On her 18th birthday, Kobe King-Hawea found herself in a most welcome setting: the Los Angeles Lakers practice facility. A native of New Zealand and a daughter of a hoops-obsessed father, King-Hawea was named after Kobe Bryant, and there she was, balling in the old stomping grounds of the Black Mamba.
King-Hawea had never expected to arrive in the United States before college, but her basketball trajectory changed dramatically in November when she was selected as the first female ever to receive a scholarship at the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, Australia. The program, which partners with the Australian Institute of Sport's Center of Excellence, is the NBA's home for top male and female prospects outside of the United States. Soon after securing her scholarship, King-Hawea also earned an invitation to the annual Basketball Without Borders Global Camp at All-Star Weekend, which is how she got to Los Angeles, following a new path to professional basketball for international female players.
King-Hawea's unique hoops journey is one she has been preparing for her entire life. Her childhood was consumed by American basketball, from watching recorded Lakers games with her family to playing King of the Court in the driveway with her older siblings. One of her older brothers, Dyson, plays professionally in New Zealand's SEABL and for the national team. An older sister, Jaylen-Rose, had several scholarship offers to American colleges but decided to stay in the Pacific instead of pursuing them. (She also has a brother named after LeBron James and a sister named after Kawhi Leonard.)
"Playing was all I knew from a very young age," King-Hawea said. "It was a way to be with my family and also to get away from everything. I put basketball above everything, above even friendships. Outside of family, basketball is the first thing in my life."
After moving to Australia in 2012, King-Hawea starred in a few amateur leagues before being spotted by Center of Excellence coach Kristen Veal in early 2017. The attention proved crucial for a player who was having trouble attracting the attention of universities in the United States. Indeed, only three Australian-born players made WNBA rosters last season, but each of them had previously played for the Institute of Sport. A scholarship there can pave the way to high-level professional basketball both in Australia and in America. And in King-Hawea's case, a scholarship backed by the NBA has proved doubly helpful. This year, she's garnered recruiting interest from schools like TCU and Duke. And she believes her style of play, which is more suited to uptempo American basketball, will shine stateside.
Identifying more promising prospects like King-Hawea has been one of the primary goals of the NBA's international outreach. In 2001, the NBA and FIBA launched Basketball Without Borders, staging more than 50 camps on six continents. Of the more than 3,000 player participants, more than 50 have made it to the NBA, including budding stars like Joel Embiid, Jamal Murray and Lauri Markkanen. (In total, NBA rosters featured 108 international players from a record 42 countries and territories on opening night.) In 2016, spring-boarding off that success, the NBA started its Academies programs.
"NBA Academies are the logical next step in the league's global grassroots basketball activities but are much more narrowly focused on helping elite-level junior players reach their full potential," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in October 2016. "Top international prospects will benefit from a complete approach to player development that combines NBA-quality coaching, training and competition with academics and personal development."
Less than two years later, academies are running in China, Australia, India and Africa. Later this year, Latin America will be added to the list. The programs vary in scope and size from region to region. In India, it sent scouts and coaches to scour the nation for the top prospects, dwindling the list down from tens of thousands to 22. The three academies in China host a total of 90 students with a broader network of more than 200 boys and girls, whereas Australia's Global Academy has just nine boys and one girl—King-Hawea—on scholarship.
And although this has never been a stated purpose of the Academies, it isn't hard to imagine them as a template for a rethinking of American basketball development. Right now, American players filter up to the NBA primarily through grassroots and college basketball, and an ongoing FBI investigation has exposed fatal flaws in those systems. The NBA could create an alternative system in which players are free to seek representation and sign sponsorship deals in high school before playing in the G League and, eventually, the NBA.
But for now, the focus remains on international prospects like King-Hawea.
At Basketball Without Borders—which saw a major uptick in attendance from WNBA coaches and scouts this year—she showed off a soft shooting touch and an expert handle. She was also among the most vocal players at the camp, constantly up on her feet clapping on teammates. And her squad, the Los Angeles Sparks, won the women's competition on Sunday, her birthday.
"I think I made a stamp over here," she said. "My name's well known over here."
If she returns here to play college basketball, and maybe even in the WNBA, she'll have shown a new way for international women to play basketball in America. At 18, she's building a legacy that lives up to her name.