One of Australian basketball’s greats helped develop the women’s game in New Zealand, making her mark as head coach.
Basketball champion Tully Bevilacoa has just exited her first season to take the reins at Burland Bokai in the new-look 2022 New Zealand Women’s Basketball League, called Tawehi Basketball Aotearoa.
“Watch this space” when it comes to the growth of women’s basketball, not just across the ditch in this new league, but as the 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup kicks off in Sydney, says the former Australian Opal and Seattle Storm WNBA champion.
The New Zealand League – the country’s first professional women’s league – consists of five regional teams competing over an eight-week period.
This season was also the first time that New Zealand basketball players were paid equal salaries as their male counterparts.
The opportunity to be a part of building something from the ground up – while gaining experience at the helm as head coach – was too tempting for Tolly to pass up.
“I felt that when I had this opportunity, it was one of those moments where if I said no, I would regret it for the rest of my life,” she said.
‘I kinda fell into my lap’
With a wealth of experience from playing and assisting coaching on the global stages, Bevilacqua would be at home in any existing league.
Before taking on the head coach challenge, Bevilacqua had been commenting on Indiana Fever matches in the WNBA, enjoying a post-playing career in broadcasting and personal coaching.
“I didn’t really think this was going to be a realistic opportunity. It came so suddenly, I hadn’t seen her in a crystal ball at all.”
The mainland coach may not have expected this, but it did not stop the people in the Basketball Association from recommending her as the ideal candidate for the position.
“It kind of fell into my lap, my name was one of the names that came up before [former Seattle Storm coach and general manager] Lin Den, after a few calls and emails, I was told I was successful.”
The former WNBA champion is already seeing the impact of the new and improved league in New Zealand basketball.
“The value of money helps now that we can pay players, it’s still semi-professional and not all players receive the same amount, but I feel it only raises the bar because of the imports that each team can have,” she said.
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A top-tier player in the New Zealand League earns between $13,000 to $16,000 per season, which is the same as the salary of the WNBL.
The collective bargaining agreement confirmed that the minimum player payments for the 2021-22 Australian WNBL season were $13,500 and would increase to $15,000 for the 2022-23 season.
The introduction of imported players into the New Zealand League also raised the bar for basketball across the competition.
“The difference in practice when the USA came into training two weeks into the start of the season had a huge impact on the local players I worked with,” Bevilacqua said.
“They were seeing the importers’ work ethic and the intensity of their training, which immediately raised the training level of all the other players.”
Make connections beyond basketball
Bevilaqua’s great resume of success at the WNBA, FIBA World Cup, Olympics and Commonwealth Games speaks to the reliable and consistent player she has been at her peak.
Some of the accolades include an Olympic silver medal, a World Cup gold medal, and a WNBA championship that she won during her time at Storm with teammate and teammate Aussie Lauren Jackson.
Despite all this success, the achievement she holds in the highest esteem is the Kim Beirut WNBA Sports Award, which she received in 2007.
The award is given to a WNBA player who “embodies the ideals of sportsmanship on the court – ethical conduct, fair play and integrity.”
“My philosophy was that if you focus more on the stats than on the general aspect of the team, you’ll have a short career,” she said.
“I didn’t see myself as the best player, I knew how to play inside the team and I also knew I had to get the ball to certain players, and I wasn’t worried because I wasn’t the top scorer or the best player.
“I took an interest in the environment I was in and had fun and looked out for my teammates.”
As a coach, Bevilacqua did not forget her first values in the team.
“The most important thing for me is to build a relationship with the players and take the time to get to know them outside of basketball,” she said.
“I want them to know that I’m a friendly person and that I’m someone they can talk to on and off the field, not necessarily as a coach, and it doesn’t have to be basketball, but someone they can trust and help them in other ways.
“I am a mother, and I have two players on my team who have young children, so knowing that I understand and can help in other ways is important to me.”
Big predictions to win the Opals World Cup
Bevilacqua is now home with her family in the United States, watching former Seattle Storm teammate Lauren Jackson return to international basketball ahead of the Women’s World Cup in Sydney.
“We were all very excited to see if LJ was chosen, it’s a great story and story for this year,” she said.
“It was great to see her at the Demo Games in New York [against Canada] Hit the scoreboard and do its job.”
The former Opal is looking forward to seeing what the national team can do in Sydney.
“I am excited that the Australians are starting a new chapter.
“I feel like they’ve gone through a turbulent few years getting the team chemistry right. I feel like this will start a new journey for Opal to get them back on track with that identity we used to have.”
However, Bevilacqua’s expectations of the team are high.
“Australians are always ready to compete for medals,” she said.
“There’s no complacency on the world stage anymore. Bring an A game or you’ll find out.”
Mainland Boakai finished third overall in the New Zealand Championships and Bevilacqua is open to catching some Australian talent for next season.
‘”I [don’t mind the] The idea of moving some Australians across the trench eventually.”
ABC Sport has partnered with Siren Sport To raise the level of coverage of Australian women in sport.
Sophie Vasulari is a freelance writer and psychology student at Victoria University. She is currently participating in ABC Sport X Siren Sport Emerging Sports Writer.