The New Zealand squad performing the haka, a traditional Maori war dance, before their basketball game against Team USA at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Image: Twitter user Vic (@victorcurtiss).

Sports Are Strengthening the US-New Zealand Bond


Fans of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder are getting to know more about the culture of New Zealand, thanks to Steven Adams, a third-year player on the team. Adams is popular among his fans, media, and teammates, and during the last off-season the team sent a film crew to document their starting center’s trip home to New Zealand. The documentary, entitled The Kiwi Way: Steven Adams' New Zealand, is now available on the National Basketball Association’s official website.

It is not the first time that basketball players from New Zealand have piqued American curiosity about Kiwi culture. At the Basketball World Cup in 2014, players on USA team were stunned when they saw their New Zealand opponents performing a haka war dance during warm-ups. Two months later, the haka, a Maori ritual to frighten opponents, gained more attention among the Americans who saw it performed before the sold-out rugby match between the USA Eagles and New Zealand All Blacks in Chicago. An American college rugby team also recently adopted the tradition.

Besides learning about their culture, Americans have also invited Kiwi coaches and players to coach college rugby teams and offer training camps to players wanting to go professional in the fastest growing sport in the US. The Professional Rugby Organization also recently announced the launch of the first professional league in North America, with the competition scheduled to begin in April 2016, which is likely to attract more players from the World No. 1 rugby nation to come to the US.

The US and New Zealand’s sports exchange also extends to other arenas. The US Department of State’s Sports United program and Major League Baseball have been supporting Baseball New Zealand, a grassroots program that helps develop young Kiwi players in one of the nation’s fastest growing sports. A pitcher with Kiwi ancestry made his MLB debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014, and more than two dozen young Kiwis have played at the professional or college level in the US in the past five years. Major League Soccer also now has a dozen Kiwi players registered, some of whom also represent their country during international competitions. The inflow of Kiwi players to the US has helped boost the fanbase of American sports in New Zealand. For instance, after the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted Steven Adams in 2013, basketball fans in New Zealand got greater access to games on TV and through the internet, thanks to partnerships between local networks and the NBA. With more coaches and players headed across the Pacific in both directions, there may be opportunity for expanded commercial partnerships as fans hope to watch their hometown heroes play abroad.

Zhonghe Zhu is a recent graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington.