A huge few weeks for basketballer Ashley Taia will be capped off by wearing the Tall Ferns singlet for the first time in the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup.
Ashley Taia knows her “biggest fan” – her late dad – will be watching over her when she makes her debut for the Tall Ferns in Jordan next week.
The 26-year-old guard needs only to look down at the tattoo on the inside of her right wrist – ‘Kia Kaha’ – to know he’s there with her in spirit.
Taia lost her father, John, in 2017. He was heavily involved in youth basketball in Brisbane, where Taia grew up with her three siblings.
John became critically ill with cancer during Taia’s senior year at Indiana State University, where she was playing Division I college basketball and studying towards a bachelor of science in exercise science.
She returned home to Brisbane to be with her family before her beloved dad died.
“It’s one of the toughest things I’ve had to deal with in my life,” Taia says.
“I knew I couldn’t give up at that stage of my journey to obtain a degree as my dad wanted me to complete my studies. He is still my biggest fan today.”
She got the tattoo with ‘kia kaha’ (Māori for ‘be strong, keeping going’) because it was something her dad would always to say to her.
It’s through her Kiwi parents, Maria and John, that Queensland-born Taia can represent New Zealand at the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup in Jordan starting Monday.
“Both my parents and my oldest brother are from New Zealand, having moved over here from Rotorua, where I still have family,” Taia says.
Getting the call-up from New Zealand head coach, Guy Molloy, was one highlight in what’s been a successful couple of weeks for Taia.
She also claimed an winners’ medal from the NBL1 North grand final, part of the new Australian semi-professional league, a fortnight ago – a few days after she signed her first overseas professional contract with a club in Sweden.
Having played all her junior and club basketball in Brisbane, Taia’s first exposure to the Tall Ferns’ play and culture was at a pre-selection camp back in March on the Gold Coast.
“The whole process of trialling for the team, meeting the girls, meeting Guy and going into camp was an awesome opportunity,” she says.
“It’s always been a goal of mine to play at the international level, but when I got picked it came as quite a shock.”
Three years ago, Taia became aware she was eligible to play for the Tall Ferns.
“Finding out was the first step and I was really excited to pursue that,” she says. “After that 2018 season, my first year out of college, someone reached out and asked if I was eligible for the New Zealand campaign.
“I wasn’t sure, so I contacted Leonard King [Basketball NZ’s high performance manager] and he confirmed that because my parents were both New Zealanders, I had dual citizenship. Everything worked out well and I’m really excited to be playing for the Tall Ferns and wearing the black singlet.”
Taia hadn’t met Molloy until the national camp on the Gold Coast. “He’s a really great coach and I’m looking forward to playing for him and working with him,” she says.
Molloy liked what he saw of the rookie guard.
“Ashley is a wing player who plays physically at both ends and can really shoot the ball,” he says. “She’s a star performer for Logan Thunder in the NBL1 competition and has had Australian WNBL experience with Adelaide Lightning and Canberra Capitals.”
King is also delighted to have Taia join the Tall Ferns programme. “Ash has a coveted intersection of defence and shooting. She’s very athletic and has a strong imposing body which allows her to defend the perimetre as well as the post positions with a high level of success,” he says.
“She has the ability to finish at the rim through contact which nicely complements her accurate three-point shooting ability.
“This three and D archetype is a very valuable commodity within the national team. She is a selfless team-oriented player and a perfect fit for the Tall Ferns.”
When you ask Taia to describe her own game, she says: “I’m a combo guard who plays strong defence in quite a physical manner.”
One fellow Tall Fern Taia knows very well is her Logan Thunder teammate Chevannah Paalvast.
The pair have come off a very successful season with the Thunder, claiming the inaugural NBL1 North championship by sweeping Southern District Spartans, 2-0, in the best-of-three grand final series earlier this month. During the 2021 NBL1 season, Taia averaged 12.8 points per game.
Taia knows “more than half” of the Tall Ferns now in Jordan.
“I was on two high school national championship winning teams with Kalani Purcell at John Paul College. I was a year ahead of her and she went on to win another title the year after I graduated,” she says.
“I’ve also played with Ash Karaitiana in Brisbane and I also know Brooke Blair, who also plays up here in Queensland.”
Taia, a 182cm guard, played with Penina Davidson at the Adelaide Lightning in 2018-19 when both embarked on their rookie WNBL seasons.
After graduating from John Paul College in Queensland, Taia made the leap to the US. She went to Odessa Community College in Texas before embarking on a three-year NCAA Division I career at Indiana State University.
She was a starter for the Sycamores in all three seasons, totalling 77 games with 59 starts. She scored 800 points (10.1ppg), scoring a career-high 26 points against Southern Illinois in 2017.
After her initial WNBL foray with Adelaide, she then linked up with Canberra Capitals.
Following the Asia Cup in Jordan, Taia will fly directly to Sweden where she’s signed with the Wetterbygden Sparks for the 2021-22 European season. She admits the opportunity came in slightly unusual circumstances.
“I had been looking for overseas opportunities for a while. I stumbled across a contact via Instagram and he then put me onto Wetterbygden Sparks,” she says.
“Then the coach gave me a call, we had a few Skype conversations, and then he offered me a contract. So it’s all worked out really well.”
- The Sky Sports Tall Ferns have their first game of the FIBA Asia Cup against Korea on Monday. All the Tall Ferns games will be broadcast live on Maori TV: Mon 11pm v Korea; Tues 8pm v Japan; Wed 11pm v India.