A phenomenal spike in young Kiwi female participation in basketball has the community excited. But is a basketball boom really on the way? Cheree Kinnear reports.
In a country where sporting participation rates continue to fall among youth, one sport is sensationally bucking the trend.
Basketball is one of New Zealand's fastest-growing sports, seeing a massive 44.9 per cent increase in players this decade, to rank as the second most-participated secondary school sport nationwide.
It's also one of the few sports to be increasing in numbers year after year.
On the men's side of the ball, there's an easy answer for the rise – a certain NBA baller from Rotorua, Steven Adams.
Adams has become the poster boy of New Zealand basketball since cracking the US league, inspiring youngsters every time he takes to the court.
But spin that ball to the women's game, and a far more fascinating phenomenon is taking place.
The New Zealand women's basketball scene has seen promising growth in recent years.
Programmes such as Girls Got Game have contributed to a reported 45 per cent spike in the number of young girls taking up the sport at local clubs, and when it comes to Kiwi players chasing hoop dreams overseas, women hold the balance over men playing for NCAA Division I universities.
But in the absence of a similar role model – like Adams - being heavily marketed in the women's game, Tall Ferns legend and coach Jody Cameron says there's more at play behind its rise.
She says it's almost scary to think how big the women's scene could become if it were to have the same exposure, admitting they already struggle with a lack of resources.
"If there was any kind of marketing or exposure for women who are already leading the way, you would get an even greater response," she says. "It takes a bit of an empire behind you to get that. Steven Adams has a machine behind him.
"You see sports like netball on TV and that's all you have as a woman, that's what you want to be. As soon as women's sevens came on TV, the game boomed, all the girls wanted to start playing sevens. It's a key part of building anything. When you can see it you can be it.
"We are behind the eight-ball in terms of resources ... if you go into any YMCA, if you go down to any gym or park, there's always pick-up games, people are bouncing a ball everywhere.
"There are not enough courts - if I had more courts I could do a lot more."
Adams' rise to NBA fame has also seen the men's game gain plenty of traction from a media perspective by giving the world's leading basketball competition a Kiwi link.
While the women's game has faced an uphill battle for airtime, Cameron says the lack of prominent exposure hasn't hindered its growth.
"We didn't have the broadcasting and it grew without it and that's the beauty of it, it will continue growing without it because it's what kids want to play," she says. "It's not just the game itself, but bloggers, people loving the shoe game and people wanting to be Tall Ferns.
"I always say that our game has a lot of swagger, it's cool to be a baller, there's a lot of coolness around it."
Netball has always held firm to its title as New Zealand's leading female sport - so much so, that many of today's top female basketball stars share a past netball career.
Cameron, who represented New Zealand at both the 2004 Athens Olympic Games and 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games in basketball, was once tipped to make waves on the international netball scene.
She played for the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic under the leadership of now-Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua and alongside some of the game's greats, including Casey Kopua and Laura Langman.
But Cameron says she never seriously considered a career in netball.
"I thought netball was too easy," Cameron laughs. "I loved that you could be everything in basketball, you could be the scorer, the stopper, the rebounder, I loved all those stats and I wanted to be the best in those stats whereas in netball I found you're not. You have a very specific job in a very limited area.
"I wanted to run down the court and put the ball in the net and then stop someone at the other end."
It's a similar story for one of Cameron's current young stars, Charlisse Leger-Walker.
Leger-Walker was set to play for the Waikato-Bay of Plenty's Beko netball side this year with a pathway to the ANZ Premiership all but paved out.
However, she turned it down after receiving several US basketball scholarship offers.
"It was definitely a motivating factor," she says. "A lot of the coaches I spoke to told me they had been watching me play since I was 14.
"I always knew I was going to do basketball, so when I had to choose, it was never a hard decision."
The narrative goes both ways though, with Northern Stars and Silver Ferns shooter Maia Wilson once jumping ship from a promising basketball career.
Wilson played representative basketball growing up before going through the New Zealand age group system and debuting for the Junior Tall Ferns when she was 16.
It was always her goal to be a dual-international and having pulled on the black singlet, she was keen to give the Silver Ferns a crack.
But that meant turning down a scholarship offer in 2015 to play for the University of Idaho and instead, singing with the Central Pulse to play her first ANZ Premiership season in 2016.
"I was the only person within my Junior Tall Ferns team that didn't take a scholarship in the States," Wilson says.
"A lot of people would tell me 'you could go to the States on a scholarship and netball will always be here, you can always come back to netball,' but I felt like I couldn't see myself being in the Women's NBA and that's the pinnacle of what all female basketballers want to get to. I just didn't feel like I could get there."
Although having no regrets over her decision, Wilson says she often misses the physicality of basketball.
"I liked how I could legally screen someone and smash them on the ground so hard and I wouldn't get called for it," Wilson says. "That physicality of basketball, the ability that everyone's the same, everyone can shoot, everyone can dribble, there's a lot of different amount of flair and finesse in basketball, in some instances, it's a faster game and it's a global sport.
"Netball is something that has been embedded within the New Zealand culture as being a women's sport ... You grow up wanting to be a Silver Fern but I slowly see that changing with girls wanting to be a Tall Fern or a Black Fern, so that's amazing for people to really champion women in sport and having that diversity is really important."
While Wilson opted for a netball career, the prospect of being offered a fully-paid scholarship has emerged as a driving factor attracting young women to the game.
And there seems to be no shortage of opportunities available, with US scouts taking a liking to Kiwi players in recent years.
Had the Covid-19 pandemic not occurred, 122 Kiwis would have played collegiate basketball in the US this year – the highest number there has ever been.
The documentary 'To The Line,' which set out to capture the high-school basketball scene, followed the journey of Kiwi player Finn McClure who was eventually offered a Naia Division I basketball scholarship at Milligan University in Tennessee.
Producer and co-writer Antony Young says when speaking to scouts about why they favoured Kiwi kids so much, the reason was simple.
"Kiwi kids are a bit more humble," Young says. "They like the fact that usually when you're picking out a player in the US, they're generally the best player in their team for their entire playing career so they want to start, whereas Kiwi kids are willing to abide their time."
Kiwi players' preference to have a go at different sporting codes was another aspect US coaches liked.
"Most players, they play netball, they play all sorts of sports because we encourage it, whereas in the US they tend to specialise pretty early," Young says. "What they like about that is our kids are a lot more coachable."
Post-secondary school opportunities in the basketball scene are almost unparalleled to other sports played by New Zealand youth.
Young says the door is wide open in the women's space specifically.
"There is a really big opportunity for girls basketball in the US, largely because there was a legislation in the US which required the colleges to have an equal number of athletic scholarships for boys and girls," he says.
"It's opened up a lot more opportunities for girls. We gathered that nearly two-thirds of kids that are basketballers in the US are girls."
With the number of female participants in basketball growing year on year, the women's game looks to be shaping a bright future for itself.
Success on the international stage for the Tall Ferns and New Zealand hosting events such as last year's FIBA Women's Olympic Pre-Qualifying tournament is putting the sport at the forefront of young Kiwis' minds.
Even considering the financial impact of the Covid-19 lockdown, leagues are again taking shape.
Earlier this month, a Tall Ferns Showcase game in Auckland put the country's up-and-coming talent on display in a curtain-raiser to the men's NBL Showdown final.
Not long before that, a $200,000 funding package came through to ensure the women's NZNBL would tip-off this year.
The new Girls Got Game programme is also set to resume this year, while a national schools tournament will be held in late September and the girls national U17 and U15 championships will now go ahead over Labour weekend.
There's still much which can be done in the women's space, however, with a classic chicken and egg situation when it comes to gaining spectator interest and sponsorship.
On one hand, the women's game needs more eyeballs to market itself as worthy to be broadcast and backed financially, but gaining interest is difficult without media attention in the first place.
Cameron believes although a lack of funding won't slow the game's rise, it comes down to what people desire the sport to become in New Zealand.
"The funding is still a very narrow space," she says. "But we're not playing the sport to get money, we don't need the funding to grow the sport in one regard, because it's growing anyway.
"But if you're saying grow the sport to make it look like it does in America, or grow the sport to make it look like rugby, yeah, we probably do need the backing to get those connections and networks going. Then you'll see it blasted everywhere."
While she continues to push for more resources, Cameron is adamant the best is yet to come.
"We can, in any situation, point out what's not happening but there is still so much happening in the women's program. There's so much support, more coaches coming into the program, young girls wanting to be part of the women's program in some form. People want to be a part of our program now.
"We're scratching the surface. The potential for it to boom is there."