National | Basketball

One step closer to NBA dream for Ngāti Kahungunu basketballer

Playing in the NBA has always been Ngāti Kahungunu basketballer Dontae Russo-Nance's dream and now he’s one step closer.

He’s just left Aotearoa to improve his game at Oak Hill Academy in the US, a prestigious school that has produced a string of NBA stars including Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo.

“It's exciting. [I’m] going to be challenged every day and it's just a challenge I need to take on. So just being around good guys, good coaches and stuff every day is going to help me get better and hopefully reach my goal,"  Russo-Nance says.

The 17-year-old has been a dominant player for St Kentigern College winning in the Auckland premier competition. And for the past two seasons, he’s played in the New Zealand NBL as a standout guard for the Auckland Huskies and Tuatara. This year he was named the NZ NBL youth player of the year.

Dontae playing for the Auckland Huskies. Source: FIle

'I can be more of a leader'

He says playing in the men’s league has been a huge step up.

“Last year was my first year so I was kind of nervous. I didn't know what shot to take, what not to do because being a young one, you don't wanna step out of line and then get in troubleut now that I'm a little bit older, I've matured and l know that I can be more of a leader.”

Dontae playing for the Auckland Tuatara. Source: File

Russo-Nance bears his heritage on his left arm with a tā moko “to let people know I'm Māori and that I'm proud," he says.

One half of his moko represents his Māori heritage from his mum’s side and the other half, his African-American side from his father.

“I'm blessed that my dad was able to be by my side. My mum was able to be my side just to watch me grow and get better and look at me now, going over to the United States to continue my dream.”

Dontae with his mum Quanita Russo and dad Shawn Nance. Source: File

Whānau support

His father, Shawn Nance, says basketball has been part of his life since a very young age "because I played, his mother played and his uncle Jason played for New Zealand, it was easy for him to fall in love with it in a way".

Shawn Nance has also helped coach his son to success.

“The whole plan was to eventually get him over there [to the US]. So I was hoping for this moment. I'm happy for him and can't wait for him to go ahead and spread his wings.”

Dontae as a pēpi with his pāpā Shawn. Source: File

Russo-Nance's aunt, Jania Russo, and cousin Quanita Gregory-Russo are all part of his cheer team.

“We've always looked at him like he's so amazing. He's always playing with older people. And when he went into an adult league, it was like scary, but we were still there to support him,” says Jania.

“It just came so quickly… He was taller than me. He was faster than me. He was everything, even though I was four years older. It's something we always knew was coming. Just proud of him.”

Kyrie Irving. Source: Getty

Pro career ahead

Russo-Nance says the player he looks up to the most is Kyrie Irving.

“When I was younger it used to be Steph Curry because as a kid, everyone loved Steph Curry. As I grew up a little bit older, it’s definitely been Kyrie Irving. He's been my favourite player. I've been watching for quite a few years now and he's my inspiration.”

Russo-Nance says he doesn’t have a specific team he wants to play for.

“The NBA's the NBA and you'll be making money, whatever team you're in. So I don’t really have a specific team I want to play for. I just want to get there.”

After his time at Oak Hill he should eligible to launch his professional career.

“After that, it will be either college or pro whether it's the G league, the NBA, we're still not too sure on what pathway I'm going to be pursuing, but yeah, hopefully, that will kind of help me get to the NBA one day.”