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Hoop dreams: the young Kiwis invading the US

A basketball scholarship to the United States is an increasingly realistic option for young Kiwis - and women are leading the way. Steve Deane reports.

The November 24, 2017 match-up between the North Colorado Bears and the Fordham Rams likely wasn’t a fixture earmarked by many Kiwi sports fans as a clash of significance.

It should have been. Because, as a statement of how young Kiwi women are making an imprint on elite college basketball these days, the Bears-Rams clash takes some topping.

Fordham, a private New York school steeped in academic and sporting excellence, rolled out three Kiwis in its line-up: Kendell Heremaia from Whangarei, Mary Goulding from Rangiora and freshman prospect Zara Jillings from Auckland's North Shore. The Bears, another elite Division One school that would progress to the NCAA tournament, countered with two Kiwis of their own – Waikato’s Krystal Leger-Walker and Jillings’ fellow Westlake Girls alumnus Tiarna Clarke.

The match was a veritable Kiwi ball players' reunion – and an embodiment of what has become a Kiwi invasion of US college basketball.

Figures compiled by New Zealand Basketball reveal 120 Kiwis – 70 males and 50 females – are receiving a big money education overseas thanks to their basketball skills. When it comes to the crème of the crop, girl power holds sway, with the 24 Kiwi women on scholarships with NCAA Division 1 American Schools outstripping the 16 men.

With recruitment companies such as NZ Basketball’s official partner Custom College Recruiting now actively targeting Kiwis with the sporting and academic talent to make the grade in the US, the numbers for both genders are increasing. Rapidly.

“I have to say a lot of the growth can be attributed to the partnership we have established with Custom College Recruiting [CCR],” says NZ Basketball’s Leonard King. “CCR have been fantastic in pushing our players and putting them in front of college coaches so they can get the right exposure to achieve those scholarships.”

Put that ringing endorsement of a commercial partner aside - for now. This Kiwi surge began with a few hardy pioneers leveraging their physical talents and personal networks to forge opportunities that go well beyond the value of a cool sporting experience.

Josie Stockill, a Tall Fern since 2014 who was a member of the bronze medal-winning Commonwealth Games team on the Gold Coast earlier this year, played out a stellar collegiate career with the prestigious Colgate University in New York.

She got there by jumping on a bus to Wellington when she was a secondary school student at Napier Girls High in 2011. Stockill had been practising with a couple of local boys’ teams to sharpen her game, and was invited along on a trip to try out in front of Steven Adams' then coach at Pittsburgh, Jamie Dixon.

Dixon must have liked what he saw, because he spent much of the time that Stockill was scrimmaging talking to her mother.

“He was really generous with his time and kind of mapped out the pathway of sitting the SAT [the academic test used for US college admissions] and that kind of thing,” says Stockill. “He knew the coach at Colgate, his sister was really good friends with her.”

Things clearly worked out, as Stockhill picked up a scholarship to the top US school valued at roughly $US240,000 ($357,000).

Stockill studied neuroscience at Colgate, and is now on the cusp of a professional basketball career in Australia’s WNBL. 

A development member of the Melbourne Boomers, Stockill is still very much pondering her options in life.

Women’s pro ball in Australia – or most places in fact – isn’t necessarily lucrative.

“A development contract is outside of the minimum wage requirements and even on the minimum it would be pretty tough,” Stockill says. “So I’m working full time as well.”

Her marketing job is with a company that sells tractors and construction equipment – perhaps not what you’d expect from someone with a degree in neuroscience.

“I run anything from promotions on batteries and oils to selling hoodies and toy models,” she laughs.

“I’m learning a lot about being in a big business. It is not neuroscience [a field that, loosely described, focuses on why people behave the way they do], but it is marketing, so there is a little bit of [crossover] there.”

She wants to help the Tall Ferns qualify for the Olympics and keep working her way towards a full WNBL contract. And, thanks to her US scholarship, she has no shortage of options outside of basketball.

“I never would have been able to do this without the scholarship,” she says. “I had all my friends back in New Zealand going to [university] and getting student loans.

“The experience was incredible.”

Stockill’s Tall Ferns team-mate Zara Jillings has just entered her second season of NCAA Division 1 ball with Fordham – playing alongside Goulding and Heremaia.

Stockill’s road to the US followed what is now becoming the established route. At 13, the promising Westlake rookie was already thinking that the US college system might be an option.

“At that stage it was just an idea in my head,” she says. “I had no idea if it was going to come true.”

Zara Jillings is in the second year of a business degree at heavyweight US academic college Fordham University. Photo: Basketball NZ.

Two years later, though, when she toured China with the Junior Tall Ferns, the idea crystallized. Many of her older team-mates were talking about options they were pursuing with American colleges.

“At that point I was like ‘wow, this is looking a lot more possible – look at these girls going off and doing stuff’."

So Jillings contacted a recruiting company, arranged to sit her SATs and put together a highlight reel for distribution among college coaches. Despite being an outstanding player and strong academic, it was a nervous time.

“Until you hear back you have no clue if you are good enough,” she says.

For those thinking that this all sounds nice enough but these opportunities are surely only reserved for the genetic freaks that inhabit the upper echelons of basketball, it isn’t at all about height.

Jillings is tall, but not ridiculously so: “I’m five-ten - but I like to call myself five-11.”

Much of her appeal to recruiters, in fact, would have come from her outstanding academic prowess.

“I am lucky because my academic record gave me a lot more opportunities than I would have got with just my basketball ability,” she says. “I’m fortunate that I’m a good student and that gave me a leg up because teams always want players who can build their GPA [grade point average], their academic programme, as well as people that contribute on court.”

While she utilised an agency, Jillings also benefitted from old school networking. On a second Junior Tall Ferns tour of China, she was scouted by two American coaches, both of whom would go on to offer her a place in their programmes.

“I did have the luxury of choice,” she says. “But it was actually pretty overwhelming at times. I remember the morning I got my first email from a coach. It was breakfast time at home and I went sprinting up the stairs to tell my parents. I was like ‘Oh my god I can’t believe it’. Then 10 minutes later another one came in.”

The next few months were hectic, with coaches kicking her tyres frequently.

Near the top of the list of the reasons Jillings chose Fordham was its academic standing.

“They have a great team environment, the location is awesome – I’m 20 minutes from New York City - and they have a very good track record. And the school is really highly ranked academically. That has always been a big thing for me. To get to a place where I was going to be challenged intellectually and have a degree that was meaningful when I came out was really important.”

Jillings has fast-tracked her degree in business administration with concentrations in finance and management and a minor in economics ("a mouthful, I know!") so that she can squeeze in a Master's in her final year.

“I’m really taking advantage of the ability to get this degree paid for while on scholarship,” she says.

“Will I want to do professional basketball? Who knows? I don’t know if I am going to be good enough, or have the desire after four years [of study] to go and play in Europe or Australia. At this stage I am looking at internships and networking opportunities because I do ultimately see myself in business.

“Basketball will always be a passion. If I can keep playing in the WBC when I’m home in New Zealand that would be great. If I get a stint in the WNBL at some stage, then that would be awesome. It's just kind of difficult to look into the future and see where I am going to be in five years.”

Like Stockill, Jillings certainly won’t lack options.

Last week, Stockill picked up her first WNBL point for the Boomers after taking the court for the final two minutes of garbage time in a blowout win. “Just the one - but I’ll take it!” she quips.

Proving herself in the WNBL will be no easy road. But, if she flames out, she might do her PhD. Or become a medical doctor. Or put her behavioural neuroscience knowledge to work trying to figure out what makes athletes tick. The world, as they say, is very much her oyster.

For those pondering attempting a similar pathway, she has a simple message: “A lot of Kiwi kids doubt themselves. We think we are from this little island in the Pacific and the opportunities aren’t there. But colleges are looking for Kiwis. They know we are tough. They know we work hard. And we are great people, great additions to teams and great team-mates. You’ll meet so many great people from all over the world. Go for it.”

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