she couldn’t. “‘You’ll never get NBA players to agree, Barbara’… Well guess what? We did,” she says.

And now the former New Zealand and Oceania president is back volunteering at the grassroots of basketball. 

Wheadon’s remarkable contribution to the game has now been recognised with her induction into Basketball New Zealand’s Hall of Fame. 

“When they wrote to me and said this is what they were going to do, I thought that was all a bit of a fuss really,” she says. 

“But then you do say to yourself ‘Oh yep, that’s nice’. Nice for all the people around me who I badgered to death about how we should get things done, and ‘Can we have this money and that money?’”

Wheadon already has a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to basketball but the Hall of Fame recognition is very special, she says, because it’s from her peers. 

Barbara Wheadon with her Basketball NZ Hall of Fame plaque at the sport’s awards night in May 2021. Photo: Basketball New Zealand. 

It’s the icing on the cake in a career that has seen some major successes. The building of the North Shore Events Centre, now known as Eventfinda Centre and the home of North Harbour basketball, is one of them. Being a foundation trustee at the Millennium Institute of Sport, now known as AUT Millennium, and seeing that brought to life, is another. 

“Achieving those two facilities for the sporting community, first of all, on the North Shore but then nationally, have to be part of the highlights,” Wheadon says.

“The other significant thing was the work we did on the FIBA central board to change the competition calendar.” She served on the international board for 12 years. 

The changes in the competition calendar and qualification process for FIBA – which supervises basketball worldwide – was significant as it had been the same set-up throughout their 75-year history. 

Member used to be through five zones around the world, says Wheadon. “We moved it to a ‘federation of federations’ membership, so it was directly from each country to the international organisation,” explains Wheadon.

“People back here used to say, ‘How do we get to the Olympic Games?’, ‘How do we get to the world champs?’ Because back then, we only had to beat Australia to go anywhere. Well, that’s not a high performance pathway, coming second isn’t a pathway.”

It didn’t come overnight either. It was a 12-year campaign to ensure all countries had the opportunity to improve and succeed.  “We were able to put in place opportunities at all levels of our sport in New Zealand to compete on the world stage,” Wheadon says. “So what we’ve been able to do was really quite significant.”

For the sport’s future in New Zealand, Wheadon sees the need to focus on growing the coaching and refereeing pathways, and supporting smaller, local basketball centres and partnering with school programmes.

Because the players have opportunities now to go into the United States college system, she says, and some coaches have taken up roles overseas. 

Basketball’s progression has been “phenomenal.” 

“In terms of the actual administration of the game, how things are done, why things are done, I mean it’s night and day,” Wheadon says.

“But at the same time, there are still the core values, the core things that you need to do, but there’s still heaps that could be done – and has to be done.” 

Wheadon has held many management and governance positions during her career. She’s been the chair, treasurer and interim CEO at Harbour Basketball. She was a BBNZ board member from 1998 to 2008 and served as president in the last six years of her tenure. 

In 2002, Wheadon was appointed to the FIBA Oceania board and became president from 2006 to 2010. She was the Oceania representative on the FIBA central board during that period.

She received a life membership award from Basketball New Zealand in 2006, and the NZOM.

“To be able to achieve change at the international boardroom table… They used to say to me, ‘It’s not possible, Barbara’. And I would say ‘Why?’” 

What’s served Wheadon well throughout her career has been the need to know and understand your community. 

Getting the NSEC across the line is a good example. Basketball were facing barriers they couldn’t overcome on their own. In the end, a partnership with gymnastics proved necessary to get the facility built. 

“Sport North Harbour taught us to talk to each other, and find out about what everyone else is needing and thinking,” she says. “Because we were all facing the same challenges.”

Wheadon’s own basketball career started in her hometown of Te Awamutu in Waikato in the mid 1960s. She played throughout college, and represented Waikato schools and made the national schools’ side. 

She eventually found a team to carry on playing when she moved to Auckland with her husband, Graeme.

Wheadon became a librarian as there weren’t many career options for women. “Back in those days you’d go to the career advisory evenings they had at school and all the girls were steered in the direction of either being teachers or nurses – neither of which struck me as anything exciting at all. Nobody else was going to be a librarian so I thought ‘Well I might like to do that’.” 

Nowadays, the career options are endless. Wheadon was encouraged at Basketball New Zealand’s recent AGM but the variety of opportunities in sport: CEOs of basketball associations to employees and volunteers in the sport. Especially for women. 

“Instead of it just being ‘Barbara’, half of the room are now females and they’re all being paid in this sport,” she says.

Her own three daughters are testament to expanding career options for women. One has an honours degree in mathematics, another an honours degree in chemistry, and the last, a postgraduate degree in business management with a master in wine in progress. “I can’t imagine what the next ones are going to do,” says Wheadon of her five grandchildren. 

While she admits a career in journalism would’ve been great, Wheadon ended up involved in the business she and Graeme bought in between raising their children and volunteering in basketball communities. 

It was at a local centre in Auckland where Wheadon got back on court, after meeting a group of mums playing in the basketball and netball competitions.

“I was also a new mum and they were playing in a basketball programme at the YMCA on a Monday morning,” says Wheadon. “There was a little creche there so I was able to leave my eldest daughter, Elizabeth, there and play.” 

Barbara Wheadon (front row, centre) with other award recipients for Basketball NZ’s awards ceremony at Te Papa. Photo: BBNZ.

From there, Wheadon got onto the North Harbour committee because their team didn’t like the way the grading system was carried out.

“If you want to change the system, you have to be there at the boardroom table,” Wheadon says. “And as I tell people, ‘I got onto the basketball committee and didn’t get off until I got on the international one.”

After retiring from FIBA in 2014, Wheadon decided it was time to step away from contributing at a governance level altogether. “I made a conscious effort to say ‘enough is enough’. I thought I had done the part of what I wanted to do around legacy,” she says.

But she hasn’t slipped away completely. Her contribution to the sport has come full circle, with Wheadon back supporting at a grassroots level. 

Small associations in the Waikato area have Wheadon’s experience to call on now for budgeting advice, overseeing finances and volunteering. “I help them with a few things because I know the game. I know how to make the resources go a little bit further,” she laughs.

Wheadon feels like she’s achieved what she wanted in the sport… “And more.”

“There was the legacy of the facilities, but to be able to achieve change at the international boardroom table… They used to say to me, ‘It’s not possible, Barbara’. And I would say ‘Why?’,” she recalls.

“‘Oh, but we will have to talk to all these people’, ‘You’ll never get NBA players to agree, Barbara’.”  And of course, she did.  

They used the same philosophy she had used at a local level around getting to know your community. “To be able to do things, we had to work with the whole world to change the competition structure that had been there for 75 years. And it was very European-dominated,” Wheadon says. 

“So we had to get to know each other around the boardroom table. We had to share all the challenges we had, why we couldn’t do this, and why we didn’t have any money.”

Wheadon says that’s the greatest legacy. “Is that back home we made some changes in our little old country. It was really challenging,” she says. “But to achieve changes at an international board, that’s remarkable. As I said at the beginning, if you’re not there, you can’t change things.” 

Leave a comment