The future of NZ basketball: Meet the Kiwi sisters turning heads in America

There’s a Kiwi storm brewing on American basketball courts, with the potential to speed up a basketball revolution in this country.

And it involves the teenager many believe can become the female match for Steven Adams, the Kiwi NBA star who has given basketball a profile never seen before in this country.

Just one New Zealander has made the WNBA breakthrough since the American women’s professional league was re-started.

Tall Fern Megan Compain of Whanganui played a handful of games for the Utah Starzz in 1997, the league’s first season.

About a decade later, netball star Donna Loffhagen came very close with the Connecticut Suns.

But a Waikato sisterly double act is already driving the game ahead like never before, thanks to their stellar performances and a social media influence unimaginable when Compain and Loffhagen were playing.

Krystal and Charlisse Leger-Walker are making incredible waves by turning Washington State into a rising force in the Pac-12, one of America’s five elite college sport conferences.

Picked to finish last in the powerful conference, the Hamilton-raised sisters helped propel Washington State into the country’s top 25 teams at one point this season, a first for the team since the Associate Press poll began.

The 23-year-old Krystal, a point guard, is top-five in conference assists, has just recorded her 400th assist, is in the top-15 for overall points, and is Washington’s second best scorer behind her sister.

Shooting guard Charlisse, aged 19, is causing the biggest stir, having won a string of conference freshman-of-the-week awards. Many believe she is New Zealand’s greatest female basketball star in the making.

Her ability was hardly a secret in Kiwi basketball circles – at 16 she became the youngest Tall Fern.

But her extraordinary performances for Washington State are something else.

She heads the conference in total points and steals, lies third in points per game, and as the Seattle Times enthused: “She’s also had her share of heroics on the court, notching game-winning shots in an overtime win over No. 7 Arizona and in a double-overtime win over Oregon State.”

Speaking from the States, Charlisse told the NZ Herald: “I didn’t expect anything coming into the season. I just wanted to find my rhythm and how I fitted in this league.”

It’s turned out to be a lot more than that.

In a recent match she emphasised the point. Fighting back from losses to number six ranked Stanford – who successfully targetted the rookie star – Charlisse scored 28 points as her team overcame UCLA, the first time Washington State has beaten a side ranked in the top five. Her most crucial shot came with 42 seconds left, a three pointer for the lead.

Opposing coach Cori Close echoed what the game is saying, describing Charlisse as mature beyond her years.

“She’s got a very good balance of strength and aggression with skill and shooting ability,” said Close.

“She’s one of the best freshmen in the country.”

The sisters have a fascinating pedigree.

The obvious basketball inspiration is mum Leanne Walker, a Tall Fern at two Olympics who captained the 2004 team and is the current Waikato Wizards coach.

Their uncle Gus Leger, younger brother of the girls’ dad Eliu, was a trailblazer, a Kiwi junior softballer recruited by the lateral-thinking California Angels baseball programme three decades ago. His varied sports career included playing for Tonga at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

Basketball was always likely to dominate Krystal and Charlisse’s sports careers.

Leanne Walker says: “The girls probably started playing when they were three and four, but they were always on the sideline anyway.

“I played throughout, before and after I had them. They’d get taken to trainings – there were other women with their children and we had a little crèche going at Waikato and the Flyers club team.

“If you wanted to keep playing at a high level that was pretty normal. I had Mandy Hill as coach one year and she would walk up and down the sideline with Krystal in a back pack while she was coaching.”

Determined and talented sisters have emerged, always pushing and pulling each other along. They played a range of sports with skill, but natural ability was only the starting point.

“They are very competitive, we all are,” says Leanne.

“When they were training together back here last March, in team versus team and one versus one, I’d have to step in now and then and say come on, because it was getting a bit rough or physical between them.

“There was just no backing down, and I’d have to say ‘settle down’.

“They train and challenge each other more than they would anyone else in the gym because they know they can handle the banter, or the way it comes out. They couldn’t do it to that level with other people, or not until they knew them well.

“But it has never affected their relationship as sisters – they are probably each other’s biggest fan. Krystal is so proud of her sister, and Charlisse looks up to Krystal.”

Leanne Walker does note some character differences in her daughters.

“Charlisse has always had the confidence to have a crack. She doesn’t care if you knock her over,” says Leanne.

“I always knew Krystal could really play but her confidence has lifted. She could hold herself back at times in the past.

“When you’ve got your sister there telling you to take shots, that you can do this, pushing you, then you just have to step up and do it.”

Krystal and Charlisse leave no doubt that they are a combined force which has made each player stronger.

Krystal says: “Our dynamics are so good because we’ve grown up playing with each other on the same or opposite teams.

“That’s also helped us in this transition (to America), helped us on the court this year.”

Charlisse says their on-court chemistry is special, beyond that of normal team mates.

“We are super competitive on and off the court, and in training we go up against each other all the time. We make each other better every day,” she says.

Four years older, Krystal led the move to America when she signed for Northern Colorado immediately after Year 13.

“I was a sook when I first got here and missed home a lot, being a world away from my family,” she recalls.

“But I found some great friends here, made great connections with coaches, and they settled me in pretty good.

“The girls over here are so good, there are so many who live and breathe basketball. The level and speed was much higher than I was used to. But I had great support.”

This was in a pre-pandemic world, when the family could head to the States to be with Krystal every Christmas.

It was Charlisse who made first contact with Washington State, from New Zealand, as soon as school rules allowed. But before she could take up her new career, the pandemic struck.

Krystal then returned to New Zealand early, and the girls were left with the tricky decision about whether to play with Washington. Putting the Covid-19fears aside, they decided to stay on their American basketball track.

So playing in the pandemic bubble is all Charlisse has known in America. This includes pre-season training in masks, daily and pre-game Covid tests, limited socialising, constant vigilance and some match postponements when opponents had Covid-19 issues. She also gets to live in an apartment with two other freshmen, rather than the usual starting place of a dormitory.

With her big sister helping smooth the way, it has been a remarkable transition for the younger Leger-Walker.

But the girls are far from alone in this stateside mission.

A surprising number of New Zealand kids go to America for sport as Leanne – the dean in charge of pastoral care at St Peter’s Cambridge – well knows. These youngsters play a range of sports, including rowing, football, lacrosse and basketball.

“It was all available in my day but that was never me – I was too much of a home girl,” says Leanne, who was raised in the little eastern Bay of Plenty town of Opotoki.

“I’d get homesick too bad. I thought Hamilton was far away. It’s tough for any young Kiwi going to the States, especially your first year as a freshman, especially if you haven’t got any other Kiwis near.

“But the girls aspired to go to the States from when they were around 10 or 12 years old. They saw a pathway.

“There were some other Kiwis over there, and they know how important it is to get an education – if you can get a scholarship even better.

“I think they are so courageous. I take my hat off to them.”

Krystal is doing business/finance, and Charlisse business and environmental science. And of course they are both doing the business on court under quality guidance.

Washington’s head coach is Kamie Ethridge, who also coached Krystal at Northern Colorado. She was a gold medal winner with the USA at the 1988 Olympics. Ethridge’s assistant is Laurie Koehn, a former WNBA player regarded as one of the great three-point shooters.

There are a good dozen other young female basketballers playing various levels in the States, and the hope is that Walker-Legers and others will find ways of slotting into the New Zealand scene now and then, which will raise the levels here.

But they are already moving the needle in other ways.

“Krystal and I have had so much support thanks to how good social media is at connecting people,” Charlisse says.

“It has been really humbling to see how many people really like basketball and see how well we are doing.

“I’ve had quite a few younger girls message me, asking how I feel about college, what it’s like. It is really cool to connect with a lot of them.

“Basketball is growing so much in New Zealand and it would be really cool if Krystal and I are a reason why some girls are inspired to play.”

Krystal adds: “Mum is super big on it, especially about women in sport. She does a great job – she’s on some boards and really advocates for women’s sport and equality across many codes.

“We have these conversations quite often and want to see more girls participate and get behind the game.”

And the ultimate prize remains in sight.

“We’re just happy to compete with each other at such a high level…but playing professionally anywhere (around the world) would be a great honour and achievement,” Krystal says.

“The WNBA is super tough to crack – only a small percentage of girls get drafted, and from there only a certain amount go on to teams.

“It’s very hard to get into that league, but it’s definitely a possibility I think.”

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