A new professional basketball league, Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa, has lured some of NZ’s top players home this winter, better preparing the Tall Ferns and exposing more young women to the game, writes Sara Essig Webb
For the first time in 15 years, Tall Fern Olympian Micaela Cocks is coming home to play a season of basketball.
On a star-studded resume, what stands out is that Cocks has played all 15 professional seasons away from home.
The only Tall Fern to have won medals at both the 2006 and 2018 Commonwealth Games, Cocks has played for the Townsville Fire in the Australian WNBL since 2011, guiding them to three championship titles.
Now she’s signed up to be part of the Northern team in Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa, New Zealand’s new professional women’s basketball league, starting in June.
Until now, Kiwi women at the top of their game haven’t been able to come home without abandoning their careers.
“I haven’t been home since I was 18. I’m really excited to come back to where it all started,” says Cocks, mum to one-year-old Hazel.
With young wāhine in the stands, Cocks hopes they will “see that passion and fun and want to be there”.
The 35-year-old has vivid memories of the encounters that shaped her love for the sport.
“I remember going to training camps and watching Megan Compain, Jody Cameron, Sally Farmer and Leanne Walker – being in awe and wanting to play at the highest level,” she says.
Huw Beynon, Basketball NZ’s general manager of the NBL, says the aspirational factor has been a huge motivator for establishing the new women’s league, and bringing home players from all over the world.
One of Beynon’s favourite sayings is: You’ve got to see it to be it.
But when the Tall Ferns play overseas, it’s not easy to watch them.
“It’s tough for young people to see; it tends to be in the middle of the night, halfway around the world,” Beynon says.
The new league of five teams running for eight weeks from June 29, will change the game here, and what girls who enjoy basketball believe is possible.
“Parents can take them along to games. They’ll see women who went to their school – women who grew up in their town. That inspiration will now be there. The inspiration hasn’t been there. And if it has, it’s been tough to find,” says Beynon.
“And now everyone’s going to have that chance.”
The five teams are Northern, Whai (Mid-North), Tokomanawa Queens (Central), Mainland Pouākai (Upper South) and Southern Hoiho (Lower South). Games will be played at multiple venues in each region, not limited to central cities.
This is a moment that generations of female basketballers have been waiting for.
Megan Compain knows very well the hard and often heartbreaking choices New Zealand’s female basketballers have had to make, with the absence of pathways in their own country. Now a Basketball New Zealand board member, she was the first and only Kiwi player to be drafted into the WNBA in the US.
“It’s why this league is so important. If you choose to take up the sport, there is an opportunity for you to play professionally,” Compain says.
“There is an opportunity to be recognised and valued in your own country. It’s one of the biggest barriers that’s existed here in New Zealand.”
As Compain once did, many of New Zealand’s best basketballers head overseas and remain in the US college system and European competition in between stints as Tall Ferns.
“It doesn’t necessarily suit everyone to go overseas for four years. It’s not for everyone – and neither should it be,” she says.
“This is an opportunity for young women to play the game, get good at the game… and stay here in New Zealand.”
Compain wears many hats, from commentator to part-owner of one of the new franchises. But on opening night, she will take a front row seat – as a fan.
“I’m so excited to see these women having incredible careers overseas being able to shine here in New Zealand, and what that will do for the next generation of women’s basketballers.
“This is an opportunity to celebrate those who have gone before, who are still at the peak of their game.”
Mary Goulding, originally from the North Canterbury town of Rangiora, was heading into her third season overseas when she made the decision to sign with the new league at home. Goulding is a prime example of players who have received accolades all over the world and remain mostly unknown in New Zealand.
She played in Sweden in 2019 and last year with Bendigo in Australia’s WNBL.
In January, she gave her parents the unexpected news: she was signing with Mainland Pouākai. “They were over the moon,” she says.
Goulding says the scope for players to advance and improve will change significantly, now that Tall Ferns, current and future, can play at the highest level throughout the entire year.
Her enthusiasm, however, is personal as well as performance-based.
“We have the opportunity one-on-one to promote women in sport, but especially basketball in New Zealand. I’ve been privileged enough to be part of the Canterbury Rams community programmes in the past,” says Goulding. “It really motivates me and gives me joy.”
Her motivation is about much more than promoting a pathway. Goulding values the perks that come with playing a game you love, at any age.
“I think basketball has encouraged me to not only dive into different cultures, but also to meet people from so many different backgrounds.
“I’ve learnt so many different life skills – teamwork, resilience. I’ve had to move around a lot. There are a lot of skills you don’t really think about – like time management.
“Things you get in any other job you get twice as much with basketball. It’s the stuff off the court – the life skills … has just been mind-blowing.”
Sophie Bishop has played basketball at home with her three brothers since she was nine. She’s a star on her school’s mini-ball team. The Year 6 eastern Christchurch student lives and breathes sport, and basketball is a favourite.
On Thursdays, players from the Canterbury Rams men’s team come to Bishop’s school. She loves these sessions of skills and drills.
“There’s always positivity,” says Bishop. “They always teach you something new. If you don’t get something right one week, you can try it next week.”
She agrees that a women’s league might plant a seed of inspiration and confidence for young girls considering their options.
“It will be nice to see there’s different people who can play [basketball]. It can be anyone,” Bishop says.
The league partnership between Basketball NZ and Sky is a five-year deal designed to increase visibility and accessibility of home games and ultimately lift New Zealand basketball on a global scale. Each of the five new teams is “funded for the long-haul”, according to the overview of the new league, with resources to provide more grassroots opportunities.
“It’s at the heart of what we’ve done,” Beynon says. “When we went looking for the owners of these new franchises, we asked, ‘What are you going to do under the professional team? How are you going to find the next generation of players?’
“That community engagement is the beating heart of every sports club. These are the people who buy tickets and merchandise, and part with their money and help you run the club.
“And one day those are the people who want to pull the jersey on and play for you.”
Compain was a true trailblazer; it has now been 26 years since she became New Zealand’s first, and still only, athlete to play in the WNBA.
This helps explain why she’s as much a champion as an advocate for the wāhine on the court, and young women in the stands.
It’s time to soar, Compain says. Soar is part of the language around the new league – the meaning of tauihi in Te Reo.
“It’s the opportunity for us to give them wings and set them free. Keep their head high, chin up and look upwards,” Compain says.
While the obvious outcome is a platform for talent here in New Zealand, it’s equally about the hauora and wellbeing of wāhine – when participation and confidence grow at the grassroots level.
Across Aotearoa, more girls will have relatable role models to follow. Athletes will enjoy the best of both worlds – the highest level of competition, and a homecoming.
Goulding agrees. From a current player’s point of view, it’s a win on so many levels.
“It’s awesome to be able to give back to the community and for the kids to have these role models to look up to. It’s great for women in New Zealand to have the opportunity to come back and play in front of people we love, for a country we love.”
*All games in Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa will be live on Sky Sport, with the competition tip-off on June 29. The finals will be played in Nelson on August 26-27.