It was a living hell.
Just as she’d reached the prime of her career, Tall Fern Samara Gallaher could no longer walk into a basketball stadium.
The bright lights, the roar of the crowd, the repeated hammering of balls on the hardwood floors. All those things she loved about her game were suddenly too much for her muddled brain to handle.
For 16 months, the Dunedin-born basketballer best known as Sammy suffered through constant migraines, fatigue and over-sensitivity to light and noise.
“I spent a lot of that time in bed resting, sitting there literally doing nothing for weeks on end,” Gallaher says. That was tough for a player renowned for diving on loose ball, fully committing to a lay-up, never afraid to put her body on the line.
She put a dot on her bedroom wall in Melbourne to stare at every day until she didn’t get a headache.
All because she’d banged her head too many times.
It was an accumulation of collisions and head smacks onto the court that finally stopped Gallaher in her tracks six years ago. And it came just as she was on the verge of breaking into Australia’s WNBL and tour Europe with a Tall Ferns side trying to qualify for the Rio Olympics. A tour she’d been building towards for two years.
But it was her ninth – and last – concussion Gallagher will never forget.
“It was a huge one. I went for a lay-up and I got tunnelled – someone took my legs out from under me and pushed me. An unsportsmanlike foul,” the 29-year-old says.
“I flipped back and landed on my head. You could hear the crack on the court, and everyone went ‘Oooh’. I sat up and laughed it off because, hey, I was always hitting my head.
“But this time I went ‘woah’,” she wobbles her head, “and I went straight back down. That one really rolled me.”
Gallaher was forced to make herself unavailable for the Tall Ferns, and realised she had to take concussion seriously.
She went through almost a year-and-a-half of intense rehabilitation for her brain, before she was given advice no athlete ever wants to hear.
She was told she should never play again.
“I got myself in a really bad hole,” she says. “On top of all the symptoms I had to deal with was the realisation I couldn’t play basketball, I had to give up my livelihood. It was the toughest thing I’d ever had to deal with. And I wouldn’t talk about how I was dealing with it, either.”
When Gallaher came home to live with her family last year, she’d finally made peace with the fact she wouldn’t take the court again.
She’d found a new way to stay involved in the sport and to give back – becoming Basketball Otago’s ambassador for the women’s and girls’ game; making sure young girls got the same support on and off the court as she’d had growing up.
But then when she least expected it, a band of Kiwi medical specialists – headed by the All Blacks’ physiotherapist – offered to help her get back on the court again.
And on Wednesday, Gallaher will suit up for the Southern Hoiho to play Mainland Pouākai in the very first game of Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa – the new women’s professional league.
“Honestly, it sounds cheesy, but it’s like a dream come true. I never thought this day would come again,” she says.
“For the first time in five years, I feel balanced and where I’m supposed to be. And it’s about way more than me, or basketball, now.”
The first knock
Micaela Cocks, the most capped Tall Fern in history, will turn out for Northern Kāhu in the new league – the first time in 15 years she’s played a professional season at home.
She remembers Gallaher as a fresh-faced 16-year-old coming into her first Tall Ferns squad. “She was young but she had so much skill. I remember thinking ‘This is so good for women’s basketball to see such young talent coming through’,” Cocks says.
“So to see her back on court, in the new league, after her time away dealing with all her concussions, it feels really good. I know it’s been a tough time for her.”
Gallaher remembers her first experience with the Tall Ferns for a different reason.
As a kid, she was torn between two loves – basketball and rugby. She did everything she could to emulate her brothers while at St Joseph’s Cathedral School in Dunedin. When she reached Kavanagh College, there was no girls rugby team, so she played in a club boys’ side until she was 15 (“Then Mum didn’t want me getting injured”).
Playing for Kavanagh and the Otago Gold Rush at the team’s inception in the New Zealand women’s basketball championship (WBC), the young guard was picked out for national age-group sides and the Junior Tall Ferns.
‘I’ll just play smarter. I’m never going to skimp on effort or hustle’ – Sammy Gallaher.
Two days before her first Tall Ferns trial, she suffered her first concussion.
“I was playing WBC and I stupidly tried to go up against [Tall Fern legend] Jody Cameron for a rebound, and I vividly remembered being in the air competing with her and thinking ‘What am I doing?’ I came down and hit my head on the ground,” Gallaher says.
“I thought I was a hero after the doctors said: ‘If you feel all right you can go back and play’. Concussion protocol wasn’t a massive thing back then. So I played the next day, and got taken out by [Tall Fern] Charmian Purcell. Same thing again, a 16-year-old who thought she could take on the big guns – and couldn’t.
“So I went to the Tall Ferns trial the next day and told them.” Fortunately, she was sent home.
She remembers struggling to focus in the classroom after those initial head knocks, but “just got on with life”.
Although she was in the Tall Ferns environment for the next few years, she didn’t make her debut – against Australia – until she was 21.
“A lot of it was me just not being ready, but also the incredible calibre of players in New Zealand,” she says. “But that wait helped blood me into the team.”
Gallaher, who’s iwi is Ngāti Raukawa, took up a US college scholarship at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, majoring in psychology, and was there for almost two years before homesickness got the better of her. “I’m really close to my family and it was before Skype and Facetime,” she says.
Back home she enrolled at the University of Otago’s physical education school and returned to the Gold Rush, where she won several championship titles and was often selected in the league’s All Star 5.
Then in 2014, she got a phone call out of the blue from a coach in Melbourne inviting her join the Hume City Broncos in the highly-regarded Big V championship. She “dropped everything” to start a week later.
In her four seasons with the Broncos, she won a couple of championships and fell in love with Melbourne. She’d cemented her place in the Tall Ferns, too.
But in the back of her head, trouble was brewing.
Bringing new value
Concussion remains a major problem in New Zealand sport, especially for women. Global research reveals female athletes are at almost twice the risk of suffering concussion than male athletes, and women and girls take longer to recover from a head injury.
“Concussion had been an issue for me ever since that first one,” Gallaher says. “The knowledge around it at the time wasn’t great. I was supported, but the seriousness of it wasn’t reinforced as it is now. The protocol was to take two weeks off, and I’d still have symptoms but I just keep playing.
“I’d never really recover and then I’d take another hit. Even a wee knock would stir things up.”
Then she took the biggest hit in 2016, and spent six weeks resting before returning home to the Tall Ferns trial for Rio Olympics qualification. “I’d been building up to that for two years,” Gallaher says. “But I stood there watching the girls train and my head hurt too much. I had to go and tell [head coach] Kennedy Kereama: ‘Sorry I can’t be available for this tour’. It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do.
“I then had the realisation I wasn’t okay, that I had to get my head right. I saw psychologists, physiologists, concussion specialists, physios, anyone who could help. It was a long 16 months.
“At the end of it, my concussion guy sat me down and said ‘I don’t think you’ll have any ongoing issues, but my recommendation is that you shouldn’t play basketball again. I don’t want you to lose another 16 months of your life’. But I’m very stubborn.”
She tried to train again, but always left the gym with a migraine. “So I fully walked away from the game,” she says.
“It took me a few years to find out who I am without basketball, and where I can now bring value to the world. Then it was okay not to play.”
Gallaher returned to coaching and working with the basketball community around how to grow the women’s game.
Angela Ruske, the Otago Nuggets general manager, remembers Gallaher approaching her when she returned to Dunedin and offering to help.
“She said ‘What are we doing for the next generation?’” says Ruske, who also heads the Hoiho. “She knew how much effort and time people had put into her career, and she wanted to give back. It’s not every player who thinks like that.”
So Gallaher took on the ambassadorship of the women’s game: “It felt right to help make sure the girls’ game wasn’t falling behind.”
She was delighted, then, when word got round that the revamped national women’s league would give the country’s leading female players equal pay to the men in the NBL, and create a pathway for girls to aspire to. She just didn’t picture herself playing in it.
A random conversation with All Blacks physio Peter Gallagher gave her new hope. “He said ‘You’re that concussion girl, aren’t you? I reckon I could get you back on court’,” Gallaher says. So she started a year-long journey to strengthen her neck and see if she could play again.
“I hadn’t thought about the neck tension, support and stability,” she says. “Seeing it from another angle was incredible. And now I’ve done some amazing work with physios and chiropractors.
“Today there are excellent concussion protocols, lots of support and experts who know how to treat it. If I’d been given that help early, I may not have had such a terrible journey with concussions. But it was just the way it was.”
Gallaher got a little court-time for the Gold Rush at the end of last season, and slowly built her confidence back up to play professional basketball again.
“You live in a little pocket of fear, and you play it incredibly safe. But I was given huge confidence from the people around me who said I could do it,” Gallaher says.
“When it was finally announced I’d play [for Hoiho], the support was overwhelming; I didn’t realise I had so many people in my corner. I walked into training that night and burst into tears.
“It was a five-year journey – going away, getting lost and finally finding my way back.”
Ruske is thrilled to have Gallaher’s strength and leadership in Hoiho. “It’s amazing not just because she’s such a talented basketballer. It’s what she brings to the team – her charismatic, bubbly personality, her work ethic, her leadership by example. She’s an amazing role model, not just for her team-mates, but the young girls who are coming up through the game.”
And Gallaher can also help by finally opening up about her concussion history.
“I’ve had multiple girls come up to me saying they’ve had concussion too and want to know how I’ve worked my way through it,” she says. “At first, I didn’t want concussion to be my story; to be that girl who played for New Zealand but then got concussed. But by holding on to that story, I couldn’t help someone else. So I’m grateful for that opportunity too.”
Gallaher admits she’s had a few taps to the head in training – “Don’t tell Mum” – but she’s come away feeling fine.
Will all that she’s been through change her full-throttle game? “If you’d asked me six months ago, I would’ve said 100 percent. But after last week’s preseason game, I’d say nope,” Gallaher laughs. “I almost forgot I’d had a concussion journey.
“But I’ll just play smarter. I’m never going to skimp on effort or hustle, but if there’s a 50-50 ball, I probably won’t go in for it.
“I’ve lived in worry and fear for five years. But I could walk down the street and walk into a pole; you never know what’s round the corner. I’ve been given this opportunity to play again and I’m taking it.”
She’d actually returned to live in Melbourne when she got the call to join Hoiho. “I realised Tauihi was a beautiful opportunity, a blank canvas. We can make this into something everyone can come home to,” she says.
“Yes, we’re doing this on court, but what we’re going to do off the court – for the next generation – now that gets me going.”
* The first game of Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa – Southern Hoiho v Mainland Pouākai – tips off on Wednesday, with live coverage on Sky Sport 3 from 7pm.