Brooke Blair, the saint of Tall Ferns shooters
At five, Brooke Blair followed her sisters onto a basketball court and "beat all the boys"; now she's shooting for the Tokyo Olympics, and helping young girls follow in her stride.
Surrounded by a swarm of excitable 10 and 11-year-old girls, Brooke Blair is in her element.
The Tall Ferns guard bends down to be level with the girls, helping them to pass the ball between their legs, and shoot it through the hoop. They miss considerably more than they sink, but most have never touched a basketball before. Blair instinctively ducks and weaves balls flying from all directions.
“This was me, when I first started,” the 25-year-old laughs.
“I love giving back to the kids and making them want to love the game too.”
The girls of Target Road Primary School, on Auckland’s North Shore, are getting a taste of the 'Girls Got Game' initiative, a leading part of Basketball NZ’s strategy to develop the game.
It’s a six-week basketball 'have-a-go' programme, designed and run by women for primary and intermediate girls throughout the country. It's in need - of the more than 26,000 secondary school students playing basketball last year, less than 8000 of them were girls.
Blair understands the importance of getting girls into the game. Twenty years ago, she started her basketball career not far from this school, and now she's taking aim at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
At the age of five, Blair followed her elder sisters, Mikayla and Shinae, onto the basketball court. Together with cousins and close family friends, they formed their own all-girls team and called themselves the Saints (Blair and her family are Latter-Day Saints).
They played in the North Harbour schools’ competition, and they beat all-comers.
“People knew of us as ‘The girls who beat all the boys.’ So that was always fun,” Blair says.
“It’s pretty much where my competitiveness came from - we always wanted to beat the boys. And that’s where I grew my love of the game.”
Blair is a great example of how far you can go following a bouncing ball. She spent five years in the US college system, playing Division One basketball, and getting a bachelor's and a Master’s degree at the same time.
Although a terrible knee injury kept her off the court for a season, the stand-out shooting guard stayed on at Idaho State University - focusing on her studies, her rehabilitation, and perfecting her shot. In her final year comeback, Blair was the Bengals’ leading scorer (and for a while, the most efficient three-point shooter in the country, scoring 50.7 percent from the field).
She's spent the last two seasons with the Rockhampton Cyclones, in Queensland, where she’s also topped the shooting statistics.
And now Blair is back home, having played her way back into the Tall Ferns for this week’s Olympic qualifying series in Auckland.
Blair has been in and out of the Tall Ferns since she was first selected in 2015, and was last in the black singlet when New Zealand won the William Jones Cup in Taiwan last year. But now she’s certain it’s her time.
She was in Brisbane when she got the call from Tall Ferns coach Guy Molloy. “He told me he’d love to have me in the team for this qualifying tournament,” she says. “It was a great feeling - like, this is my chance.
“This is the tournament that counts. My hard work is paying off. This is my time.”
It’s important to her that her five siblings and her parents - Callum and Irene - will be in the stands at the Trusts Arena to watch her. It’s the first time the Tall Ferns have played in New Zealand in four years.
The Blairs are a close-knit family, who’ve all been involved in basketball. In Blair’s first year at Rangitoto College, she made the senior premier team - joining both of her sisters in the side.
It was just like the old Saints days, beating everyone, until they ended up in the national secondary schools final (and lost to the then-dominant Church College).
She thinks Mikayla and Shinae could have also worn the black singlet, but all three Blair girls chose different paths when they left high school. Brooke followed her dream to play in the United States.
“College isn’t for everyone,” Blair says. “Everyone has their own journey, but for me, it was the best decision to go to the US.”
It wasn’t an easy introduction. Blair had hated school - she was one of those kids who only went to play a multitude of sports.
She started at a junior college in the small town of Stirling, Colorado, to build up her grades; after two years she was able to transfer to Idaho State and play NCAA Division One basketball for the Bengals.
The girl who thought she was “dumb”, ended up with a bachelor’s degree in family and consumer science, and a Master’s in athlete administration. It's an academic feat she doubts she would have achieved had she stayed in New Zealand.
Right now, 21 young Kiwi women are preparing for the Division One season at US schools, with many more spread throughout the other divisions and junior college grades.
In 2016, going into her senior year with the Bengals, Blair had never been fitter or stronger. “My parents had flown over to watch me in the first game of the season,” she remembers. “And then I got fouled from behind, and my knee went in and out.”
In that moment, Blair ruptured her ACL - her season was over before it truly began.
“After an injury like that, you can either go downhill or up. And I went up,” Blair says.
“I did my rehab really well. I had no distractions, and I had a great team of people around me. I just wanted to make it to the top, and I came back and had my best year.” She started in all 32 games and led the team in scoring with 13.2 points a game.
During her two years playing in Rockhampton, Blair has been enjoying her basketball but also building her skills off-court. She’s been working towards a certificate in youth work, and coaching kids with disabilities to play basketball. Whenever she’s back in Auckland she works with kids in the Junior Breakers programme.
But for now, her own basketball is her No. 1 priority. And this Olympic qualifying tournament - against China, Korea and the Philippines - is the highlight of her year.
The top two nations from this tournament will go through to a final qualifying round of 16 teams, to be played next February. Of those 16, the top 12 will qualify for Tokyo.
“I really think we have the chance to win this series, especially playing at home,” she says. “Playing at an Olympics is my main goal, which makes this tournament so important to me.”
Perhaps their most crucial game is their last, against Korea on Sunday. Growing up, Blair didn’t play on Sundays, because of her faith.
“Until I was 19, I never played on a Sunday. And I kept to that. I grew up playing so many different sports - touch, tag, league, rugby, netball – and I missed out on so many finals,” she says.
“Then one day I made the decision to play on Sundays. It really comes down to your personal decision.”
With her sister Shinae, Blair has also resurrected the Saints team. With a few rope-ins, they recently defended their women's title at the HoopNation basketball tournament in Tauranga.
Blair hopes to make a team in Australia’s WBNL next season, and she will keep playing basketball until “that love for the game dies down ... and I don’t think that will be for a while,” she says.
But when it does, she might try her hand at another code. She’s thought about some day switching to sevens rugby. Her Kiwi boyfriend, Josh Tuilagi, has been playing league in Australia, but is changing to rugby next season (his cousin, Manu Tuilagi, starred in England's backline at this year's Rugby World Cup).
“I see a lot of my friends playing for the Black Ferns and the NRLW teams,” Blair says. “Maybe at some stage I'll see if I can make it in another sport.”
* The Tall Ferns will play the Philippines at Trusts Arena, Henderson, on Thursday, 7.30pm; vs China on Saturday, 5.30pm; and vs Korea on Sunday, 5.30pm. All games will be televised live on Sky Sport 3.