Perennial Tall Fern and mum Tessa Boagni is grateful for two teams who’ve got her through her first Tauihi basketball season – Mainland Pouākai on the court and ‘Noah’s Nannies’ behind the scenes.
When the inaugural Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa kicked off back in June, Tessa Boagni was one of over 60 names across five team rosters – but one of the very few balancing a professional basketball career with a busy toddler.
At home in Christchurch, Boagni is mum to Noah, who turns two next week and has already travelled across the globe with the Tall Ferns.
Boagni, 26, quickly stamped her mark in Mainland Pouākai’s opening game of the season at Cowles Stadium, holding off Southern Hoiho by 10 points. The victory was led by double-doubles from Boagni (16 points and 11 rebounds) and North Canterbury’s Mary Goulding.
The message for the hometown crowd was loud and clear – local talent would lead this team to a memorable season, and Boagni would be at the forefront. And the Pouākai women would become as well-known off the court as on – especially as coaches, mentors and role models.
Boagni’s experience and leadership has been a key piece in the Pouākai puzzle. The team have made the Final Four in Nelson this weekend, playing their semifinal against Tokomanawa Queens tomorrow night.
As a professional athlete whose partner in life and parenting lives halfway around the world – Noah’s dad, Ethan Roots, plays professional rugby for Ospreys in Wales – Boagni makes it look easy.
Her closest friends form the network she calls “Noah’s Nannies.”
She can message the group on a moment’s notice if needed, and replies come back from enthusiastic volunteers well known to Noah – to take him walking, to preschool or just wait patiently at home while he naps.
But when the former Christchurch Girls’ High student and California State University Northridge graduate shares the story of her past two years, “easy” is the last word that comes to mind.
During her pregnancy with Noah in 2020, Boagni contracted hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition characterised by severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss and dehydration.
For nine months, she was unable to do any physical activity. “I couldn’t shoot a hoop, or even stand up, without throwing up,” she recalls.
“It’s pretty much severe morning sickness – all day, every day. My diet consisted of an Up&Go in the morning, which took me 20 minutes to drink, and a few crackers during the day. I thought: ‘I don’t know how I’ll ever go back to running and being physical’.”
Boagni then had an extremely difficult labour, and was confined to mostly sitting or lying in bed for another three months after Noah was born. But by September 2021, she’d completed a successful season with the NBL Wildcats and packed her bags for the Tall Ferns’ Asia Cup campaign in Amman, Jordan.
She also had Noah in tow. “Noah was on the sideline in an [infant] front pack, carried by the manager of our team,” she explains. “She was handing out drink bottles with him right there.”
In recent years, the Tall Ferns have made a point of encouraging new mums to take their babies with them on tour.
Back on the court, Boagni says she has significantly more motivation now. “I want to make Noah proud,” she confesses. With this greater purpose lifting her game, Boagni’s body and mind healed quickly – she attributes much of her recovery to her mindset.
“I think the number one thing is not to compare yourself to others,” she says. “Be appreciative and in awe of what your body is, and what it can do.
“Obviously with social media, celebrities and really fit people are posting their bodies two weeks after having a baby. But every journey and every body is different. That’s the first thing I had to learn. My journey is going to be different.
“Of course my body was going to look different. I had to remind myself, ‘Your body just created a life, and it’s feeding and nourishing a human being, which is the most amazing thing you can do’. I would appreciate and love my body – and not hate it.”
With her willingness to share her experiences, Boagni is a brilliant role model, on the court and off. While the Canterbury Rams are renowned for their work in schools, holiday programmes and development camps, this season Pouākai have made their own mark. Their initial school holiday events attracted huge interest.
Pouākai players Tessa Boagni and Mary Goulding teaching young girls the basics of basketball
“It’s a safe place for girls to play basketball and not be dominated or overwhelmed by the boys, and see female role models who are teaching them,” Boagni says.
Last week, Pouākai visited the Ronald McDonald House in Ōtautahi. “It was eye-opening,” Boagni says. “We had morning tea with some of the families and children then took them outside and did some ball handling. A couple of us were makeshift hoops so they could shoot into our arms. We hung out and helped take their minds off everything else that was going on for them.”
One young cancer patient, around 10 years old, made a special impression on Boagni. His mother told her it was the first time she’d seen her son smile in quite a while.
The response to their time spent in the community has been quite overwhelming, the 1.88m forward admits.
“All these young girls get to watch us on a weekly basis. We’re all out in the community at least two to three times a week and coaching at three to four different schools every week. We get so many young boys coming to our games, and I think that’s amazing too,” Boagni says.
“It’s the parents, especially the mums, who come up to us and say, ‘I’m so happy I could bring my daughter to this game,’ or ‘Thank you so much for coming to my daughter’s school and coaching – it’s all she talks about.’ It makes you feel everything’s worth it.”
Boagni grew up in a close-knit basketball family. Her mother is former New Zealand women’s basketball captain Jane McMeeken, and her father is Kerry Boagni, a Kiwi NBL legend.
“I watched my mum and my sister [Commonwealth Games silver medallist Kate McMeeken-Ruscoe] my whole childhood,” she recalls.
Now Boagni’s own son, even when he’s asleep, has become a source of energy that powers her performance with the Pouākai.
“When I have two hours away from him, I might as well make the most of it and go as hard as I possibly can,” she says. “My mindset has switched to everything I do now is for Noah. It’s his presence alone, even if his eyes are closed. It’s being the best you can be. It’s not about you anymore – that’s definitely helped me a lot.”
Boagni has taken the word resilience and redefined it in a single season.
Many athletes today understand the extraordinary mental challenge of making a comeback in a in a body changed by childbirth. Boagni is a trailblazer in this movement – making the transition to motherhood while taking her sport more seriously than ever.
Noah’s doting pair of grandmothers, tight-knit Pouākai teammates and an unconditionally reliable group chat create a hugely helpful support system.
Boagni won’t take the court this weekend, after she suffered a concussion last week playing Northern Kahū. But she’s still with the team in Nelson, where her leadership skills will be invaluable.
She calls her return to the court this season, in front of a hometown crowd, as “one of the pinnacles for any athlete.”
She recalls the unforgettable moment she took the court at Cowles Stadium in June for that very first game with the Pouākai. “I had everyone there. My mum, my best friends’ mums, my representative coaches,” she says. “Playing at home in front of the people who have helped you get where you are today and be able to celebrate with them – that’s a dream come true.”
* Tauihi’s Final Four play-offs begin in Nelson on Friday with Kāhu v Whai in the first semifinal at 6pm, and Queens v Pouākai at 8pm. All games are live on Sky Sport.