One of the greats of Australian basketball is helping to grow the women’s game in New Zealand, making her mark as head coach.
Basketball champion Tully Bevilaqua has just come off her first season taking the reins at Mainland Pouakai in New Zealand’s new-look 2022 Women’s National Basketball League, named Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa.
The former Australian Opal and Seattle Storm WNBA champion says “watch this space” when it comes to the growth of women’s basketball, not only across the ditch in this new league, but as the 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup gets underway in Sydney.
New Zealand’s new league — the country’s first professional women’s competition — is made up of five regional teams that battle over an eight-week season.
This season was also the first time New Zealand female basketballers were paid equal to their male counterparts.
The chance to be part of building something from the ground up — while gaining experience at the helm of a side as head coach — was too tempting for Tully to pass up.
“I felt like when this opportunity was presented, it was one of those moments that if I said no, I would regret it for the rest of my life,” she said.
‘It kind of fell into my lap’
With a wealth of experience from playing and assistant coaching on world stages, Bevilaqua would be at home in any established league.
Before taking on the challenge of head coach, Bevilaqua was commenting on Indiana Fever games in the WNBA, relishing a post-playing career in broadcasting and personal training.
“I never really thought this would be a realistic opportunity. It came out of the blue, and I did not see it in my crystal ball at all.”
The Mainland coach may not have seen it coming, but it didn’t stop people in the basketball fraternity recommending her as the perfect candidate for the job.
“It kind of fell into my lap, my name was one of the names that were put forward by [former Seattle Storm coach and general manager] Lin Dunn, a couple of calls and emails later, I was told I was successful.”
The former WNBA champion is already seeing the impact the new and improved league is having in New Zealand basketball.
“The monetary value is helping now that we can pay players, it’s still semi-professional and not all players receive the same amount, but I feel it’s just elevated the level of play because of the imports each team can get,” she said.
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A top-tier player in the New Zealand league is paid $13,000 to $16,000 a season, which is similar to the WNBL salary.
The collective bargaining agreement confirmed the minimum player payment for the 2021-22 Australian WNBL season was $13,500 and would increase to $15,000 for the 2022-23 season.
The introduction of import players brought into the NZ league has also raised the standard of basketball across the competition.
“The difference in practice when my two American imports arrived at training two weeks into pre-season really profoundly affected the local players that I have worked with,” Bevilaqua said.
“They were seeing the imports’ work ethic and the intensity of their training, it instantly elevated all the other players’ level of training.”
Making connections beyond basketball
Bevilaqua’s vast resume of success in the WNBA, FIBA World Cup, Olympics and Commonwealth Games speaks to the reliable and consistent player she was at her peak.
Some of the accolades include an Olympic silver medal, a World Cup gold medal and a WNBA championship won during her time at the Storm with teammate and fellow Aussie Lauren Jackson.
Despite all the success, the achievement she holds in highest regard is the WNBA’s Kim Perrot Sportsmanship award, which she earned in 2007.
The accolade is awarded to the WNBA player who most “exemplifies the ideals of sportsmanship on the court — ethical behavior, fair play and integrity”.
“My philosophy was if you concentrate more on the statistics than you do on the overall team aspect, you’ll have a short career,” she said.
“I didn’t see myself as the best player, I knew how to play within the team and I also knew I had to get the ball to certain players, it didn’t worry me not being the top scorer or best player.
“I cared about the environment I was in and having fun and looking out for my teammates.”
As a coach, Bevilaqua hasn’t forgotten her team-first values.
“The most important thing to me is building a connection with the players, and dedicating time to getting to know them outside of basketball,” she said.
“I want them to know that I’m approachable and that I’m someone they can talk to on and off the court, not necessarily as a coach, it doesn’t have to be in regard to basketball, but someone they can trust and help them in other ways.
“I’m a mum myself, and I had two players in my team who have young children, so for them to know I understand and can help in other ways is important to me.”
High expectations for an Opals World Cup win
Now back at home with her family in the US, Bevilaqua has been keeping an eye on former Opals and Seattle Storm teammate Lauren Jackson’s return to international basketball ahead of the women’s World Cup in Sydney.
“We were all so anxious to see if LJ got picked, it’s an incredible story and story of the year,” she said.
“It was so good to see her in the trial games in New York [against Canada] hitting the scoreboard and doing her thing.”
The former Opal is looking forward to seeing what the national side can do in Sydney.
“I’m excited for the Australians to start a new chapter.
“I feel like they’ve just had a few troubled years getting that team chemistry right. I feel this is going to start a new journey for the Opals to get them back on track to that identity we used to have.”
Nevertheless, Bevilaqua’s expectations for the side are high.
“The Aussies are always up for medal contention,” she said.
“There’s no complacency on this world stage anymore. You’ve got to bring your A-game or you’re going to find yourself out.”
Mainland Pouakai came third overall in the New Zealand competition and Bevilaqua is open to poaching some Australian talent for next season.
‘”I [don’t mind the] idea of getting some Australians across the ditch eventually,” she said.
ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.
Sophie Fazzolari is a freelance writer and psychology student at Victoria University. She is currently participating in the ABC Sport X Siren Sport Emerging Sports Writer Program.