When you meet 14-year-old Rico Nelson, your first reaction might well be ‘someone could make a damn fine basketballer out of him.’
But you’d be too late, because he’s well on the way already.
He’s been standing tall in the game, and not just literally, since he took it up at the age of 11. Now, four years on, he’s been identified as an outstanding prospect in the sport and selected for the Basketball Pacific New Zealand under-18 boys Koru Development Tour, taking on their peers in Australia in January.
Rico doesn’t actually know exactly how tall he is, but he’s tall - taller than the average adult male. And when you consider he’s just 14, and still has some years of growth ahead of him, it seems fairly likely he’s going to comfortably top two metres, if he hasn’t already.
But it’s not just his height. There’s a leanness and agility about him which screams athlete, and when he says his goal is to ‘get as far as I can’ in the sport, there’s a humility and hunger in his eye that suggests he might just be one of those special teenagers with the mental focus to give it a good nudge.
He’s played a bit of rippa rugby, a bit of cricket – he would be a mean fast bowler but had a problem getting the ball to land on the pitch – and a bit of volleyball recently too.
But all that has gone by the wayside now that he’s shooting serious hoops.
“I’ve got too much basketball on to fit in any other sports,” he says. You get the feeling those sports might live to regret not getting their dibs on him.
As a year 10 student at Mount Maunganui College, where he’s excelling in academic pursuits including science and PE, Rico plays not only in the Junior A basketball team, which is his natural fit, but also for the senior As.
That makes two teams he has to find time to train and play with, and he’s added a third now too. He recently made the Tauranga under-17 team and travelled to Wellington with them for the national championships.
He finds his height often gives him an advantage over the guys with two years on him, and he can get away with things because being younger, they sometimes don’t guard him as closely.
It’s an unusual experience to be playing guys as tall as him, he finds, even at under-17 level, but there are times when they do have some tall timber, and try to get heavy.
“There was one team in the under-17 tournament who were really aggressive and really big as well,” he says, “and they were all older than me, so they bullied me during the whole game.”
You’ve got two choices in that situation. Suck it up, or fight back. A smart kid, a kid with a future, would just suck it up, learn from the experience, use it to bolster his stocks of mental strength. So what did Rico do?
“Just sucked it up, yeah.”
Selection for the January under-18 Koru Development Tour to Australia came following a nomination from Tauranga City Basketball as one of the outstanding junior prospects in the association.
Then came a two-day camp in Rotorua, during which they had a number of drills, training sessions and games, all under the watchful eye of the selectors.
Around 30 young prodigies were nominated for the camp by their associations in the broader North Island area, ranging in age from Rico at 14 to 16 and 17-year olds, and only 12 picked.
Rico admits to having mixed feelings about his selection.
“I was excited, but didn’t really want to go at first,” he admits. “I thought I’d rather go next year so that I’m older and more experienced so I can be the one bullying them.”
Making it on the tour though – especially at such a young age – means he’s firmly on the national basketball radar.
Hundreds of New Zealand age group players have done it in the past, and many Tall Black and Tall Ferns got their first taste of international action at the Country Cup, the tournament in which they’ll be playing in Albury, Victoria.
Basketball New Zealand endorses the tour, and will have their talent scouts on patrol.
Rico’s nervous about it, he says, but thinks the whole team feels the same. That’s because the ones who went to this year’s tournament were monstered, losing all of their games. But they were a small team, and found them themselves playing teams who were all Rico’s height, and solid with it.
This time, though, they’ll have at least one player Rico’s height, and one who’s been getting plenty of practice at not letting cocky older guys push him around.
So it doesn’t seem likely he’s going to let a bunch of Aussies knock him off course.