There are new voices in the commentary box for NZ’s top basketball leagues this season, including Tall Fern Tessa Boagni and rugby presenter Taylah Johnson – who are also expecting baby boys at the same time, Merryn Anderson discovers.
While two potential basketball stars chill in the commentary booth, it’s their mums who are calling all the shots right now.
Taylah Johnson and Tessa Boagni, two new members of the Sky Sport commentary team for the domestic basketball season this year, are by pure coincidence both expecting baby boys in July.
For Tall Fern Boagni, it will be her second son. Family and friends are looking after two-year-old Noah while she’s calling games in the Sal’s NBL.
But for Johnson, a seasoned rugby commentator and presenter, it’s her first child – with husband Matt, a former professional rugby player.
“My husband has been begging and begging me to put the middle name as ‘Magic’,” Johnson laughs, in honour of basketball legend Magic Johnson. She admits she’s also briefly considered a name inspired by her favourite player, American professional Kawhi Leonard.
Johnson is adamant they’ll encourage their son to play basketball, even over rugby – a sport they both love.
“That just goes to show how much we are into basketball,” she says.
Johnson is a huge NBA fan, going to games whenever she visits the US, and following the competition from a young age.
Her own basketball career, though, was short-lived. Playing at Mount Albert Grammar School in their U15 team, she was fouled out in the first half of her first game, and decided to stick to rugby (a move which paid off, representing Samoa and playing in the Farah Palmer Cup).
Johnson has been working with Sky for six years, and is often seen as an expert on Super Rugby broadcasts. But this is her debut commentating on basketball.
“Because I watch so much NBA, and not so much the NBL, I wonder if my style of commentary will follow the Americanised style, cause that’s what I’m so used to,” she says.
Working alongside experienced commentators like Andrew Mulligan, Huw Benyon and former Tall Black Casey Frank, is a great experience for Johnson.
“I’m really excited, everyone on there is really cool and I love that there are more women jumping on board as well. It’s going to be such an exciting season,” she says.
Tall Fern Stella Beck and former national league player Casyn Buchman are two other new faces in the team, with Tall Ferns legend Megan Compain joining later in the year.
With Boagni expecting in three months’ time, she won’t be playing for her team, the Mainland Pouākai, in this year’s Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa, the women’s national league.
“I’m already feeling FOMO just seeing the girls at weights and training,” she says, laughing that she’s going to “stick around like a bad smell” once the season starts.
The 27-year-old made her Tall Ferns debut in 2015, and watched the NBL every year growing up, barely missing a game.
But she never really heard women’s voices working at games, especially men’s games.
“I definitely think it’s growing and they’re putting an emphasis on making sure we have women who are being visible and finally having a voice,” Boagni says.
She’ll be commentating at games in her home of Christchurch, so her support system of family and friends are able to look after Noah while she works.
“I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to do stuff while I’m pregnant and not able to play this season,” Boagni says, hoping to work at a few Tauihi games after she’s given birth.
“It’s so cool to still be a part of basketball, even though I have to sit out this season.”
Boagni has harboured an interest in sports broadcasting for a while, wanting to study it at university in the US, but her basketball caused scheduling conflicts.
So when Justin Nelson, the former general manager of the NBL and now head of commercial and events at Sky Sport, reached out to Boagni this season, inviting her to be part of the commentary team, she jumped at the opportunity.
“You know when you’re watching sport and you say something, and then the commentators say it and you’re like ‘Ha ha! I could commentate’,” she says.
“But now I think about actually being there and watching the game live and having to actually commentate, I’m starting to get a bit nervous about it all.”
She also follows the Australian women’s and men’s leagues, and would stay up late to watch the American NCAA collegiate basketball, dragging a mattress out to the lounge to watch when she was in the UK.
“I’ve been watching them all religiously since I got home, and probably my absolute favourite basketball event of the year is March Madness,” she says.
Boagni has a great group to turn to for help, with the commentary team setting up a group chat for any questions. That includes her cousin Brook Ruscoe, who’s been a part of the NBL commentary team for a few years now.
She’s also good friends with a few of the Canterbury Rams players, and is hoping to bring some inside knowledge to her commentary on their games.
Her picks to do well this season are the Rams and the Southland Sharks, who are coached by Tall Ferns coach Guy Molloy.
“He’s a great coach and I’m excited to see what he can do with them – and they have quite a good line-up,” Boagni says.
Johnson is also a Sharks fan, going to watch games in Invercargill back when her husband played rugby for the Southland Stags.
“I’ve sort of adopted them as my team cause that’s the first team I ended up supporting in the NBL,” she says.
“But I definitely think the Franklin Bulls are looking pretty strong this year as well.
“It’s really hard to pick a team because the beauty of the Sal’s NBL is there are so many really strong players spread evenly throughout the teams. And because they play so often, they’ve got chances to get better each week.”
As well as her work for Sky Sport, and her job as head of marketing and communications for rugby side Moana Pasifika, Johnson is also an accountant, so she’s big on research and stats.
“I think for a viewer, you don’t want someone to just be describing what’s happening. You want to know that player’s shooting stats and what is this team’s win rate, and what are they like on offence and defence,” says Johnson, always doing in-depth research for her commentary.
“I definitely think the amount of prep I put into rugby will not change for basketball; in fact it will probably be more.”
There are a few differences between calling basketball and rugby she’s preparing to adjust to, especially how much more animated basketball commentary can be.
“They score a lot more in basketball, and with rugby it’s very much calm until you’re getting in the 22, then you start getting excited. And when they score, your levels are up,” Johnson explains.
“But in basketball, you can’t stay up the whole time cause everyone’s gonna be like ‘Is this girl okay?’ So it’s around picking your moments.
“I think that’s the beauty of basketball, it’s such an entertaining sport, you really need to pick and choose when you’re gonna hype up the audience with you.”
Johnson is grateful to Sky for the opportunity to work on basketball, and include more women in their commentary team.
“I love listening to the NBA and hearing female commentary, same if I’m watching the Six Nations,” she says.
“Listening to female commentary, I still find myself thinking ‘Oh that’s cool, they’ve got a woman on that broadcast’. And I hope there’s a time when that’s not even a thing.”
Both Johnson and Boagni are thankful to Sky for allowing them to work while pregnant and with opportunities for them once their babies have arrived.
Boagni says she would love to have the chance to work more in commentary and sports media after her basketball career has come to an end, and Johnson is planning on working on the weekends once she’s a mum.
“It’ll be my time to step away from being a mum and doing all that stuff and actually just doing what I enjoy,” Johnson says. “I think that’s quite cool.”
*The Sal’s NBL is live on Sky Sport, Sky Sport Now and Prime. Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa starts on July 12.