Mel Bennett was born in Singapore and brought up in military camps around New Zealand. Her military camp neighbours naturally became extended whānau and mentors.

It was at Burnham Military Camp, just south of Christchurch, 34 years ago that she fell in love with basketball.

Bennett’s parents came from opposite sides of Te awa o Wairoa in Tauranga and married before joining the army. For over 18 years, Bennett grew up at a different army bases between Singapore and Aotearoa.

“Singapore for two years, Burnham until I was four, Papakura until I was seven, Ngāruawāhia until about 10. Hamilton, then back to Burnham, Linton and Tauranga,” says Bennett.

But even through all the moving around, basketball became a constant in her life. And the whānau atmosphere and feeling of belonging is what Bennett – Basketball New Zealand’s female coach of the year – now tries to instill in all the teams she coaches.

Right now, that’s with Whai in the new Tauihi Aotearoa Basketball league – a role she says is “a dream come true”.

Always immaculately dressed on the sideline, Mel Bennett is making an impact coaching Whai. 

From Bennett’s perspective, Puhi Milner, known as “Aunty Puss,” was the matriarch of basketball in military camp life at Burnham.

Milner represented Auckland in the 1960s and was a trailblazer in women’s basketball. Her children, Rhonda and Peta, played for New Zealand as well.

Bennett watched her brother, Damian, play basketball and soon fell head over heels for the game. The Bennett whānau joined the basketball club at Burnham, nicknamed the Minties, led by Milner.

“It was the way she held herself,” Bennett recalls of Milner, who she describes as a natural mentor.

From the age of 11, Bennett grew up through the basketball club, travelling to tournaments – her memories of this pivotal period in her life are vivid.

“There would be heaps of us with bags of Minties lollies, each bag the size of a pillowcase. ‘Lean on Me’ was our team song. There’s lots of smiles coming on my face as I talk about it,” she says.

The Minties club, she recalls, was generational, inspirational and characterised by a “whānau atmosphere.”

“Basketball has always been a constant in our lives. It’s a chance to make new memories, build positive relationships, and develop character and resilience,” she reflects.

This has shaped Bennett’s approach to her responsibilities – as head coach of the national U17 girls team, and with Whai.

Whai represent the Mid-North region: Waikato, Tauranga, Rotorua, Taupo and Gisborne.

“It’s made me more aware of creating an environment and an identity within that, that people can belong to,” Bennett explains.

Mel Bennett runs through a play with Whai in a pre-season game. Photo: supplied.

After two rounds of Tauihi, Whai are two and two. 

“Whai had an amazing build-up for Tauihi which exceeded my expectations, Bennett says. “Focusing on culture-building and whanaungatanga was one of the top priorities, and establishing an environment which felt safe, and where we could all bring our character, and individual skillset together to create one identity was important.”

Holding a bachelor of arts in Māori studies, as well as qualifications in sport and health, Bennett is an advocate for language and connection.  She uses these to forge community on and off the court.

“I’d been raised away from my whenua and from my hometown due to military life. It wasn’t very te reo Māori focused, apart from what Mum and Dad taught us in the home, and through the Minties. Like how to treat others, and how to treat our elders and be respectful,” she says.

Although she didn’t retain the language as much as she would have liked through secondary school, Bennett learned about customs and protocols, and an appreciation of te reo Māori.

“We are creating a huge legacy here – a mana-enhancing opportunity for women.”

Last year, Bennett was a development coach at the Tall Ferns selection camp. She played the role of facilitator, leading a cultural process through the camp, where the theme was whanaungatanga (connectedness).

“The ultimate purpose is to have the Tall Ferns play for a reason much larger than themselves, which connects them to their whakapapa and whenua,” Bennett says. “The culture will provide an opportunity for our wāhine to connect regularly, especially those who are disconnected geographically.”

As head coach of the NZ U17 team, Bennett will lead the side at this year’s Oceania championships in Guam in November, then the 2023 Asian championships and the 2024 World Cup.

Her ability to inspire wāhine as athletes, coaches and leaders has earned her both titles and trust across Aotearoa.

This year, Basketball New Zealand (BBNZ) announced appointments for two newly created community leadership groups, to guide and support the development of coaches and referees.

Bennett is a member of the coach leadership group, which will enhance connection in basketball communities and ensure development programmes and services are ‘fit for purpose’. There’s also a strong focus on the need to grow the game for women and girls.

Mel Bennett says Tauihi is the perfect pathway for aspiring basketball coaches. Photo: Basketball NZ. 

Outside basketball, Bennett works for Te Rūnaga o Ngāi te Rangi Iwi Trust, as the te ohu rangatahi manager, a role offering programmes that connect rangatahi (teenagers) back to their iwi. 

She relates this to her life in sport and her aspirations as a coach: “It’s made me want to create an atmosphere, environment and culture where people can be comfortable where they are, no matter whether they speak te reo or not.

“You don’t need to speak te reo to be in a whānau-oriented environment. But you do need to be understanding of different cultures and different beliefs. Everyone has taken a different journey to get where they are.”

On her own journey, Bennett emphasises the role of her whānau – her parents, especially her mum, as well as her brother, nephews and nieces. She says their support is the reason she’s been able to follow her dreams of coaching at the highest level.

Although Bennett has been coaching basketball since 2007, the Tauihi Aotearoa Basketball League is a real game-changer from her point of view.

“The difference [for wāhine] is a visible pathway inside our own country,” she says. “There is now a platform to stay here and get an education and still be able to play and get paid. I think that’s a bonus. Another advantage is that you do not need to leave your whānau. That’s incredible.”

The new Whai head coach is full of gratitude.

“It’s been a privilege and an honour to be a head coach in the inaugural season, and our organisation has ensured I’ve had the best possible start,” she says. “It really is a dream come true to be in this position.

“Tauihi is the perfect pathway for aspiring coaches to develop and get exposure. Recruitment, scouting has also been exciting, and I’m blessed to have a team of staff who complement each other so we are prepared and can put our best performance out on the floor.

“It gives players the opportunity to aspire to be a better version of themselves. It allows them to showcase their talents in front of everyone.

“We are creating a huge legacy here – a mana-enhancing opportunity for women.”

* Whai play their first game of Round 3 against Mainland Pouākai in Christchurch on Sunday at 12.30pm, live coverage on Sky Sport 1.

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