Basketball

The amazing sporting genes of Tall Ferns hopeful

With an All Black on one side of her lineage, and an NBA player on the other, Olivia Williams is a natural-born athlete who wants to be a Tall Fern. 

Olivia Williams is a New Zealand basketball star on the rise – and it’s no surprise considering her incredible DNA.

Her paternal grandfather played in the NBA for eight seasons, and her maternal great-grandfather was an All Black, who was later the All Blacks coach. 

Williams is now on the Tall Ferns long-list and considered one the future stars of New Zealand hoops.

The 17-year-old played for New Zealand at the FIBA U17 Oceania championships in New Caledonia last year. She was then selected in the Junior Tall Ferns for a Four Nations tournament in China scheduled for June this year until it was cancelled due to Covid-19.

Raised in the United States, Williams is a student at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California. She describes playing for New Zealand last year as a highlight in her young basketball career, and has goals to take her Kiwi representative experience all the way to the Tall Ferns and the WNBA.

“I had a fantastic time and I love representing New Zealand. I hope to continue to do so,” she says. “I’d also like to help promote basketball to young girls in New Zealand and share my experiences of playing in the US.”

Williams’ Kiwi connection is on her mum’s side. Kate Williams (nee Moriarty) was raised in Wellington, the granddaughter of famous rugby personality Jack Sullivan.

Sullivan played for the All Blacks from 1936 to 1938, and then coached the team to South Africa in 1960. He was also an All Blacks selector and served as the chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union.

The sporting prowess is equally impressive on the other side of Olivia’s family. Her grandfather Ron ‘Fritz’ Williams played eight seasons in the NBA for the Milwaukee Bucks, San Francisco Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers. An outstanding all-round athlete, Williams was talented enough to be the ninth pick in the 1968 NBA Draft and also selected in the 14th round of the NFL Draft.

Pertinent in these times, it’s worth mentioning that Ron Williams, along with three other players, became the first African-American basketballers to play at NCAA Division I college West Virginia University in 1965. 

Olivia’s dad Eric was a more than handy player himself, playing Division I basketball at Iona College in New York. He went on to finish his degree at Notre Dame de Namur University in California, where he met future wife, Kate.

After completing their studies, the pair headed to New Zealand in 1995 for a short stint before returning to California.

“Kate played for the Waitakere Rangers while I was trying to catch on with a New Zealand First Division NBL team, as I didn’t want to play second division. I remember playing a few summer leagues with guys like Pero Cameron, Byron Vaetoe and other Americans who were in New Zealand at the time,” Eric Williams reflects.

Olivia says family has been a strong influence during her rising career on and off the court.

“My dad has been a huge part in my development as a player, as well as my grandfather Ron, who passed away when I was little,” she says. “Also my nana has been a huge influence on me as a person. She has taught me to love others and be kind. She has also guided me spiritually by teaching me how to meditate.”

Williams now has her sights set on returning to school for her senior year, then signing a letter of intent to attend the University of California, Irvine, on a basketball scholarship from 2021.

Archbishop Mitty High School were ranked the second-best high school team in the nation last year, but saw their title-winning chances disappear when the California state championships were shut down back in March. While it was disappointing not to have the opportunity to compete for a title, Williams reflects on the past 12 months with pride.

“My career highlights to date would be winning the silver medal with the New Zealand U17 team in New Caledonia, as well as making it to the state championship in the open division with Archbishop Mitty this year,” she says.

The New Zealand U17 basketball team at last year's Oceania champs. Photo: Basketball NZ.

Many good judges think Williams has a bright playing future and Junior Tall Ferns head coach, Hernando Planells, says Williams’ skill-set covers all the bases.

“Olivia gives the team versatility, length and is a strong ball-handler who can score on all three phases of the floor: from the three-point line, the mid-range and at the basket,” he says.

Williams has always had a strong desire to play college basketball and is delighted to be committing to the University of California, Irvine.

“I chose UCI because of the connections I made with the coaches, as well as the fantastic location. It’s not only in a great place, but also a fantastic school,” she says. “I’m most looking forward to learning more about my major, which is African and African American Studies, and the independence of college life.”

A career beyond college is a fair way in the distance, but it doesn’t stop Williams gazing into the future.

“It would be a dream to play in the WNBA or internationally, and an honour to represent New Zealand and the Tall Ferns,” she says.

For now, Williams’ sporting and academic career is tracking nicely, and blessed with the Williams and Sullivan genes, there is little doubt her career will flourish.

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