Back in 2008 the 15 year old Fotu was struggling to make his mark in the North Harbour Under 17 representative squad and but for the encouragement of his coach Lawrence Lianda Were may well have given up the game in favour of rugby league, the sport his father Manu played professionally in England – Fotu was a promising member of the East Coast Bays League Club.
Fortunately Were was able to nurture the raw talent that he saw in Fotu despite reservations from fellow coaches who wanted him dropped from the North Harbour team. “I saw a youngster with great hands and natural ability” said Were.
At the time Were was also head coach of Rangitoto College premier team and in the interest of his basketball development Fotu transferred from Long Bay College at the beginning of Year 11 to spend more time under the tutorage of his new found mentor.
“I was extremely demanding of him in terms of my expectations but he never complained once, he had a strong desire to improve” explained Were who coached Fotu during his final three school years at Rangitoto. Were visited Fotu’s parents Manu and Jenny and explained to them his plans to make Isaac “into a great player”. Were’s encouragement and commitment to Fotu and his constant tough love struck the right chords with the quiet, reserved student.
His commitment to a stricter training regime and diet began to pay dividends. Remarkably Fotu lost 26 kilos in twelve months and his new, disciplined approach to the game earned him a place in the New Zealand Breakers Academy.
Were was also a coach at the New Zealand Breakers club alongside head coach Judd Flavell. Fotu joined the Academy programme when just 16 years old and two years later graduated to Development player status.
He debuted for the Breakers senior team on October 11th, 2011 but made just the solitary appearance against Wollongong Hawks because it was suggested by the University of Hawaii that he might contravene NCAA rules if he played for a professional team. In early 2012 he was also prevented from playing for the Harbour Heat in the New Zealand National Basketball League for the same reason.
It transpires that the University of Hawaii were simply protecting their recently acquired playing asset. NCAA rules do not forbid players playing alongside professional athletes provided they do not receive payment and therefore compromise their amateur status. After all in 2013 Tai Webster played for the Breakers and also played a full season in the NZNBL with Waikato Pistons after committing to the University of Nebraska.
The Fotu’s, like any family in the same position, towed the University line and agreed that Isaac would not play in a professional league.
These off court setbacks did not impact greatly on Fotu’s progress as his talents were recognised by the coaching staff of the New Zealand National team; Tall Blacks head coach Nenad Vucinic handing Fotu his international debut at the Stankovic Cup in China in August 2011.
In addition to being, at the time, the youngest ever Tall Black, Fotu then went on to play in the inaugural FIBA 3×3 World Youth Championship in Italy . Alongside James Ashby, Reuben Te Rangi and Tai Webster the team were crowned World Champions.
Twelve months later he was off to the University of Hawaii to begin a four year scholarship. Fotu had received offers from other high profile American Universities but a visit to Hawaii in July 2012 convinced the young international that committing to coach Gib Arnold and his programme was the right move.
It initially appeared to be a good decision. In his freshman season he averaged 10.1pts/6.2 rebounds earning Big West co-Freshman of the Year honours. In his sophomore season in 2013-14, Fotu earned first team All-Big West honours following a stand out season averaging 14.9pts/6.1rebs for the Rainbow Warriors.
In June 2014 Fotu carried his good Hawaii form into the NZ national trials, earning selection for the Tall Blacks team at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain. He was one of the most recognisable members of the New Zealand team not just because of his part Polynesian features and distinctive ‘affro’ haircut but also his standout performances, particularly against Finland in the final pool game when he top scored with 18 points. He came of age as an international player at the World Cup averaging 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, impressing all including Tall Blacks assistant coach Paul Henare. “Isaac had a really good tournament. He is a natural forward able to stretch the floor with his shooting range and also possessing some nice low post moves” said Henare.
At the conclusion of the Kiwi’s World Cup campaign Fotu headed back to Hawaii to resume his university career but little did he know that he was about to be ruled ineligible following an NCAA investigation. Nothing prior to his return had indicated there might be a problem with his eligibility but when called into a series of meetings with the University Compliance Officer Fotu began to feel apprehensive. The firing of the Warriors head coach Gib Arnold and assistant Brandyn Akana was the final straw. There dismissal and a lack of support from the University confirmed to Fotu that a move into the professional ranks was meant to be.
Arnold had attended the World Cup in Spain and visited Isaac’s parents at their North Shore home only a couple of weeks prior to his sacking. Arnold told the Fotu family he was looking forward to a successful season both for the Warriors and his star centre little did he know that within a month he would be out of work.
Once the decision was made to turn professional multiple offers for Fotu’s services arrived on his agent’s desk. A move to Spain where Fotu has something of a profile following his World Cup exploits was a logical move. Last weekend he made his professional debut for La Bruixa d’Or Manresa in the Spanish League. “He looks to have an outstanding professional career ahead of him” enthused Paul Henare; all who have witnessed his development would agree with that comment.
Back in New Zealand Jenny and Manu Fotu are just relieved that the anxiety that they and their son have experienced over the past couple of months is finally over. They are not bitter towards the University of Hawaii but they are disappointed their son did not get the opportunity to finish his degree and to date no one from the University has explained why that is.
Oh, and in case you are wondering who coach Were’s next ‘project’ is? Try Isaac’s sister Ella, herself a junior international and keen on a United States College career.