Young single mum Tiana Griffin worked four jobs to help her son, Akiva, reach his dream of playing US college basketball. But, as she explains to Shontelle Matano, he’s been her ‘saving grace’.
On Friday and Saturday nights, 15-year-old Akiva McBirney-Griffin would babysit his brother, Tamatoa, and sister, Ke’iki.
After high school basketball on Friday, he’d make them dinner, and make sure they were bathed and ready for bed. Then he’d sleep, ready for 6am training on Saturday.
His mum, Tiana, would arrive home from working a night shift at her fourth job, in time to drop off Akiva at basketball. She’d sleep in the car while he trained and do it all again the next day – for a year.
“I realised that she was struggling for money. I didn’t realise the hard work she was going through,” Akiva says.
Sacrifice, grind and love. It’s part of who they are. It’s what helped them push through the tough times and long nights.
“I love my Mum to death. She’s done so much for me to get to the place that I am now,” Akiva says. “Living in Hamilton is not the nicest of areas; there’s gang violence around. But she did a good job of raising me, so I kept my head out of that kind of stuff.”
Few know Akiva’s story. The moment he held his Mum’s hand as she walked across the stage at her university graduation.
The time there was one loaf of bread left in the pantry and they had to figure out who would eat it. Tiana’s resolve to push Akiva in a pram up the hill to day-care on her way to class, even in the driving Hamilton rain.
Akiva is now a freshman and student-athlete at the University of California Irvine (UCI). He’s won a national NBL title with the Otago Nuggets, won the 2020 U17 nationals for Waikato, and attended the NBA Global Academy development camp in 2019.
What started as a hobby, grew into a dream and an avenue for a better life.
Everything Akiva knows he’s learned from his mum. She was 17 when he was born. She didn’t have a car and remembers being placed at the desk closest to the bathroom when she was pregnant and sitting her high school exams.
“The journey of single motherhood started immediately,” Tiana Griffin says. “I stayed home that whole year and got really depressed. I’d never been around babies or changed a nappy until I had Akiva. I had literally no idea what I was doing, and all my friends had gone away to university.”
She still remembers what people would say to her. You’ve ruined your life. You’ve ruined your education. You’re never going to amount to anything.
It motivated her. She thought to herself: I’m not going to let this define who I am. I can still get an education. I can still have a career.
She looked at Akiva and became determined to give him the best life. She wanted to show him what was possible.
“Akiva was my saving grace. He gave me stability and motivated me. When you’re in the moment you’re just in survival mode. You just get on with it. You just do it,” Tiana says.
She studied for a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in anthropology and Māori and Pacific development at the University of Waikato. She sometimes took Akiva with her to study; she spent her 18th birthday finishing an assignment. But she knew it was worth it.
Akiva started playing basketball for fun at 10 when a teacher encouraged him to play.
Whenever he played, it wasn’t hard to know his mum was there. “She’s really loud. She yells at everyone, not just me – but my teammates love her. It’s good to have her around,” Akiva says.
Once, Tiana tried to surprise Akiva at a tournament, but her laughter gave her away.
Even when his mum is mad, he says, she’ll still be laughing. It’s another reminder to always remember what he has and not let anything steal his joy.
When Akiva watches his little brother, Tamatoa, play basketball, “I try not to yell at him because I know what it feels like.”
Tiana admits she doesn’t know much about basketball. She’s never played the game, but she loves that it’s been a vehicle for her to spend time with Akiva, that it’s his passion and it allows him to enjoy a life she imagined back when she broke down, drained from working all week.
The year 2018 was when mother and son knew they were fully committed to realising Akiva’s basketball dream to go college in the United States and playing professionally.
Akiva and Tiana still remember the grind. The money going to endless team fundraisers and national basketball camps; the long hours and energy invested, which meant missing out on what other kids were doing – going to the movies or buying a fresh pair of basketball shoes. It meant dinner was noodles for the third week in a row.
That year, Tiana worked at four jobs – as an education officer in the Youth Court during the week, driving people’s cars home on weekends, teaching Cook Island dancing, and report writing to get extra money so Akiva could go to a national camp at the end of the year.
Her son saw how hard she was working and responded by doing everything he could to take care of his siblings, never missing a training and finding ways to get to events when his mum was working.
It was exhausting, but they kept pushing. Their respect for each other grew. But still there were questions, like Why are you spending so much?
But they knew when you have opportunities, you don’t waste them.
Akiva is the epitome of basketball builds character. He was 17, still at St Johns College in Hamilton, but the 6ft 9in (2.06m) forward was playing alongside Tall Blacks Jarrod Kenny and Jordan Ngatai in the Otago Nuggets.
In his first year, 2020, they played the NBL Showdown in a bubble in Auckland because of Covid-19.
It was his first taste of living his dream – no school, playing basketball every day, hanging with his team-mates and time to do whatever he wanted. Instead of English class, it was meetings with team sponsors.
His mum told him to soak up everything, take advantage of his opportunity.
He was challenged by veterans but remained confident in his abilities. Kenny told him he should find a hobby, so he played Game of Thrones and Monopoly with his flatmates. They taught him a card game – and discovered just how competitive Akiva is.
The Nuggets won the NBL Showdown, and when Akiva returned to school, it was hard to stay motivated. “I’d been living the life I’d always dreamed of, so I found it hard to get back into the swing of things. I studied really hard to make sure I passed my exams, but it was a big wake-up call,” he says.
Tiana watched her son then use his experience to help lead Waikato to victory in the U17 nationals final against Canterbury, playing the entire game and notching up 19 points and 19 rebounds.
They are two of Tiana’s proudest moments, illustrating Akiva’s courage to go from a learning to a leadership environment. “I loved how he could float effortlessly between the different types of finals,” she says.
“Basketball didn’t make Akiva who he is, it showed who he is. You have an opportunity, like when your opposition player is on the ground – you can walk over them, or talk smack, or you pick them up.”
Akiva always tried to pick them up.
After that season with Otago, people started showing interest in Akiva. But they weren’t US colleges, and he watched as other players received scholarships.
A French club was interested, but with the uncertainty of Covid, they didn’t reach a deal. It was a blessing in disguise as the New Zealand basketball community got behind Akiva and used their connections to get him in contact with US coaches. Even Aucklander Taine Murray, who plays at the University of Virginia, messaged Akiva to say he’d passed on his details to contacts in the States.
With his academic requirements met, Akiva began talking to different colleges. While the beaches of California were a drawcard, what was even more enticing about UCI was playing under assistant coach Michael Wilder, who’s also part Samoan. After talking to the coaches and knowing fellow Kiwi Olivia Williams would also be playing at the university, Tiana felt confident it was the right decision.
“It’s reassuring knowing that if you’re homesick and you’re on the other side of the world, there’s at least one Islander there who knows where you can get some palusami and taro,” Tiana says.
“I talked to [Michael] and he said, ‘Sis we’ve got you sorted, my mum and aunties are ready, he’s part of the family’. And I thought, it’s meant to be, the stars have aligned.
“I know academically what I want Akiva to achieve, but it was the pastoral stuff that I was more concerned about.”
Akiva doesn’t like big celebrations or attention. Tiana found out he had committed to UCI through his Instagram story, which only lasts 24 hours.
“I wanted to do a big commitment ceremony because I wanted to celebrate. We finally made it. But he’s so low-key,” Tiana says.
When Akiva moved to California in July, Tiana knew he was ready. Everything they went through together prepared him. He knows how to drive, manage money, do laundry, and how to manage his workload, training and recovery.
He’s been in a psychological stress and criminology law class with fourth-year medical students, and took care of all the discussions with college coaches.
“I think he’s capable and confident enough that he can leave home and be sweet as,” Tiana says. “We’ve done enough foundation work that he can be out in the world and navigating his way through life.”
Akiva touches wood frequently and prefers to live in the moment rather than look too far ahead. He’s also independent and content, but ambitious.
“I want to be a Big West player of the year and make a conference team. I want to leave a mark on the school and to be known when I leave,” he says. “And the main goal is to play pro, no matter where.
“There are so many pathways and opportunities to make an impact – like if I can influence a kid to pick up the game and help others. I want to build my grandma a house in Rarotonga and I love my old high school, St John’s, a lot, so I want to build them an athletes’ hostel.
“In terms of my mum supporting me, you can’t really repay that. But I’ll find a way.”
Akiva’s siblings are a huge motivator. He wants them to have the best life, too.
He’s always had a natural nurturing instinct. In 2015, Akiva travelled to Orlando for a tournament with Capital City basketball. Tiana was unwell in hospital after giving birth to her daughter, Ke’iki.
As soon as he arrived home, he went straight to Ke’iki, gave her a cuddle and her first gift – a tiny pair of LeBron James shoes.
“Akiva is a role model for his little siblings,” Tiana says. “We don’t go around saying that in our household, but his brother and sister see what he’s doing. They see the life that he’s living and the work he’s put in.”
“I love my siblings,” Akiva says. “My sister is a lot bossier, louder and more demanding than my brother was. I think Mum’s biggest wish is that her kids are looked after. That’s my responsibility and then she can sleep easier at night, knowing she doesn’t have to worry about anything.”
Tiana will never forget a family holiday to Rarotonga early in 2020. There was a 3×3 basketball tournament and Akiva played with his best friend, Jett Thompson – who plays for the Franklin Bulls – and two local players.
On the sidelines, people were stunned watching Akiva, posting Instagram stories about how good he was. Tiana saw kids’ faces light up watching Akiva explode in a breath-taking dunk. She could see them dreaming I want to be like him. I want to dunk like that.
An Auckland team played against Akiva’s squad that weekend, and a younger boy on that team was intrigued by Akiva.
Then Tiana saw a man share a story on Instagram on how Akiva had taken time to chat to his young son in Rarotonga. He praised him for how respectful he was and how that moment with his son was so special. Tiana has a screenshot of it, reminding her she did a good job as a mum; that her son is a good man.
“I thought it was beautiful that Akiva meant something to this little kid and made an impact in that short time, and for his dad to be moved enough to verbalise that on social media.”
Tiana can’t wait to fly to the US one day to watch Akiva play.
For now, she’s focusing on her own goals, doing a Masters of Māori and Indigenous Leadership through the University of Canterbury.
Akiva is living his dream. “If I ever get down, I just think it could have been so much worse. The things I have in front of me other people dream of having,” he says. “We could’ve stayed at the bottom of that poverty cycle and never got high enough to get out. It makes me super grateful for everything that I have now.”
The odds were stacked against them. But they bet on themselves.
Akiva often sends videos to his mum, updating her on the latest hotel he’s at, the unlimited number of shoes and clothes he gets, and the food he’s eating sitting by the pool drinking in his view of the palm trees.
Together, they did it. They made it to the top of the hill.