Every year Jillian Harmon returns to play for the Tall Ferns, she leaves with one terrifying realisation.

Maybe she'll never play with these team-mates again.

Since rediscovering her New Zealand roots nearly a decade ago, New York-born and Stanford-educated Harmon has become a vital element of the national women's basketball team, in many ways epitomising the scrappy mentality that has kept the dream alive through difficult times.

Despite her late introduction to the offbeat Kiwi culture, she has fitted, as coach Kennedy Kereama describes it, like the proverbial glove.


But the tenuous nature of that programme brings with it a nagging fear that it could all end at any time.

"After last year, when we didn't qualify for the Olympics, none of us knew if we'd ever play together again, so this is a nice surprise," says Harmon, who is currently in camp with the Tall Ferns, as they prepare for next month's Asia Cup in India.

"It makes it tough. It would be nice to get some regular funding and security - that would be huge for our programme."

Harmon stumbled into the Tall Ferns set-up just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when Stanford University team-mate Clare Bodensteiner joined the NZ squad and Harmon realised her NZ-born mother provided her with the same opportunity.

In one of her first outings for her adopted country, she became part of history - the first and still the only occasion that the Tall Ferns have bested the Australian Opals, who were world champions at the time.

"I don't think I understood, how big it was to beat Australia, but I totally get it now," says Harmon. "That was an incredible experience."

Compared to the United States, where basketball provides an easy ride through high school and college, and the prospect of a professional career afterwards, the New Zealand game has proved harder work, but worth it.

"I've found it awesome," she says. "Kiwis are just so laid back and I love that.


"I remember in 2008, we brought a guitar on tour and everyone was singing ... I just felt easily welcomed into the group. It was such a family experience that I haven't found anywhere else in the world.

"The relationships I've built with the girls over the years mean I can't wait to get back here every year to see everyone."

Since helping Stanford to the NCAA Final Four in her senior year, Harmon, 30, has made basketball her career, playing most of the last nine years in Italy, where she led Le Mura Lucca to the national title this year, averaging 17.2 points and 6.7 rebounds a game.

During that time, she has also won titles in Australia with the Townsville Fire (alongside Tall Ferns team-mate Micaela Cocks) and New Zealand with the Otago Goldrush.

Internationally, while they haven't returned to the Olympics, she has made the Tall Ferns dangerous opponents on their night, assisting them to victories over some of the world's top teams.

"With her ability to score, her versatility and offensive rebounding, there have been a number of occasions where she's put the team on her back and, off her performance alone, we've been competitive and won games," reflects Kereama.

"Last year, she had one training with us and then scored 28 points in our win over Latvia in Latvia."

After all the good times - and some bad - she has had with this group, Harmon feels she owes them at least one more chance on the stage where she debuted, either the newly constituted FIBA World Cup or the Olympics.

"There's no better feeling than working together with a group and achieving a goal," she says.

"If we could achieve that qualification for the world champs, that would be the best feeling ever, because it's with great people who all work hard and play well together."

The Asia Cup (July 23-29) in Bangalore provides that pathway.​