The word ‘legend’ is a phrase reserved for the elite, but often overused and bestowed prematurely. However, to call Leanne Walker is a Tall Ferns legend is spot on.
The current Head Coach of Waikato Wizards and St Peter’s College, Cambridge (winners of four of the last five Schick National Championships) has spent close to four decades around the hardwood, serving as a leader both on and off court. How is it that someone has been afforded so much time to stay involved in the game they love? Walker’s answer is a short one.
“Family. Family support was, and still is, crucial.
“They were definitely a rock for me when I was playing, as they helped juggle family life while I was doing my thing on the court and field.”
The Bay of Plenty product is a teacher by profession, having headed down that professional path after graduating from Opotiki College.
“I was actually more into netball because at that time it was pretty prevalent in the area and so we used to just use basketball as extra fitness.
“The competition of basketball wasn’t very strong in Opotiki, but when I got to Waikato they had a whole club set-up, so it gave the competitive environment I always wanted in sport.
“Basketball ended up fitting my timetable a lot better than netball, so I just ended up playing it more and developed more of an affection for the game.”
Walker’s ability on the hardwood was quickly recognised by local representative coaches, who elevated her to the Waikato women’s team.
“Carolyn Grey, who was one of the coaches along with Murray McMahon and Tracey Carpenter, told me that there was a Tall Ferns’ trial coming up and that I should give it a go.
“Initially I was in shock that she would even suggest I trial, but they were confident that I’d go alright and had nothing to lose.
“I’d actually made the national women’s touch (rugby) team the previous summer, so I had some experience against top players in an elite setting and so I took some confidence out of that experience.”
Walker ended up doing enough in the trial to warrant a selection for the Tall Ferns, kick-starting what would end up being a 13-year career in a black singlet.
She would go on to compete at a World Championships and two Olympic Games (Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004), whilst also continuing to represent Waikato in the National Women’s Competition.
“Playing for your country is an honour, but like any other team, you can only really enjoy it if you have a good group.
“I also enjoyed the challenge of playing at the highest level and pitting myself against the world’s best. There’s nothing like it.”
She says going to the Olympics was an amazing opportunity.
“When you are in it it’s pretty surreal, especially when you are in the village and in amongst the best athletes in the world – you watch them on TV and then you are right amongst them, it’s pretty amazing. It’s a proud feeling to think I’ve worked hard, I deserve it and now I’m part of it.”
The Tall Ferns are playing a crucial game tonight against Korea to proceed to the next round of Olympic qualification.
“The Olympic environment is incredible. You have to go to experience it, it’s very hard to explain what it is like.”
To no one’s surprise, Walker’s children took to basketball like fish to water. Along with Charlisse, eldest daughter Krystal has also donned the black singlet.
Krystal debuted for the Tall Ferns in 2014 and is on a basketball scholarship at Washington State University. Charlisse is the middle child and recently led St Peter’s College to a national title – the team Leanne coaches.
Walker and her family are getting the chance to watch Charlisse play at home this week as the Tall Ferns at the FIBA’s Olympic Qualifiers.
“I was pretty fortunate in my day to play in a few home series, something that I probably didn’t realise how special it was until times like this.
“It’s awesome to be able to see our best players in person against some of the world’s best and, with Sky Sport picking it up for TV, people who can’t be there will still be able to watch it live and record it.
“Seeing the Tall Ferns playing at a high level is really encouraging and I guess it’s that little bit more special when you have family involved.”
The prospect of The Tall Ferns progressing to the Olympic Games and Charlisse being part of the team is certainly an enticing one for Leanne.
“It’s very exciting and I’m very proud that both Charlisse and Krystal have got to that level, they’ve both worked hard to get there. It takes a lot of work and effort and it’s nice to see that rewarded.
“They have always been determined and had a good work ethic. They’ve been involved in a lot of different sports and been competitive, even our snap card games at home get pretty competitive.
“They are pretty driven and they feed off one another too. Krystal is always messaging and calling Charlisse and Charlisse thrives on that and visa-versa, they encourage each other all the time. They are probably the biggest fans of each other.”
Leanne believes it is a really exciting time to be a Tall Fern.
“I’m enjoying watching the Tall Ferns and also the calibre of player that is coming over with the other teams. It’s massive for our game and it will be exciting to witness that.
“The beauty of the Tall Ferns now is that they do get more opportunities to play international games. When we were trying to compete and get to an Olympics we would only play Australia and if we couldn’t beat them, which was a massive task, we couldn’t qualify.
“I like what Guy (Tall Ferns Head Coach Guy Molloy) is doing with the team, and what he is implementing. When we had Carrie Graf and Tom Maher as head coaches, they utilised the strengths that we had. We didn’t have the height so we had to come up with game plans that suited our team rather than mould to a certain style of play.
“New Zealand’s developing that now, a New Zealand style of play around what our athletes are capable of. I like that concept and I definitely like what Guy is trying to do with the programme. He also puts different players in the team when they have trips to Taiwan or Japan which is building our player base and I think that is important too,” concluded the former Tall Ferns captain.