Breakers start rebuild: local hotshot takes 42 to new level
Saint Mary’s college forward tells Marc Hinton it’s a ‘dream come true’ to launch his pro career with the Kiwi club he was once a floor wiper for as a youngster.
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Daniel Fotu makes only one cast-iron guarantee for his signing with his home-town New Zealand Breakers as his first professional hoops gig: he’ll be wearing the jersey number that is synonymous with this special basketball family. And the 22-year-old soon-to-be college graduate is just pleased that this time he has beaten his hoops royalty older brother Isaac to the punch and grabbed the No 42 jersey that is de rigueur in the family. Fotu . . . 42 . . . get it? He is the first key off-season signing for the embattled Breakers who are pledging to regain their Kiwi identity under new head coach Mody Maor in an Australian NBL rebuild after going a franchise-worst 5w-23l in 2021-22. It’s not a bad start either, with the 2.01-metre forward considered one of New Zealand’s hottest young prospects coming out of the American college game. ‘‘It’s a dream come true, man,’’ Fotu tells the Sunday Star-Times from Saint Mary’s in northern California, where he’s putting the finishing touches on a Bachelor of Business Administration degree. ‘‘I’ve been dreaming about this moment since I was in the academy in 2017, and seeing my brother play for the Breakers. I’m just glad it’s coming true.’’ Fotu, a small forward with the size to slide into the four spot, has signed a two-year deal with the Breakers following four solid years of division 1 NCAA ball with the Gaels in the NCAA’s West Coast Conference. He will preface that by turning out for the Auckland Tuatara in the Kiwi NBL, right after he graduates from Saint Mary’s on May 21. And, yes, Fotu has dibs on 42. Like brother Isaac, the Tall Blacks star now playing professionally in Japan, and Tall Ferns sister Ella, Daniel attended Rangitoto College on Auckland’s North Shore, playing in three straight national schools grand finals from 2015-17 and winning the title the first two of those. But he couldn’t play in No 42 at Rangi ‘‘because Isaac came in and retired it before I could,’’ he says. ‘‘So I had to wear No 15. But I’ll be sporting 42 (for the Breakers) – I’ve got in there before my brother this time.’’ Signing Fotu is a smart first move by the Breakers. He’s strong, well-rounded and a likely improver at the professional level. He never missed a game in four years with the Gaels, produced solid numbers (averaging 8.4 points and 5.2 rebounds his junior year, before taking a minutes cutback his final campaign) and soaked up the experience. ‘‘We beat the No 1 team in the country twice, I’ve been to the NCAA tournament three times ... Saint Mary’s has given me everything I could have hoped for, and more. Hopefully it inspires kids to go over and get their free education through basketball and other sports. I got to meet new people, gain new experiences and feel what it’s like to live outside of New Zealand. It’s been a big learning experience and I’ve loved every second of it.’’ Fotu is in the midst of his final exams and will attend his graduation before flying back to New Zealand soon after to link up with Breakers team-mate Rob Loe at the Tuatara. Returning with a degree was important. ‘‘The basketball was for my dad and my brother, my business degree is for my mum,’’ he says. ‘‘She always says there’s a life after basketball, and you’ve got to get something to fall back on. So I’ll grab that.’’ Mum Jenny and dad Manu have certainly raised a special hoops whanau. Isaac has become a Tall Blacks great, while Ella mixes a career as a firefighter with semiprofessional basketball. Daniel says it’s been both ‘‘inspirational’’ and a challenge following in the footsteps of his accomplished brother (youngest sibling Jacob is captain of the current Rangitoto side). ‘‘I’m always trying to beat my older brother in everything. I didn’t attend his alma mater (the University of Hawaii) because I wanted to pave my own way. Isaac has always challenged me to me be my own man, and get to where I can go.’’ In many ways Fotu will come full circle as he returns to Auckland. Not only will he be living in the family home, but he’ll be pulling on the singlet of the Breakers club he used to serve as a floor wiper for. ‘‘I’ve been following them since the three straight championships, the golden era of the Breakers,’’ he says. ‘‘I think everyone wants to see that mana returned for the Breakers, that culture . . . so we’re a contending team. I’m happy to be part of that rebuild. ‘‘We look to them as our national NBL team. Kiwis are good at playing that role and being a core part of a group, like Steven Adams is, and I’m trying to be that person, trying to get us back as a team that people look forward to watching every game day.’’