Basketballer and ex-Tall Black Tai Wynyard spent his life growing up around basketball. Now he's on a mission to find the next step in his sporting career and has looked to Asia to find it - just this week, he’s jetted off to China to take up a lucrative contract with the Shanghai Sharks club, where he’ll be playing for the club’s 3x3 team.
The Asia Media Centre had a chat with him before he left the country.
How did you get into basketball?
My mum played basketball when I was growing up. I didn’t really get into it until a bit later on, like 10, 11 but I got into it because of her – she knew all the coaches and played in New Zealand teams, so I fell in love with the game.
I was still playing other sports as well: rugby and league, and I did athletics and swimming so I was a bit of a multisport kid. When I grew, I shot up to about six foot and it pushed me towards basketball.
That sounds like a pretty normal New Zealand upbringing – although one significant thing did happen for you when you were 16...?
Yeah, so I was the youngest player that played for the national team, the Tall Blacks. I came into that squad and felt like a fish out of water. The level was so much higher than playing in high school obviously and it was kind of crazy how it all happened from a young age.
I think what got me there was that a couple of years prior, I joined the Breakers Academy. Through that, I trained a lot more than my peers and I was in the gym more hours than everyone else was. That’s where I made a lot of progress in those couple of years, so when I hit 16, it was kinda like ‘all right now you’re pretty much a year or two in advance of everyone else playing basketball.’.
You’ve spent a lot of time crafting your five-person game - what made you shift to 3x3 format?
I played a little bit of 3x3 when I was in the under-18s and that was my first taste of threes. I really enjoyed it. It fits my play style a lot more and it was a lot more fast-paced and all the exciting things that happen in basketball without having to set a whole bunch of screens in play, a whole lot of in-between game when you’re running up and down the court
I think that’s what really drew me to it back then and then continuing on playing it at different levels. Now, obviously we just went away to the Asia Cup and still trying to be a part of that 3x3 scene. I think it will be a good opportunity for me to continue playing threes over there and have fun doing it. I’ve always enjoyed it.
You went to FIBA 3x3 Asia Cup in Singapore earlier this year and won bronze with the New Zealand team – what was that competition like?
The competition was really strong when we hit the pool play. Obviously, Australia is always really good and there are a few other great 3x3 teams. Beating China in the bronze medal game was massive for us. It was gutting to lose to Mongolia, it felt like we should’ve won that one, but things happen in basketball, especially in threes.
You never know what could happen with only three players there on the court.
How did your contract with the Shanghai Sharks arise?
After the game against Japan [in Singapore], I had a couple of guys walk up to me and say ‘look I want you on my team’. And again, after the China game, they came up to me and told me they had this opportunity to play in China. I didn’t really have time to talk to them so I just sort of brushed it off.
You get it a lot where guys will come up to you and say there are opportunities, then you’ll leave and you won’t hear anything about it again.
But I got a message from someone, then an agent got in touch and they showed me the offer sheet. It became a little more real.
I brought the offer to my club here, the Canterbury Rams. I wanted to be honest and open with them in making a decision, so I wouldn’t be affecting the club.
That’s how it came about – it was really random but now here I am off to China.
What does this change mean for you and your game - what’s going to be different, what’s going to be beneficial to you?
I think the biggest thing for me is trying to get into that Asia market. Trying to get into that five-on-five team opportunity as well as the threes and show that I can play both. I think when you're over there it’s easier to see the player rather than watching and scouting players. They know what they’re going to get.
That’s the biggest thing for me – trying to open as many doors as possible so that I have opportunities to decide where I want to go in future.
Usually in the Asia market they take a lot of imports straight from the NBA for the five-on-five teams. It’s really hard for New Zealanders and Europeans to get into the market because the Chinese love to get ex-NBA or fringe NBA guys.
It’s an opportunity where I can really support my family for a long time financially if I’m over in that market, but also, the more doors you have open, the better it is as a player.
I’m able to pick and choose where I want to go instead of being railroaded into choosing only one or two opportunities. I think that’s the biggest thing in sports. We need to have as many options and as many doors open as possible.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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- Asia Media Centre