New Zealand is an island nestled in the continent of Oceania known for its scenic beauty: the snow-capped peaks, the vast green highlands and the aquamarine brooks and streams. The scenery is so fantastical that director Peter Jackson decided to showcase New Zealand as Middle-earth in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies.
In the world of sports, New Zealand is known as a powerhouse in rugby and cricket. The All-Blacks and Black Caps are elite-level teams, with the former having won three Rugby World Cups and the latter finishing second in the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup.
At Cal, however, one of New Zealand’s representatives happens to be playing a sport that is radically different from rugby and cricket. Penina Davidson (or Nina, as she calls herself), a forward for the Cal women’s basketball team, is paving the way for international basketball recruits by bringing in her own distinctive style of play.
Bone-crunching screens, emphatic blocks and smooth post-moves are a trademark of her playing style. If you are watching her on the court, it is hard to point out a specific style, because her game is a mix of techniques she has learned throughout her life.
“There really are different styles of playing the game,” Nina says. “Asian basketball is different from European basketball, which is different from American basketball. Having played teams from different parts of the world and adapting to them has had a big effect on the way I play.”
It’s been a long journey to Cal for Nina, but she’s picked something up every step of the way.
It was impossible for Nina not to be drawn into sports from an early age. Living in New Zealand, engaging in outdoor activities was very common for her and her family. Nina loved to go skateboarding, roller-skating and rollerblading. She also liked to play with her younger brother and the neighbors, as the kids would get a bunch of toys and play hopscotch or hula hoop. She always had to be involved in one activity or another.
“(Soccer) was the first sport I played,” Nina says. “I don’t exactly remember when I started, but it was around in early elementary school. I sucked at it.”
Despite her apparently limited skill set, soccer became Nina’s go-to sport, as she would regularly play the game in school and with her friends. But it never became more than a hobby, and she eventually quit at the end of elementary school, setting up middle school as the beginning of her basketball career.
Her family was already heavily involved in basketball, as both her mother and father are former basketball players and coach teams in Auckland, New Zealand. It was their influence that ultimately led Nina to take up the sport.
“I was kind of forced into it, really,” Nina says with a laugh.
Her father coached her for about six years and taught her the basics of the game, spending countless hours training and practicing on the court with her. The start of her playing career wasn’t prodigious, as she struggled with the game and even thought about taking up something else. But it was her determination and energy that kept her going. That energy helped her get the hang of the game.
“The first basket I scored was for the other side,” Nina says. “Yes, I scored for the other team. But I was so juiced up on making a basket, much less for the other team, that I kept on going in that game.”
Her mother had an equally important role in her development. Nina’s mother was coaching another team, and because Nina and her brother, Isaac, used to accompany her to practice, Nina started learning and absorbing the different facets of the game while watching her mother coach.
But there was a final step needed: Aik Ho, Nina’s high school and national team coach, was responsible for Nina’s progression into an elite player. He taught Nina how to improvise from the groundwork that was set up by Nina’s parents and her exposure to the sport at an early age.
Nina’s ever-improving game led her to achieve a number of honors. She was named the Auckland Secondary School Association Young Sportsperson of the year in 2012 and 2013, and also led her club team, Waitakere Lady Rangers, to the national championship in 2013, where she was named MVP.
The awards and her strong performances led to her selection for the national squad. Nina had already represented New Zealand in the U-16, U-17 and U-19 categories, and she made it onto the Tall Ferns’ roster for the 2013 FIBA Oceania Championships.
“Playing for the national side is an honor,” Nina says. “I learned so much while playing for the Tall Ferns. The most surreal moment, however, was playing against my idol, Lauren Jackson, in my first game for New Zealand. I was guarding her and was so in awe of her.”
In a way, Jackson, three-time WNBA MVP, was also the inspiration for Nina to get to the United States and play. She saw how Jackson dominated in the United States, propelling her to improve on the game. It was Nina’s personal goal to come to the United States because of the high quality of education and the opportunity to play basketball in college. She had many friends who had come to the United States in disparate ways, but Nina knew she would be the first to come through basketball.
That hope came true, but her recruitment had its own hiccups. Late into senior year of high school, she still didn’t know what college she’d be attending.. She knew that she preferred to go to college in California, though, initially setting her sights on Stanford after attending a basketball camp there. She wasn’t accepted to Stanford, but Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer made sure that Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb knew about Nina. Cal found a spot for her.
“It was so fast paced,” Nina says. “I didn’t even know Cal was the brand for Berkeley. It was only when I signed that I was able to connect the dots and see the bigger picture. I knew I had to get to America but did not research too much about the colleges. It was only after I got the chance did I realize how big the opportunity is.”
So far, Nina has fit into Gottlieb’s squad like it’s Cinderella’s glass slipper. She’s the utility player on the roster and brings in a visibly different style of play. Nina’s experience of playing in different countries and leagues has definitely paid dividends for her and the entire Cal women’s basketball team.
Being at UC Berkeley has also allowed Nina to pursue her passion for art. It had been another major hobby for her while growing up. She has drawn or painted most of the posters in her room. She also likes to experiment with the clothes she wears, sometimes bleaching them or making different patterns on them.
“It was so fast paced. I didn’t even know Cal was the brand for Berkeley. It was only when I signed that I was able to connect the dots and see the bigger picture. I knew I had to get to America but did not research too much about the colleges. It was only after I got the chance did I realize how big the opportunity is.”
New Zealand isn’t particularly known for producing basketball players, but Nina is a pioneer of sorts for people from her country who intend to play high-level basketball in the United States. Her successes on the court — and off it — may bring some international flavor to what is a very American sport at the college level.
It takes an unexpected path to make an unexpected journey. For Nina, it meant failing at one sport, recreating her game many times over and missing a shot at her first-choice school and getting handed off to its rival instead. But that’s all brought her to the here and now, and she’s more than happy with where she is.
“I don’t think of myself as a pioneer of sorts, to be honest,” Nina says. “I think me being here is more of a reassurance. If I’m out here, you can be out here, too. If you’re out there, I can be there, too. It’s just good to know that there are other Kiwis making their mark in some way.”