From one of our great sporting families, Gabriella Adams-Gavet could have chased careers in netball or rugby league, but went back to basketball. Now she’s making her Tall Ferns debut at 30. Suzanne McFadden writes.
Gabriella Adams-Gavet isn’t sure whether all of her siblings know she’s now a Tall Fern.
“Is this a way to tell them?” she laughs. “It’s not easy – we’re all scattered around the world. I have to figure out time zones.”
Those Adams sisters and brothers she reached were thrilled for their 30-year-old sibling; the power forward making her debut in the New Zealand women’s basketball side in a stunning comeback to competitive basketball – after injuries, illness and trying her hand, successfully, at other sports.
One of her sisters, Paralympic shot put gold medallist Lisa Adams, sent her a text saying how proud she was. Another, two-time Olympic shot put champion Dame Valerie Adams, took her out to lunch.
Adams-Gavet messaged her youngest brother, Steven Adams, who’s preparing for another NBA season with the Memphis Grizzlies.
“He’d been to a couple of my games while he was home,” says Adams-Gavet, who made her return to New Zealand basketball playing for the Northern Kāhu in the new Tauihi league this season. “I messaged him and I was like ‘Dude, guess what I did?’ He said: ‘That’s so flippin’ cool’; he was really happy for me too.”
Some of the Adams siblings, reunited at Steven Adams’ Pathways for Charity fundraiser in August
As a kid, Steven Adams was in awe of his sister Gabby’s basketball abilities. He wrote in his autobiography, My Life, My Fight: “Posting up against Lisa and Gabby when I was younger was way rougher than any player I mark in the NBA now. The only comeback I had against them was that if they ever got so pissed off that they wanted to smash me, I could usually run to Dad and then they couldn’t do anything.”
Adams-Gavet is now the fifth sibling in the Adams family to represent New Zealand, and the third in basketball – brothers Warren and Ralph were Tall Blacks. (Steven has yet to play for New Zealand).
“I did think how cool it would be to get up there with them,” she says. “In our family, if you really want it you’ve got to put the work in for it, but it’s not impossible. It’s not a crazy dream.”
Despite her genetics, Adams-Gavet has made it this far on her own athletic talent and fierce determination. And her coach, Jody Cameron, says she brings so much more a team, whether it’s Kāhu or the Tall Ferns, than simply her height, strength and athleticism.
“She’s really given us an education in how to be authentic,” says Cameron, who’s in Melbourne with the Tall Ferns. “She brings high energy, she’s professional, and she’s taught us to never give up on your dream.”
Although, there was a time in Adams-Gavet’s youth when she put her “dream for the Tall Ferns to bed… I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it,” she admits. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet.”
In keeping with her work ethic, Adams-Gavet was back training as soon as she heard she’d made the Tall Ferns, who begin their four-match tour of Australia with a game against WNBL side Southside Flyers on Saturday.
“I don’t know if it runs in the family, but if there’s a job to do, I’m straight back to the drawing board and training,” Adams-Gavet says. It’s a philosophy that’s served her well over the past year, as she’s focused on getting back into serious sport.
Adams-Gavet has always had talent in abundance. She could have been a top netballer – she played for the New Zealand mixed team in 2016, and was selected for the Northern Comets, until suffering a double injury.
And she was also keen to see how far she could go in rugby league, after playing for the Bradford Bulls in England’s Super League, while her husband, former Warriors prop James Gavet, was playing professionally in the UK. But this time illness abbreviated her career.
And now her return to basketball, which she hadn’t foreseen, has really paid dividends.
The Tall Ferns will play three Australian WNBL sides – the Southside Flyers, Melbourne Boomers and Bendigo Spirit – on their 12-day tour. They were to have hosted a multinational tournament with teams from Europe, the US and Australia, but when a European side pulled out, it had a domino affect.
Irrespective of the opposition, Adams-Gavet is simply happy to get on court wearing the silver fern.
Growing up in Rotorua, she played netball at primary school. “Then with my height, I suddenly shot up and stood out,” the 1.85m-tall Adams-Gavet says. “At intermediate they asked, ‘Why don’t you give basketball a go?’”
A year later, she was chosen in the New Zealand Koru U14 girls team to play in Australia, and it opened her eyes to where the game could take her. “The Australian girls were incredible, and it made me hungry for more,” she says.
Adams-Gavet made the Junior Tall Ferns in 2010, but on the plane crossing the Tasman, she had an unexplained seizure. “My first experience of Melbourne was the hospital. And who knows what on earth caused it,” she says.
She was gutted she didn’t get to play much on that tour. Back at home she stepped up into open women’s basketball, moving to Auckland in 2015 to play for the Auckland Counties Manukau Lady Hawks in the national women’s basketball championships.
But she admits it was tough, especially after losing her dad, Sid, who’d raised her.
“There were opportunities to play for New Zealand, but I wasn’t disciplined for it, I wasn’t hungry enough for it,” she says. “I didn’t want to commit, or waste people’s time or money. I was coasting, just enjoying playing with friends.”
Adams-Gavet returned to netball in 2018, and was about to play for the Northern Comets in the then Beko League (the tier below the ANZ Premiership). “But I tore both calf muscles and I had to pull out,” she says.
“When you’re young, you can just switch shoes and play whatever sport you want. I didn’t take into consideration my age, and my husband said ‘You can’t do that anymore. You need to listen to your body and look after it’. In my mind, I was like, I can still do this. My body was like, ‘No sis, you can’t’.”
When the couple moved across the ditch to New South Wales in 2019, after Gavet took up a contract with the Newcastle Knights in the NRL, her “competitive streak” fired up again.
She switched back to basketball, turning out for the Newcastle Hunters in the Waratah League. “I stumbled on that in my first game playing in a social league – the captain of the opposition was the wife of the Hunters’ coach.
“That season was so cool – the hunger started building again. I really had to earn it though – fortunately my husband helped me to train.”
When they moved again, this time to England with Gavet signed up to the Huddersfield Giants, Adams-Gavet took a new interest in rugby league.
Gabby Adams-Gavet and her husband, James, trained daily in the street during the UK lockdown.
“I was just a spectator, so I thought I better learn the rules of respect,” she laughs. With the UK in a pandemic lockdown, the Gavets made headlines training together in their Yorkshire cul-de-sac.
As the restrictions came off outdoor sport, Adams-Gavet started playing tag, and the competitive streak reared up again. She trialled at the Bradford Bulls and made the 2021 women’s team.
“Jeez that was a big jump; I loved it,” she says. “But sadly I had to retire the same week I debuted.” Adams-Gavet had an ectopic pregnancy. “I was in and out of hospital for a couple of months before surgery. It was hard – I had to stop playing altogether. But your health should be first and foremost.”
When the couple returned home to Auckland, Adams-Gavet – who works as a customs clerk for a UK-based firm – considered playing league again, until she learned there was a new professional women’s basketball league, Tauihi, starting up in 2022. She contacted Cameron, the Kāhu coach, and asked if she could trial.
“I just wanted to try out, knowing I’m 30 and a lot of these girls are much younger,” she says.
That included one of her nieces, promising Junior Tall Fern, Vitolia Tuilavi. “My brother dropped her off at the trials, and said ‘You’ll be fine, Aunty’s here’,” Adams-Gavet laughs. “She still calls me Aunty Gabby on the court.”
Then she played against another niece, Sharne Pupuke-Robati, a 3×3 Tall Fern who was playing for the Mid-North Whai in Tauihi.
“They keep me going,” Adams-Gavet says. “I can boogie with my nieces, I can still play with them. That’s what I love about the league, too – we’re helping mould the younger ones as they become professional basketballers.
“When I see my nieces have little niggles, I say ‘Listen to your body, don’t do what Aunty did’. I now have to do way more work just to get slightly ahead of the younger ones.”
Cameron says she was blunt with Adams-Gavet when she first trialled for Kāhu. “I told her I really needed a season with her to get her up to scratch,” she says.
“But I’ve never seen someone in such a short time fulfil a role in a team like she has. She went from zero to hero, and become the glue of the team – holding us together when we went through adversity at the end of the season.
“Everyone has their roles, and she played hers like a veteran. She did absolutely all that was required of her – screen, catch and finish – it was beauty to watch. And she was funny; the life of the team.”
Adams-Gavet loved her season with Kāhu, graduating from the squad of 12, to the bench, then to a starter.
“Because I’d been absent from the game in New Zealand, no one really knew about me and there was no telling what I might do,” she says. “With Kāhu, I made sure my name was learned. I just had to do my job and whatever my team needed, but I really put in the blood, sweat and tears.
“It made me realise I would never have got the [Tall Ferns] call-up if the league wasn’t there. I’m so hyped for it.”
She pays credit to her husband who’s helped her with strength and fitness. “When I got told I was in the Tall Ferns, I saw it as a compliment to James because of all the trainings we do together,” she says.
“Some days are hard, training for basketball and juggling it with family life – I’m a step-mum to our two beautiful kids.
“But seeing our little girl, who’s five, love the hype of Kāhu, and now she wants to play basketball. It makes it all worthwhile.”