Whangārei’s Kendell Heremaia goes past a defender while playing for Fordham University in the USA. She’s leaving for Australia soon to take up a semi-professional contract with the Sunshine Coast Phoenix.
Growing up playing basketball for fun, Whangārei’s Kendell Heremaia never thought that one day she could make a career in the sport.
After all, as much as basketball was ingrained in her family – dad Ritchie and uncles Francis and Ricky all played to a high level – women’s sport didn’t have the widespread profile or support.
But that has changed with the rise of women’s sport globally and Heremaia is making a big step towards her dream, by signing with the Sunshine Coast Phoenix in Australia’s semi-professional NBL1 – the country’s second-tier competition – for the 2023 season.
It comes after spending five years at Fordham University in the USA, playing NCAA division 1 basketball in New York City, an experience she said helped her improve and focus on what she needed to do to make it in the sport.
She was a two-time all-conference player at Fordham, averaging 8.9 points per game, 5.5 rebounds per game, and 2.2 assists per game. She finished with 1291 career points and was one of only two players in Fordham history to record over 1000 points, 700 rebounds, and 300 assists in her college career. Additionally, she also set an Atlantic-10 conference record, hitting 11 three-pointers in a game during her senior year against Massachusetts. She also recently played in the New Zealand women’s national Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa competition.
“I am super excited for this opportunity to play in the NBL1 league, really grateful to Sunshine Coast for that. The experience is definitely something I am looking forward to big time, as well as the chance to meet new fellow ballers,” she said.
Growing up in Northland, basketball was something the 23-year-old loved playing, but it was only for fun then as a path to a career in the sport just did not exist.
“Basketball is a big thing in my family, but growing up it was just for fun really, spending time and playing with my family and friends,” she said.
“But now there’s a route and a real career option. A lot of young female athletes are looking for that path and there are far more opportunities for them than when I was growing up playing.”
She said women’s sport is on the rise globally, as evidenced by the big crowds that turned out at the Women’s Rugby World Cup here last year, and she hopes that her achievements so far will inspire young females to chase their sporting dreams – and there’s more to come, she hopes.
“That’s my dream, to play fulltime professionally. I hope that I can use this to make the step up to the WNBL [Australia’s top division], then from there, who knows? I’d love one day to play in Europe.”
Heremaia is excited about heading off to the Sunshine Coast next month for training and to start the season, and she has been given some training and exercise routines by the club ahead of flying out.
The main thing she thinks she’s going to have to get used to in Australia though is playing in the heat.
Heremaia credits her head coach at Fordham – Stephanie Gaitley – for helping her get to this stage and said the veteran coach was ‘so proud’ of her when she got the contract with Sunshine Coast.
She also credits Kiwi coaches, such as Justine Reed, Leanne Walker, Anthony Corban and the legendary Jeff Green, with playing a big part in her progression.
But it’s dad Ritchie who is her biggest mentor, who instilled the love of basketball into her and the rest of the family.
So what did dad say when she told him about her Phoenix contract?
“He just said ‘good job my darling’ and he’s so proud. Dad isn’t big on the praise, he always pushes you rather than praises you, but that’s the way we liked it, it’s what made us work hard to achieve.”