Anyone watching from the basketball stands last year would have thought Stella Beck was winning – at basketball and beyond.
She’d just logged three professional seasons across the Tasman, first with the Townsville Fire and then the Melbourne Boomers in the Australian WNBL. And with that came the chance to play under her Tall Ferns mentor and head coach Guy Molloy.
For 26-year-old Beck, playing at the top level came with an obvious sense of achievement – yet a sense of greater satisfaction was distinctly missing.
She relied on the sport as her sole income and occupation. Yet as Beck’s focus intensified, so did the pressure.
“I learned a lot about what I enjoyed, and what I didn’t enjoy,” she recalls. “It was my whole life, my career. I spent my whole time immersed in the basketball world.”
Beck loved the high-performance environment she found in the WNBL. But in this same space, the element of fun was fading from her game.
“The problem I really faced was the more I relied on basketball as the only thing I did, the more pressure that was put on it. I found it really hard to deal with,” she admits. “That pressure took away quite a lot of the fun for me.”
The 1.83m tall guard first became a Tall Fern in her final year at Hutt Valley High School. She remembers having “zero expectations” at the national team trial.
“It was an amazing moment,” Beck recalls. “I concentrated on one thing, and that was being fit enough to keep up with the veterans.”
She savoured playing as a Tall Fern in front of friends and family in Auckland. And then the pathway led her straight overseas. Memories of home crowds became distant, with a US college basketball scholarship.
At St Mary’s College in San Francisco, Beck was team captain, finishing her collegiate career with 1439 points and, most impressively, earning a degree in psychology and neuroscience.
“It was a lot of fun,” she says of her American college experience. “It was a really nice balance between life and basketball. My basketball friends became really good friends – like a sisterhood.”
Then the Australian pro leagues beckoned, and she began to lose that balance.
Last year, Beck was invited back to Melbourne for her fourth season with Molloy and the Boomers. In spite of how much she loved the Australian WNBL, she knew it was time for a break.
“I realised basketball wasn’t necessarily the only thing I wanted,” Beck explains. “I decided to take some time away.”
She stayed in New Zealand, living in Wellington and working full-time in Parliament, in ministerial support.
“I moved back in with my parents, and hung out with my friends. I focused on doing things outside of basketball. I played in my little brother’s social league team,” she says. “I realised quickly it was a really good decision for me to have made.”
During the break, Beck addressed her own feelings of “missing out.”
“I’d always had to prepare for a game or go away for a weekend,” she says. “All the times I had off were never in line with what a lot of my friends were doing. I felt kind of sad I was missing out on a lot of things I really wanted to do.”
She says she used the break wisely. “I went to a lot of music festivals. I did a lot of tramping. I gave my brain a lot of time just to relax a bit.”
This year, she decided to step back into professional sport, as captain of the Tokomanawa Queens in the inaugural Tauihi Aotearoa Women’s Basketball League.
In a typical week, Beck works in ministerial support at the Beehive from 8.30am to 5pm.
Three nights each week, she heads to basketball training for two to three hours, straight from the office. When her team is away on a weekend, she hops off the plane on Monday morning and heads straight to work.
Some professional players in the Tauihi league hold part-time jobs outside of basketball; fewer work full-time.
“I was just trying to do something different,” Beck points out. “I was figuring out how to get my first job that didn’t include basketball.
“I enjoy it that there’s two parts to what I do – I have the basketball and I have my job. I enjoy the environment, and the people I work with are fantastic. But I think what I enjoy the most is learning. And I’m motivated to use my time as best as I can.”
Given the Tauihi league has been founded on principles of pay equity, Beck’s motivation is clearly more about mindset than money.
“I needed a break. I knew that something was missing, and I did something about it,” she says. “Rather than staying in the situation I was in, I changed it up a bit. However, it can be hard to figure out what you need, and what you need changing.”
Highlights reel from Stella Beck’s standout performance for the Queens against Hoiho.
The decision to step away from the court was, Beck says, the most difficult decision of her life.
“It required a bit of explaining not only to my coaches but also to myself,” she recalls. “I felt that I was giving up something that a lot of people would be really grateful for.”
Beck has thoroughly enjoyed her first season with the Tokomanawa Queens, playing in front of friends and family, and renewing the fun she’s always found in the game.
Winning has no doubt added to the enjoyment, with the Queens sitting comfortably at second on the Tauihi table, and Beck averaging 11.1 points per game. In their most recent win, over Southern Hoiho, she starred with 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals.
Tokomanawa Queens head coach Tania Tupu says it’s really important to have local players in the side for the inaugural season, especially local Tall Ferns.
“As a coach, you have high expectations on your black jersey-wearing individuals. Stella is quite prepared to take on that challenge and front it,” Tupu says. “She’s this relentless battery that keeps going. She’ll put her body on the line – that’s really important for a captain, a leader and a Tall Fern.
“The priority was to make sure we take care of those in the region first. Stella from the Hutt Valley, Grace Hunter from Porirua – those communities connect in, and they love hearing there’s a local girl doing really well from their suburb.”
Beck is the glue and connector, Tupu says, between the professionals and the local girls aspiring to be better. “She’s done the US college thing. She can speak to a lot of different experiences with the young ones,” she says.
“Stella is the leader and sets the pace and tone through her leadership on and off the court.”
A late season surge has helped cement the Queens in second place heading into the final two weeks.
“We’re just trying every game to get better as a team, work on our strengths and cut out those weaknesses, and some of those things we did in those early games that we weren’t happy with,” Tupu explains. “Stella is the one person that always finds a way to better the situation on defence and offence.”
From Beck’s point of view, the victories only add to the enjoyment.
“I’ve realised how much I love to play again and how much I love the sport,” she says. “Even though I’m really busy, I have a life outside of basketball. It grounds me a bit, and it means I’m in a world that’s not solely controlled or dependent on my performance on the court.”
* Tokomanawa Queens play Kāhu in their final round-robin game on Thursday at Te Rauparaha Arena at 7.30pm, live on Sky Sport.