Pioneering basketball star Pene Hippolite talks about controversial coach John Dybvig, being homesick in the United States and have to miss her sister’s wedding.
To Kris Dando
How big was basketball for you growing up?
I’m from the pa [Takapuwahia] and it was always a big sport among my family when I was young. Being a Mormon, there was always a basketball court nearby, either inside or outside. Could be an American thing. For me, it was always about hockey and basketball, with touch [rugby] and softball coming along later. What was Porirua like back then?
It was fun and safe. Kids in the neighbourhood would play outside until our mothers shouted from the doorstep to come in. If there wasn’t a meal at home, there was always one at a house nearby. I was one of nine brothers and sisters. Seven of us still live close to the pa today – I’m in Titahi Bay, which is far enough away, but close enough, if you know what I mean. When did you start making rep basketball sides?
You have to remember that, for players from my time, there was New Zealand under-21s and there was the senior side. That was it. These days you have national teams for every age from about 13. What was it about the game that grabbed you?
I was quiet as a kid and it was a chance for me to really express myself. I found that with all the sports I played. When did the time come to choose between hockey and basketball?
I was in my early 20s and it became too hard to do both, so it was more a timing thing. Was there a Porirua side at national club level in the 1980s?
Yes, we always seemed able to put together a team, except one year and a group of us played for Wellington. You played softball and touch rugby to a high level?
I played softball for Wellington and was lucky enough to be in a team with [ New Zealand representative] Rita Fatialofa, which was a huge highlight. I guess when you’re young you can keep going and going. I’ve recently had a knee operation, but the worst I had when I was playing was a sprained ankle. The touch rugby just sort of happened. What was the environment like for basketball at New Zealand level?
I played a handful of games for the under-21s and the senior team and we were coached by John Dybvig. I loved having him as a coach. He was the sort of guy you loved or hated and I thought he was great. He was ahead of his time and I was really disappointed when he got shown the door. It was a mistake to let him go, but he wasn’t politically correct. Did you play much overseas for New Zealand?
We had a couple of games in Australia, but there was a league that had games in New Zealand against the likes of England, Australia and even Guam. It was great being in that environment. Did you go to a US university to play?
I was scouted by a guy who came to New Zealand and ended up going to a junior college in Santa Maria in my early 20s. But I only lasted two months because I was lonely and homesick. It was a beautiful place and the people were wonderful, but I missed my family too much. I’ve never lived anywhere else but Porirua. Do basketballers today have more opportunities?
Absolutely. You can be a professional now and you only have to look at the likes of Brook Ruscoe and Jordan Mills. New Zealand seems to get the chance to play at world championships and the Olympic Games far more than when I was playing. It’s great for the sport in this country. Are you still a point guard?
I play for a masters team that gets together every two years and plays tournaments in Wanganui and on the Gold Coast. Some of the team are in Australia, but we’re a bunch of Porirua girls who like to get together. It’s very social, but getting out on the court things can turn quite serious. How successful has Porirua been at basketball?
Very successful for our size. We consistently produce teams that win national titles and the sport has a good presence in the city. Is Porirua a good place to host basketball?
Te Rauparaha Arena is a fantastic facility and so many teams come here and realise what a beautiful city we have. A Tahitian team came here recently and I had dinner with some of them at Aotea Lodge and they were saying we live in paradise. This is from people who live in Tahiti! Getting off basketball for a minute, where did you go to college and what work did you do after leaving school?
I went to Mana College, where everyone from this side of Porirua went. After school I had a few jobs, bought some property, and worked for New Zealand Defence Force in the old Housing NZ building for 15 years. Do you coach much?
I don’t have a team I coach today, but I help out here and there. I love coming to watch when I can at the arena, because it’s joyful to see these young kids loving the game I love. My problem was that I was quiet as a player but talk too much as a coach.
I had to give it up because I won’t shut up! But you had some success?
About 10 years ago, my nephew knocked on my door and said, ‘Aunty Pene, can you coach our team?’ I asked him how many players there were and he said four – not a good start. We got a team together, all under 15 and mostly from the pa. We were thrashed all over the place to start, but these young men stayed together and we won two national under-19 titles and one national under-21 title. They were fantastic players. I also coached a group of girls to a national title. Your toughest opponent as a player?
Probably [ Porirua coach and administrator] Deslea Wrathall, who played for an Auckland side we used to come up against. She was tough, like Dillon Boucher is for the Breakers. Sometimes you felt you could never get away from her and she never seemed to run out of puff. Can you remember the most points you scored in a game?
One night, playing for my Porirua team when I was in my 20s, I scored a lot. It was more than 50. I remember it because there were two cars of players going into Wellington and one broke down. Luckily the other car had four players in it and we roped in the driver to play. We must’ve been playing the Blind Institute or something for me to score like I did that night. Will basketball always be your No 1 sport?
Yes. I missed my sister’s wedding because I had a game to play, so that tells you something. I made the reception.