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Kia ora, Hoosier: Laken Wairau and the Rise of Maori in US College Basketball

A star high school player in Christchurch, Laken Wairau now plays college basketball in America's most hoops-crazy state.

by Ben Stanley
19 January 2017, 6:40pm

IU Media Relations

When people talk about Indiana and basketball, there's one word that comes to mind: Hoosiers.

Not only is it the term local Indianans use to describe themselves, it also is the title of arguably the most famous basketball film ever made. Starring old school Hollywood star Gene Hackman, the 1986 sports flick charted the fortunes of an underdog Indiana secondary school as it attempted to make the state finals.

While the journey of Milan High School is now burned into 80s pop culture consciousness, the reality of being Indiana is still the same as depicted back then: they freaking love their hoops.

"I'm a home-style girl," Wairau, who is studying and playing at the University of Indiana on a basketball scholarship, tells VICE Sports AUNZ, via the phone.

"I miss my pineapple lumps, and my family. They were over for Christmas, which was good, but yeah living over here takes some getting used to. They go basketball crazy."

Wairau – who was born and raised in Christchurch - is one of a golden generation of Kiwis playing college basketball in the United States right now.

Headlined by Auckland's Tai Wynyard (Kentucky), Tai Webster (Nebraska), Sam Timmins (Washington) and Matt Freeman (Oklahoma), more than twenty New Zealand male and female basketballers are plying their trade in Division I hoops.

Highlights of Laken Wairau in action as a Christchurch high school player. Source: Youtube.

Yet Wairau, 19, is part of an even more exclusive club, too; the 19-year-old is one of a small but significant group of college basketball recruits with strong iwi affiliations.

At Tulane in New Orleans, Hawera's Kayla Manuirirangi identifies as Ngati Ruanui, while Hamilton's Nikau McCullough plays at St Mary's in Texas has strong family connections to Ngapuhi.

Wairau herself has links to several iwi. On her mother's side, she identifies as Te Arawa while Ngai Tahu and Ngati Rongomaiwahine are prominent in her father's family. Her home marae is Tuahiwi, in Kaiapoi.

The Christchurch Girls High School graduate says that her hapu provide her with extra pride – and support – in her pursuit of basketball success.

"I really pride myself on my identity and where I come from," Wairau says.

"I mean, not just to be a New Zealand girl, but to be a Maori girl and be over here, is huge. Back home, I went to a Kura Kaupapa [Maori language immersion school] and I know that I have a huge amount of support behind me, not just my immediate family. It keeps me grounded too."

Wairau's path to basketball crazy Indiana began at the Mainland Eagles Basketball Academy in Christchurch, where she trained with Timmins. A stand-out high school player, Wairau received extra guidance from former UNLV and Tall Blacks point guard Mark 'Sparky' Dickel and Caleb Harrison.

Through their connections, a basketball scholarship to Indiana was offered. Several other colleges were interested, but Wairau – who also played for the Canterbury Wildcats in New Zealand's Women's Basketball Championship (WBC) - decided to sign up early, in August 2015.

"The main emphasis of that academy, for both girls and boys, was to get us to US colleges," Wairau says. "They helped me out a lot. It was through the coaches back home I got this opportunity."

Laken Wairau training at the University of Indiana. Photo credit: IU Media Relations.

Though the Eagles programmes were open for all talented teenage basketball players, others have benefitted from specific Maori tournaments and guidance.

McCullough, who was part of New Zealand's 2014 Under-19 3-on-3 World Championship team with Wynyard and Timmins, first played the sport in a Under-13 Maori tournament in Hamilton.

"There's a lot of camps that teach fundamentals early on," McCullough says. "I had a lot of good coaching growing up. I was always in good systems and was taught the right way to play."

Next week, Maori Basketball are running their yearly national competition, in Rotorua. As well as six youth tiers, there are senior men's and women's representative teams for several iwi.

Wairau decided to forego 'redshirting' – staying a non-playing reserve – her first year at Indiana, been the 2016/2017 season is technically her season in college hoops. The tempo shift up from New Zealand, as well as the constant training, practice, travel for games – and juggling of the schoolwork, was a big challenge for the Christchurch teenager.

"Everything here is just so much more faster," she says.

"I definitely had to adjust to the speed of the game. The preparation for me, mentally, was something new too - especially in this conference. It's a huge conference. Preparing for each game was hard, because the turnarounds were so short.

"You've got to be locked in, day in day out. That was hard, but you get used to it."

Wairau is still working her way on getting more minutes for the Hoosiers. She has only appeared off the bench in four of the Hoosier's 18 games this season, with one turnover, one assist and one free throw, overall.

An interview with Nikau McCullough, who plays college basketball at St Mary's in Texas. Source: Youtube.

She believes the way she gets more time on the court, is through becoming more vocal and confident in herself off it.

"It's about being vocal and being a leader," Wairau says. "You don't just have to be a leader on court – it's a lot of talking off court as well.

"Spending more time in the gym, working on your own game. It's going inside yourself and trying to get better – but always knowing you're bigger than something bigger than yourself."

Only one Kiwi basket ballers have ever played in the WNBA. Wanganui's Megan Compain played four games for the Utah Starzz in 1997, though NZ-born, Australian-raised Jae Kingi-Cross was drafted by the Detroit Shock in the second round of the 2001 WNBA Draft.

Kingi-Cross went on to play for the Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Silver Stars and Houston Comets in a seven-year pro career.

Wairau isn't thinking about pro basketball. Her goals are simply to get her degree – in physical education and science – and play for the Tall Ferns one day.

"Playing for New Zealand, and possibly going to the Olympics, is probably my biggest aspiration – basketball-wise," she says.

There's one more goal too; being – and staying – a role model for young Maori hoops players.

"Over the years, the amount of people wanting to come over here and play basketball has really increased," Wairau says.

"I think we've started something and made it possible for lots of other kids, especially Maori. They know it's possible now, because we've done it. It's started a culture – if everyone buys into that, you never know where you'll end up."