NY Sports Day

New York City’s Kiwi Connection

Like many of us, Mary Goulding went to bed last Thursday with a heavy heart. The Fordham University senior had just gotten word to what can only be called New Zealand’s darkest day. Scores of innocent people, many, refugees from endless wars in the Middle East, suddenly murdered. In a horrific twist, survivors of actual ISIS made it to the most peaceful of all lands only to be gunned-down by a “White ISIS” member. The same type of terrorism which had already taken from communities in Charleston, Quebec City and Pittsburgh. This time the carnage took place inside two separate mosques within the small city of Christchurch. 50 lives forever stolen simply because these newest of New Zealanders happened to be Muslim.

Even if only idealistically projecting, New Zealand seemed to be somehow shielded from these levels of racial hatred. In fact, it seemed so free of most global drama that it took HBO’s John Oliver to lightheartedly point out that the entire nation often goes missing from many maps and globes. As if playing the part of Australia’s imaginary friend, even airports that actually offer direct (like Beijing) or connecting (like Munich and Prague) flights to Wellington don’t have New Zealand on their globes. Ikea too, which recently announced that a store is coming to Auckland, forgot to add the islands to their own company-produced maps. More down and more under than Down Under itself, New Zealand has been able to remain somewhat disconnected from a rapidly intertwining world. That, and the innocence which came with it, all changed last week.

For Mary Goulding, born and raised in the Christchurch-area, it was too upsetting to put into words although she did try finding them while opening up. “My heart immediately dropped,” she said upon getting the news from a Kiwi friend living in the Philippines. With a younger sister studying in Christchurch itself, a college student who described the entire area as being in lockdown, Goulding spent the night reaching out to loved ones while trying to find out as many details as possible. Those details, including what at the time was 49 dead, didn’t get to her until the next morning as her phone blew up with tragic news from back home. Along with all the sadness however, well wishes from friends across the world.

This included her Fordham family as Goulding is also a co-captain of the school’s women’s basketball team. The Rams are a rare collection for these parts in that they actually have three Kiwis (the trifecta combined for 40% of Fordham’s scoring this year) on their roster. They’re particularly rare for these parts in that they actually win. Best winning percentage of any NYC-based team, men’s or women’s, college or pro, over the past 7 seasons to be exact. Making their 6th post-season appearance in that time (more than the Knicks and Nets combined), the team gathered Monday night at historic Rose Hill Gymnasium to watch the NCAA’s Women’s Tournament Selection Show. Unfortunately for Fordham, and the 63 other participating schools, ESPN blew the draw’s reveal. Twice.

First ESPNU accidentally leaked the entire women’s bracket two hours before ESPN2 was supposed to unveil it live. Then, after scrubbing ESPNU’s flub (not that it could be scrubbed off social media), ESPN2 went the extra step in spoiling the surprise. The Worldwide Leader inexplicably went to a split-screen during its selection show. A main screen was there to capture the exhilaration of teams landing spots into the Women’s Big Dance. Simultaneously however, a side screen rattled off all the pairings well before any of those reaction shots could be caught on camera. Pure amateur hour from Bristol although the moment was far from dampened for those watching in Rose Hill. Fordham head coach Stephanie Gaitley sequestered her players in their training room upon hearing the ESPNU news. ESPN2’s split-screen was harder to hide from the gym’s video boards but the team still let out a euphoric cheer upon getting their moment in front of live cameras and (again) reading that they were paired with Syracuse.

Even with the spoilers, and even with getting the unenviable task of having to take on Syracuse at the Carrier Dome (the first round affair is set for Saturday at 1:00PM and scheduled to be aired live by ESPN2), little could dampen the festivities inside Fordham’s ancient cage. Between the media cameras, balloons, player posters, video tributes, the A-10 championship trophy, tables featuring a catered buffet and drinks, as well as words of encouragement from school president Reverend Joseph McShane SJ and school athletic director Dave Roach, things were all smiles. Before and after the selection show players, coaches, trainers and administrators all mingled with the 100 or so alumni who came out to support the team. Almost always at the center of it all, the beaming head coach.

Gaitley has been the architect of the roundball renaissance. Just a few years before her arrival from Monmouth College the Rams had gone completely winless, 0-29, during the 2008 season. It’s been a different story since. By 2013 Fordham was 26-9 while reaching the 3rd Round of the WNIT. Success continued while supplanting the St. John’s program (women’s not men’s) as the winningest one in New York City. Oddly, imported talent from New Zealand has been at the core of Fordham’s turnaround.

It all started over two decades ago back when Gaitley was at St. Joe’s. There she recruited Megan Compain, a South Jersey high school star who happened to be an exchange student from New Zealand. Compain, who’d later grab a cup of coffee in the WNBA, was the first to prove that Kiwis could ball too. Fordham would get proof years later when Gaitley brought Christchurch native, Erin Rooney, to Rose Hill. Perhaps more than any single player, Rooney became the foundation for not just a new culture of winning but for a Kiwi connection into the Boogie Down. Even after a professional career in Europe, Rooney still promotes Fordham while remaining close to coach Gaitley. With that in mind it came as no surprise that Rooney was the first Gaitley reached out to after hearing about the attacks.

Aside from Rooney, Gaitley has always been fond of the entire Christchurch community whom she described as “Amongst the sweetest and most wonderful people I’ve ever met.” Included with her four separate trips to New Zealand was an exhibition tour she took the Rams on in 2013. This was on the heels of a devastating earthquake which had killed nearly 200 people while injuring nearly 2,000 more. “Even two years later the stores were still operating out of, not tents but like, temporary barracks during the rebuild. But they said simply us being there did so much for morale that we really embraced anyone we came across.” The similarity in loss hasn’t been lost on Goulding. According to her family and friends “Right now there’s an eeriness there. Something is not right and you can feel it in the air. For different reasons it’s like the earthquake.” And of course for different reasons it’s not.

Whangarei native, Kendell Heremaia, a sophomore small forward with guard-like handless and touch could not be reached for comment but fellow sophomore, Zara Jillings, a reserve guard from Auckland was. For Jillings the attack was somberly eye-opening but also a chance for unity. Like Goulding she described getting the news off her phone (a Wall Street Journal notification) just before going to sleep. Like Goulding, the news left her feeling simultaneously shocked and gutted. But, after all the personal messages back home, she also talked up the general response. From Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, to old high school friends online, Jillings was relieved to hear about attempts at comforting the Muslim community during their time of despair.

Jillings described that comfort as “If you’re scared, I’ll walk with you. If you need someone, please talk to me.” She added ‘This was such an abrupt awakening but it’s important to try to the make the best of what’s happened so it doesn’t happen again. So that the (Muslim) people do feel supported and the entire community gets closer and tighter like never before.” Still, the guard noted that unlike Goulding she’s not from the immediate area while pointing out that it’s probably much more personal for her captain. And of course Goulding noted that it’s only truly personal for those personally impacted. “I can’t even imagine how the people immediately affected by it are going through it. I was just thinking about it while sitting in church the other day and I just got kind of emotional while putting myself in their shoes. If that was anyone in my family… I don’t know what I’d do so I feel so grieved for the people who were actually affected. Because they’re the ones who actually knew someone there and are picking up the pieces now.”

The conversations all came separately but coach Gaitley still managed to combine Goulding’s present day empathy with Jillings’ optimism for future days ahead. “There are no words that can make up for any of the pain people are going through,” she began. ‘But hopefully through it all they know about the love, prayers and support the world is sending them. They are loved.” She emphasized that love before continuing ‘It’s not going to change things, it’s not going to bring their loved ones back. Of course nothing can be gained from such a horrifically tragic event but they have to see that they are loved. And I can see Christchurch pulling together and becoming stronger through that love.”

Not the type of issues addressed at most pep rallies but then again few teams have the type of connection to New Zealand that Fordham enjoys. Afterwards the balloons came down, cameras were taken off their tripods and packed, food cleared, tables and chairs folded up and the old bandbox of a gym went back to sleep. For the coaches it was time to prepare for Syracuse. For the players there was a quick reprieve featuring a cameo on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show before preparing for Syracuse as well. For the fans it was figuring out road trip options, including busses chartered by the administration. For everyone there it was back to everyday life on this side of the globe, even while some have their thoughts tied to the other side of the globe.


One Comment

  1. Jim Reese

    March 26, 2019 at 3:02 pm

    This story about the Fordham-New Zealand connection is sports writing at its very best. Heart warming, informative, and very inspirational, all at once. Put me down as having discovered a vibrant new sports writer in John Salvatore.

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