US lures teen basketballer Tai


At 17, Tai Webster is slam-dunking a position for himself in the world of basketball. After attracting international attention for the past year Tai narrowed down eight offers and accepted a $200,000 scholarship at Nebraska University.

And it seems he was always destined to do so.

With former Harbour Heat coach and NBL player Tony for a dad and controversial Breakers player Corey for a brother, Tai has the pedigree.

"I didn't get pressured into it or anything but I was always around it," he says.

"At my dad and brother's games I would always be mucking around, shooting hoops during time out."

He says his biggest goal is to live up to the Webster name and make his dad proud.

"Dad tells me to always work my hardest because there will always be someone out there working harder to try to get what I have."

Hard work is no problem for Tai, who trains twice a day, five days a week, goes to school, and plays two games a week.

"You always have to work hard, especially when no one is around. That's when you have to work the hardest, when no one's there to push you," he says.


 


His 23-year-old brother is just coming out of a year-long ban after two positive banned substance tests saw him dropped from the SkyCity Breakers last year. But he has now signed up again after working hard to "turn his life around".

Tai is taking a non-contract role with the team until he leaves for America next year, saying it will be cool to play alongside his brother.

"I've always wanted to be better than him," Tai says.

"Dad reckons neither of us will be better than Dad was, but he says it to push us."

Tai says he has learned from Corey's mistakes and is careful not to get involved with the wrong people.

"It gave me a bit of a scare and made me look at who my friends are.

"It has taught me to be wary of the people I hang out with and the stuff that other kids, who don't have anything to work towards, are doing."


 


Tai says that luckily his friends respect how important basketball is to him.

"They know I would never do anything to  jeopardise my opportunities and they know not to do [drugs] around me."

The Westlake Boys' High School student's road to a scholarship has been five years in the making.

At 13 Tai started training with the Breakers Academy before playing for the NZ Under-16 side. "We went to Australia and did pretty well and a couple of coaches started looking at me."

But the real attention started after he was part of the winning side at the inaugural FIBA 33 Youth World Championship in Italy last year.

The 3x3 is a form of basketball played on a half-size court with one hoop. There are four players in a team, but three on the court at any one time.

"It was pretty overwhelming, I played one good game and everyone started to look at me and wanted to talk to me.

"Then I played a few more good games and I had all these Facebook friends from overseas schools and people wanting me to play for them."

He says winning the Youth World Championships is the highlight of his career so far.

"To be the world champion at something - it's probably the best feeling I have ever felt in my life. My family couldn't believe it. We were definitely the underdogs and no one picked us to even win a game."

Tai is quickly adjusting to proving himself after ill-informed comment that he didn't deserve a place in the Tall Blacks for the Olympic qualifying tournament in Venezuela earlier this year.

Tai says he didn't expect to make the team and thought he was just there to make up numbers at the trial but was thrilled when Isaac Fotu withdrew, to prepare for his own scholarship, leaving a space open.

"I definitely felt like people thought I wasn't good enough, that I was too young and it wasn't my time. No one said anything but I definitely felt it. There was a lot of pressure. I felt like I needed to prove myself every game so coaches didn't think it was a fluke."

While the Tall Blacks didn't qualify, Tai shone. The youngest to have played for the Tall Blacks top-scored for the tournament, averaging 13.5 points a game.

Breakers Academy head coach Judd Flavell has worked with Tai for three years, watching him grow from a "little boy to a very focused athlete".

"He's a young man on a mission right now, realising some of his potential and knowing that he has a world of opportunity out there for him. He's got a huge future."

He says Tai has been humble about his quick trip to success. "He was really looking at the Tall Blacks trial as a learning opportunity, then he made the team, then he got game time and proved himself."

Tai has become a role model for the other academy players.

Judd says he gets great joy out of seeing his young charges move from struggling with 6am training to showing dramatic improvement.

The teenager has a quiet confidence about him but blushes when asked what his strengths are as a guard.

"I don't know really," he says. "I guess I just always play as hard as I can and try to prove myself every game."

He says it can be hard to juggle overseas tours with school but he knows the importance of keeping up his grades.

If Tai passes his NCEA level three exams he can stay in New Zealand until about May next year, when the American semester starts, and train with his brother.

If not, he will pack his bags early to attend an American school and boost his marks in preparation for university.

Tai did get a wake-up call last year when he was stood down for one pre-season school game for not putting enough effort into his schoolwork. Westlake Boys' premier basketball coach of four years, Ben Eves, says all the players have to put in the effort academically or they are not allowed on the court.

While Tai hasn't decided what he will study he is not nervous about his academic path - it's living up to expectations that has him worried.

"I don't want to let them down," he says, "I don't want to go and not be able to handle it."

For now he still has to focus on finishing high school in New Zealand.

Westlake Boys won the Auckland championships two weeks ago, beating Rosmini College by 13 points. Tai says Westlake's reputation was riding on the game after Rosmini beat them not long ago.

"But we didn't have our full team then," he says. "It was good to have the full team back together and take it out."

The team is now preparing for the national secondary school championships later this month.

Mr Eves says his first goal is for Tai to lead Westlake to national victory.

Long term, he hopes his team captain will get a good degree and make the most of both basketball and academic opportunities.

"He's a top kid and an explosive player - very athletic, a phenomenal scorer and he has become a lot more academically minded too."


 


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- THE AUCKLANDER

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