Big contracts lure New Zealand basketballers to Asia

Isaac Fotu.
New Zealand Tall Blacks Basketball team v The Philippines.

Finances, family and fitness are behind the record number of New Zealanders playing professional basketball in Asia.

Last year nine Kiwis were playing across Japan, China and the Philippines. For some, their stay lasted a handful of games – for others it has been years.

Paid to play year-round

Tai Wynyard spends months in a secure complex in China surrounded by up-and-coming volleyball players, footballers, swimmers and members of the Chinese national basketball team.

The 26-year-old Aucklander, who made his debut for the Tall Blacks as a 16-year-old, didn’t imagine his basketballing story would have a chapter based in Shanghai. But when a contract worth close to $250,000 to play 3×3 basketball in China was put in front of him, the father-of-one couldn’t turn it down.

Wynyard caught the eye of Chinese scouts while he was playing for the Tall Blacks at the Asia Cup in Singapore last year. He has been in China for more than seven months now, under contract with his Shanghai 3×3 side until November.

Contracts are for a year, but the season lasts seven months. The rest of the time Wynyard is living at a base alongside the athletes from other sports “where all we do is literally lift, eat, sleep and train at practice”.

Initial concerns about food, culture and language barriers were quickly overcome.

“I think there is a fear around going into the Asian market, but the benefits financially far outweigh the fear of living side,” Wynyard tells RNZ from a restaurant in Shanghai, where he is with his family having a steak dinner during pre-season.

“It’s good solid-level basketball and the funding in the league is really good. so it allows you to play full-time professional basketball. It allows you to work on your body and do the right things and not have to do anything else outside of basketball.

“I’m able to just focus on 3×3 and be financially stable – that’s the hardest part with trying to represent New Zealand and play 3×3 year-round, is that there is not really many opportunities to be able to just play it. Most of us have to go back and play 5×5, and come back to 3×3 so it was really beneficial for me to be able to play year-round.”

His 3×3 side gave Wynyard the green light to represent New Zealand, as he will be at the 3×3 Asia Cup this month, and he hopes to again at next month’s Olympic qualifiers in Hong Kong.

Wynyard wants more New Zealanders to follow him to China.

New Zealand basketballer Tai Wynyard, right.

“The Asian markets are something that a lot of New Zealanders have potential to play in over here, it’s definitely good for our young guys coming through to see there’s a couple of athletes like myself and Isaac Fotu in Japan showing that we can play over here.”

At the moment, New Zealanders are a minority in China. Franklin Bulls player Jayden Bezzant has also played 3×3 there, but Americans make up the majority of imports.

Wynyard did play some 5×5 in China where he was one of four imports, and was teammates with former NBA players Eric Bledsoe and Dwayne Bacon. This year he is the only import in his 3×3 team.

Realities of being an Import

Breakers player Tom Vodanovich.

Tom Vodanovich sought an early release from his contract with the New Zealand Breakers in the Australian NBL last July when a lucrative offer from FiberXers in the Philippines was put in front of him.

The 29-year-old’s stint as an import in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) did not last long. He was replaced by an American five games into the season after his side failed to win a game.

Vodanovich was averaging 20.8 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.2 steals before he was cut.

He bounced back in the NBL, joining the Tasmania JackJumpers mid-season and making the grand final series this month.

Playing as a local

Nuggets Richie Rodger during the SAL'S NBL Basketball match between Franklin Bulls and Otago Nuggets at Franklin Pool & Leisure Centre Auckland, New Zealand. 27 May 2021

Growing up in Dunedin, Richie Rodger didn’t know much about the Filipino side of his family. But after going to university in Manila and finally getting dual citizenship in October last year, he is carving out a professional career as a local player with the NLEX Road Warriors in the PBA and connecting with family.

His selection as a first-round draft pick with the Road Warriors caught some people off-guard.

“No one really knew me over here and I was just lucky enough that I ran into a few people that helped me out and put me in touch with the right people,” Rodger says of the draft process.

Playing professionally in the Philippines had always been on Rodger’s radar after stints in the New Zealand NBL with the Taranaki Airs and Otago Nuggets.

Richie Rodger NLEX Road Warriors in Philippines.

The Philippines is known as a basketball-mad country, but the club competition’s fan base doesn’t really reflect that.

“Unfortunately, we don’t get the biggest crowd for our professional league but the universities have a massive following – they sell out big 20,000-seat arenas, which is pretty crazy.

“I still think the league has got a bit of growth left in it, trying to get more people to our games. We’re playing in big stadiums and they are fairly empty at the moment, so if we can keep growing the league and getting more bums on seats, that would be great.”

Rodger says the PBA is comparable to the New Zealand league in terms of standard of competition, but in the Philippines he plays across three competitions year-round – whereas players in Aotearoa get a three-month season and often need to find other work.

His route to playing in Asia is different to most New Zealanders, but Rodger would encourage other Kiwis if they are half-Filipino like him to give it a go.

“I feel like if you’ve got Filipino blood and you’re into basketball, it’s the perfect place to try and come play.”

Not ready to come home yet

Issac Fotu (C) of New Zealand competes during the match between Turkey and New Zealand at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in Dongguan.

The money is good in Japan too, but Tall Blacks forward Isaac Fotu is made to work for it.

Fotu has been a trailblazer for New Zealand basketballers in Asia. After beginning his professional career playing seven seasons in Europe with different clubs in Spain, Germany and Italy, since 2021 Fotu has been playing for Utsunomiya Brex in Japan.

Despite being very close to his New Zealand-based family, he isn’t planning on coming home for good any time soon.

“Just playing till the wheels come off over here,” the 30-year-old says. “It’s just such a good situation for me – the money’s great, the organisations are great, they look after the players here, so as long as my body holds up I’ll try to play over here as long as possible.”

Before he arrived in Tochigi Prefecture, Fotu didn’t really know what he was getting himself into. He experienced culture shock for the first time.

Isaac Fotu playing basketball in Japan with Utsunomiya

Then he saw the playing schedule of 60 games a season, with games played every Saturday and Sunday and again on a Wednesday. As an import he’s expected to play every game.

“It’s completely different to anything I played in anywhere else in the world. The travel and schedule is quite hectic, but there is a lot less practice, which is quite good.

“The coaches do try to look out for bodies, so if we have a big lead he definitely takes out the main players or the imports to try rest.

“That’s another aspect of the game over here – fatigue plays a big factor, especially on that Sunday when you’ve played Wednesday, Saturday and the Sunday. Games are tough, but it’s good.”

Basketball in Japan not only attracts American players, it has also tried to mould the league on the NBA, Fotu says.

Dan Fotu and his brother Isaac Fotu.

Fotu played in his third FIBA World Cup with the Tall Blacks last year, and having their players representing national teams is a source of pride for Japanese clubs and their fans.

“There is a lot of players in the league that play on their national team – we’ve got Nick Kay from Australia, Sebastian Saiz from Spain, there is a lot of high-level imports over here – Xavier Cooks (Australia) is over here at the moment.”

But Fotu’s workload with Utsunomiya Brex and the timing of FIBA windows means he can’t always pull on the black singlet as much as he loves, representing New Zealand and playing with the guys he grew up with.

Culture over coin

Basketball New Zealand general manager of high performance Paul Downes is realistic about the pull between club and country and the evolution of lucrative leagues around the world.

The Tall Blacks and Tall Ferns aren’t on centralised contracts, so putting their day job before the national side is sometimes understandable.

Tall Blacks.

“We will never be able to compete with the per diem or the contract or the remuneration to play for the Tall Blacks or Tall Ferns, so we’re trying to create really deep connections with our people at 15 to 18 years old before they leave high school, so that when they leave our shores to play at a higher level, when we get those FIBA windows or those pinnacle tournaments come up, they are happy to answer the call beyond money.

“If you’re on a good six-figure salary and you’re being released for a nine-day window, there is a high element of trust [in Basketball New Zealand (BBNZ)] that goes in from the athlete and the [club] team.”

Especially in the 3×3 competition, where players pick up points and are ranked as individuals internationally, there are benefits for BBNZ in having players like Wynyard playing in strong competitions in Asia. They also get intel on players and playing styles that the New Zealand teams could come up against in FIBA tournaments.

BBNZ doesn’t endorse any particular leagues for up-and-coming players – they leave those decisions to the individual and their family, but they do try to help them on the pathway.

“If we are going to promote people to go overseas and give them opportunities to enhance their technical and tactical ability it’s making sure it is a responsible choice so if we know at 16year-old level someone has aspirations of playing 3×3 in China maybe they are picking up Mandarin at an early age.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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