As a 16-year-old, Sue Pene was a keen netball player, but when she filled in for a friend in a basketball game everything changed.

She fell in love with the sport and, with her playing days now over, has devoted her life to growing the game she loves.

Sue's husband, Darrell Pene, was a rugby man, but after the couple met at teachers college he spent so much time following her to basketball games and tournaments that he, too, developed a fondness for the sport.

It is no coincidence that since the pair moved to Rotorua in 1992 basketball has thrived in the area. At present, Darrell is the Rotorua Basketball Association president and Sue is the development co-ordinator.

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"I've been coaching since 1983," Darrell said.

"We moved here for work and my dad is from here. My love for the game started with Sue. I like the athleticism, timing and precision of the game. Also the fact that you only have five on the court, unlike 15 in rugby."

Sue said that when she started playing, she enjoyed the freedom of basketball.

"I was a real netballer, I love netball, but when I played that first game it was like 'I'm allowed to shoot the ball from anywhere'. It all started there.

"I played at school in Pukekohe, then reps for Counties Manukau. When I went to teachers college I played in the North Shore women's team and then we moved to Wellington, because Darrell got a job there. I played for Saints there and also for Wellington women.

"Darrell used to come to our practices and then he started coaching at Newlands College."

Sue said, before moving to Rotorua, they lived in Whanganui for a few years, which is where they began to dabble in the administrative side of the game.

"We both got right into coaching then, I had kind of hung my boots up by then and we were both teaching.

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"While we were there a group of us teachers started mini ball for the primary school kids, because there was only secondary school basketball back then. That's still going now."

When they moved to Rotorua, they noticed a similar lack of opportunities for primary and intermediate school-aged children. So they got stuck in.

"In 1993 I contacted the Bainbridge Centre, a church on Old Taupō Road, and we started mini ball there. It would've been about two-thirds of the Sportsdrome court but we had about 40 kids there."

The sport quickly outgrew the Bainbridge Centre and was moved to John Paul College, then to the Southern Trust Sportsdrome in 1997.

Te Arawa under-17 Kotiro perform a haka during the Maori Basketball Tournament in Rotorua. Photo / File
Te Arawa under-17 Kotiro perform a haka during the Maori Basketball Tournament in Rotorua. Photo / File

Fast forward to 2019 and there are so many primary and intermediate teams playing basketball in Rotorua they have to play on three different days.

On Friday nights 72 primary school teams are in action, another 24 on Monday nights, and about 40 intermediate teams on a Wednesday.

"That age is really important I think. That's when they start learning about spacing and timing," Darrell said.

The Penes are also eager to ensure there are pathways for young basketballers in Rotorua. There are Rotorua club sides playing in the men's and women's national competitions and Darrell and Sue have played a hand in helping multiple athletes secure scholarships to play overseas, including one of their five daughters, Pareunuora Pene, who is playing for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

All of their daughters, Ema, 31, Ellen, 28, Te Kirikauri, 24, Pareunuora, 19, and Kararaina, 16, have inherited their parents' love of basketball.

A recent highlight for Darrell and Sue was having all five of their children play for the Rotorua women's team at the same time.

"They tried other sports, but all ended up in basketball. It was interesting having them all in that team because the younger ones are now fitter than the older ones, so they played more and I don't think the older ones really liked that," Darrell said.

The couple's involvement is not limited to Rotorua teams and events. For the last five years the Rotorua Basketball Association has hosted the National Māori Basketball Championships. This year there were 192 teams involved.

"It's huge. It's our biggest tournament in New Zealand. There are other places with more courts but Rotorua is central and has a unique atmosphere. People love coming here.

"The tournament will need to go through some transformations because it's getting too big, too many people want to play and there's just not enough courts. We might have to look at some sort of qualification process in future," Darrell said.

Darrell and Sue agreed that the biggest highlight throughout their time being involved with basketball was "just seeing kids getting involved and enjoying the game".