Hawera Hoops in the Big Easy: A Q&A with Tulane Kiwi Kayla Manuirirangi
New Orleans is definitely a long way from Kayla Manuirirangi's hometown of Hawera.
If you measure metrically, the journey from Hawera to New Orleans checks off at just over 12,500 kilometres. In almost every other way you can measure it, Kayla Manuirirangi knows the gap between the two places is much, much larger.
Manuirirangi is in the midst of the first full season of a four-year basketball scholarship at New Orleans' Tulane University. The Hawera 19-year-old forms part of an impressive vanguard of young Maori basketballers in the famed American college system.
Along with herself, Nga Puhi's Nikau McCullough plays at St Mary's College in Texas while Laken Wairau, who is affiliated to Te Awara, Ngai Tahu and Ngati Rongomaiwahine, plays and studies at the University of Indiana.
Tainui's Tai Wynyard – son of famed woodchopper Jason – is arguably the most well known of the quartet. He plays at the famed University of Kentucky Wildcats.
The four Maori basket-ballers are part of a large 'golden generation' of young Kiwis in the college hoops system, with Pakeha players such as Matt Freeman (Oklahoma), Jack Salt (Virginia) and Sam Timmins (Washington) also at high profile schools.
Manuirirangi - who is Ngati Ruanui - emerged as a rising Kiwi basketball star at high school in Taranaki, making national age group teams in the Under-16, Under-17 and Under-18 grades as well as helping New Plymouth Girls Hawk win the New Zealand secondary school title in 2014.
The teenager's ability caught the eye of American college scouts, who flooded her family household in Hawera with dozens of athletic scholarship offers in 2015.
Manuirirangi finally settled on Tulane, due to its academic program – she is studying public health and nutrition - and reputation of its women's basketball coach Lisa Stockton. The Tulane scholarship is understood to be worth around NZ$500,000.
VICE Sports AUNZ caught up with Manuirirangi on the phone recently, and asked her what life is like in the crazy world of American college sport.
Hey, Kayla. New Orleans is a pretty different place from Hawera. How have you found the transition to living in Lousiana?
"It's a really lively city. Everyone is really polite – almost over friendly. Everyone loves life. There's been some pretty big lifestyle difference – the good takes a bit getting used to, and the serving sizes.
"It's been an interesting time to be here in the States, especially with Donald Trump. The day after the election, I remember going down and doing my laundry where I'm staying and there was no one around. Like, no one. Every was just so shocked with what had happened."
The last year of your life has been pretty life changing. How do you reflect on your journey from Hawera to New Orleans?
"I was definitely pleased that I came for my redshirt season, so I got six months to sit on the bench. I didn't have the pressure to play. I could just adapt. When you come so far from home, you have so much to accustom to.
"Little things like getting stuff for your room and schoolwork – that takes a bit of time to learn. School is definitely a big part of it. Grades are the first thing to look at. If you're not getting good grades, you don't keep your scholarship.
"In season, you could have a hour practice in the morning, three classes, a three-hour practice in the afternoon or evening. You've got to study as well. You could end back at home at eight o'clock at night, and you've got study you have to do. Then repeat all that again."
Kayla Manuirirangi in action for New Plymouth Girls High at the 2014 New Zealand National Championships. The tournament helped increase her profile amongst American college scouts. Source: Youtube.
How big a step up is the standard of basketball, coming from New Zealand?
"Coming from Hawera - or New Zealand? Haha. It was good to get that experience in New Zealand, playing Australia. The level, against Australia, helped me to adjust to the level here.
"Over here though, it's like every single game matters like it's a game against Australia. It's day in, day out. You continually have to perform. Every practice matters, every game matters. There are some insane athletes over here. Everyone works so hard.
"In our conference, there's like ten teams with ten different groups of personal. In New Zealand, you know everyone. Here, there's a new 15 players you have to scout every game. Scouting is a big thing – knowing the plays and players. We get two or three days to prepare.
"We need to know four or five things about every player – all their offense and defensive skills. It's a very technical game, compared to back home."
So far you've had pretty limited minutes for Tulane. How do you increase that moving forward in your college career?
"Coming in, I knew there was a senior point guard and she ran the show. For me, this sort of system is challenging to get used to as a point guard. Coach needs to trust her point guard, because we've got twenty or thirty different offenses.
"At any time, she could throw [something different] out – it's a big responsibility in the point guard position. It's been challenging over the last couple of months trying to earn my spot, but slowly I'm getting more confident running the point.
"I know what she wants from me now – and I feel like she's more confident putting me in. Even if it's nine minutes a game, it's about making the most of the time while you're in.
"It's all about having your teammates and coach trust you. It's a patience thing, and knowing it's going to take time – and not getting down on myself."
Is there an extra degree of expectation being an international player at Tulane, compared to your American teammates?
"It's more of an underdog story, as a foreign player. You've had to go through so much adversity back home to get to where you are. I think that can be an extra fight that we bring, instead of the Americans.
"It's definitely been a journey adjusting to this level. Things get taken away from your game that wouldn't be taken away, at home. There was a point early on where I felt like nothing I could do, worked.
"It's about adjusting to how the play builds, but not forgetting who I am and how I play. In the system, I've got to stay within it – but not be a robot. It's just feeling out what the coaches want, and what I expect of myself."
You had dozens of offers from American colleges. What made you choose Tulane?
"Honestly, what it came down to was Coach [Lisa] Stockton. To have a coach that has thirty years experience, and is probably one of the best coaches in women's basketball ever, is pretty awesome.
"She's an incredible lady. So Coach Stockton was probably the main part – and she's just re-signed for four more years, too."
It seems like there is a bit of a golden generation of Kiwis playing college basketball at the moment. Why do you think so many of you have made it into the college ranks all around the same time?
"Steven Adams has definitely been a big role model for a lot of people. For me, girls like [Tall Ferns players] Stella Beck and Tessa Boagni have been pretty inspirational.
"But, yea, definitely in the last couple of years, people have been brave enough to say 'hey, this is what I want. I want to play in America."
What does it mean to you to be Maori and to be achieving your goals as a basketball player?
"It means a lot to me to be able to say 'hey, I'm a Maori and I have come all this way.' I know back home the Maori-Pakeha thing isn't as bad as the African-American-White American thing – but there is more stigma on a Maori than a white person [in New Zealand].
"Maori are so talented, but a lot of them don't come from homes that encourage them to pursue their dreams. It's just a platform, being a Maori, to inspire other kids to follow their dreams."