Basketball royal’s epic role helping girls thrive

Former Tall Fern and Olympian Jody Cameron is using all she's learned from her experiences - and from her mum - to help foster a new generation of female basketballers. 

The powerful statement ‘you can’t be, what you can’t see’ resonates sharply with Tall Ferns assistant coach Jody Cameron.

The 2004 New Zealand Olympian and basketball legend can pinpoint the exact moment she knew she wanted to make an Olympics. Eight-year-old Cameron was watching the 1984 Los Angeles Games on TV.

“I didn’t know I was going to play basketball. I just knew I wanted to get to an Olympics after seeing it on TV. And I did,” the now 44-year-old says. “A stand-out moment in my career is reflecting on that story and how I was able to finally reach the Athens Olympics [in 2004].” 

Another distinct memory in her illustrious 20-year career sits at the other end of her basketball journey. 

“My first [New Zealand] trial when I was 17 was so scary. It came so quickly and I always remember being really uncomfortable in the environment because I was around the best senior-level athletes in the country and I was still a kid,” she says. She was 20 years old when she made her debut for the Tall Ferns.

Cameron is now in a position where she can influence female athletes in similar situations. With young players as the women’s development officer at North Harbour Basketball, and as with those at the top end of the high performance scale, in her role as Tall Ferns' assistant coach. 

She has the lineage to do so, too. Cameron comes from New Zealand basketball royalty - her mum, Mata, is a legendary New Zealand age grade coach, while her brother Pero, a former New Zealand captain, is the new Tall Blacks head coach. 

Jody Cameron's North Harbour role covers every aspect of the women’s game. “My day job is to grow the grassroots which is very important to me. When people ask ‘what does that entail?’ I respond with ‘it's whatever your imagination can come up with for the game’,” says Cameron.

This week's she's been in a Tall Ferns training camp in Auckland with 24 of the country's top women, who will play a showcase game on Saturday, part of a double-header with the NBL grand final.

With Covid-19 closing borders, Cameron has been entrusted to lead the camp with Aik Ho, as Tall Ferns head coach, Guy Molloy, is based in Australia.

“We’ve brought in a couple of other women as assistants which has been great too," Cameron says. "They’ve been able to get an opportunity to cut their teeth in the senior programme."

She's coached the Junior Tall Ferns, the North Harbour Breeze in the WBC and national age grade teams to championship titles. She won a silver medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games as a player and again in 2018 as a coach. 

Coach Jody Cameron runs through plays with her North Harbour Breeze team. Photo: Basketball NZ

Cameron is excited about the ample basketball talent coming through in New Zealand. “It’s really important for me to create great relationships with young female players so they can thrive in their strengths,” she says. “We want to create an environment where they can do that. If it's not working, we change it.”

The Tall Ferns have a culture built around an ‘EPIC’ values system.

“The ‘E’ represents enjoyment. When you bring enjoyment into everything, you're going to get more buy-in and evolution around things. It also builds character,” says Cameron. 

“Our ‘P’ stands for positivity, so that embraces the enjoyment part even more. ‘I’ stands for improvement - improving yourself in character and technicality every day. And the ‘C’ stands for competition - we don’t want to be pushovers.”

Cameron believes it will be even better when the same values are put in place throughout the junior levels.

“Guy’s [Molloy] instilled whatever you teach at the top, you should be able to teach down to a 12-year-old. You should be able to hand the ideas to a parent to teach their child too. It's a very full circle teaching concept,” Cameron says. 

“That’s what I've really been enjoying. Ultimately, you're educators and you want to create great character in these young females so whatever stage they leave the sport, they have these characteristics they can take out into the community.”

Cameron says, like many, she fell into coaching. It was not her dream.

“Most players were coaches when they were playing. They would be great leaders in a team and that sort of rolls over when you finish,” she says. “I didn’t get to this level of coaching by myself though, I had great support. My assistant coaches have helped me get to where I am.

“It’s also a real privilege working under Guy Molloy. I would call him an ‘outside of the box’ kind of person... I’m in awe just watching what he brings.”

Transitioning from player to coach was successful for Cameron because she loves the game of basketball. 

“I loved being everything on the court and having that feeling where you can be the defensive stopper and scorer - you get to work on yourself everyday,” says Cameron, who played 60 games for the Tall Ferns. 

“It’s the same with coaching. To become a better coach, you're always chipping away and there's a process to that - getting into good daily habits and being huge on reflection.”

The Tall Ferns team who narrowly missed a spot at next year's Olympics at a qualifier in Auckland. Photo: Basketball NZ

Coming from one of New Zealand's most famous basketball families, Cameron has managed to practise these skills overtime.

“We’ve all played for New Zealand at the junior and senior level. We followed our mother, who was a coach for a while, so there’s a bit of legacy there. And now my brother and I have gone into coaching full-time,” she says.

Mata Cameron paved the way for her children and communities. She's been a huge support to Jody in her coaching roles. 

“She's a great guide and it's very important to have that stronghold, that pou [pillar] in your life that you can go back to,” she says. “She can cut through all the emotion if she needs to and gets to the message. But at the same time she can say nothing and just comfort us.”

Cameron has two daughters and a son. Both girls play basketball and have been in the US college system.

“It’s important they can call on Mum too. The support network is pretty big in our family in the sense of experience and help that’s on offer," says Cameron.

“I'm the person I am because of my mother. As I get older, I think, I'm more like her. I’ve got her strength, and my dad’s work ethic so it’s a good combo.” 

Having champions for women in all areas of players lives is significant, says Cameron.

“We’ve got to be positive and play our roles, whatever they maybe, in their growth," she says. "Sky Sport coming on board as a sponsor is also massive. We wouldn’t be able to have this camp, or anything, without their support."

After narrowly missing out on qualifying for the now 2021 Tokyo Olympics, this week is the beginning of the Tall Ferns' next big campaign - the 2022 World Cup in Sydney.

“It’s an opportunity to bleed the young players in and show them the system. They get to be around the culture and understand the expectations,” Cameron says.

The year 2022 is shaping up to be a big one for basketball and for Cameron, as the 3x3 game will make its debut at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

The power of seeing females in different roles cannot be underestimated. Success for Cameron is leaving behind a legacy, and not just for her and her family.

“Leaving a legacy as in a pathway - successful rocks behind me - so that people can follow. Legacy is when something carries on the same even when you’re not there,” says Cameron.

Cameron is definitely adding to the foundation for young female athletes in all areas of basketball and will continue to be visible, calling shots from the sidelines.

* The Tall Ferns Showcase will be played at the Trusts Stadium at 5pm on Saturday, before the Sal’s NBL final, and screened live on Sky Sport 9.

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