New Zealand native opens up about playing on BYU’s basketball team

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She told herself leaving her family wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t until she started giving her family hugs at the airport gate that a wave of unsettling emotions hit.

Kalani Purcell was just 14 years old when she decided to leave her home and family in New Zealand to play basketball for John Paul High School in Australia. Purcell stood with her parents and three of her six siblings in the airport and Purcell realized she wouldn’t see them for half a year. The only dry eye among the group was Purcell’s father.

“Dad doesn’t cry,” Purcell said. “He was holding it together for all of us. I was a mess.”

Looking back on that painful moment in the airport no longer has the same hold on her emotions. Purcell now sees it as the stepping stone in her journey to pursue her love of basketball.

Kalani Purcell is a new recruit for the BYU women's basketball team. Purcell played on the New Zealand national team and for Hutchinson Community College prior to coming to BYU. (Maddi Driggs)
Kalani Purcell is a new recruit for the BYU women’s basketball team. Purcell played on the New Zealand national team and for Hutchinson Community College prior to coming to BYU. (Maddi Driggs)

Her current location in the journey: a new recruit on the BYU women’s basketball team.

And she couldn’t be more excited about it. Purcell considers being on the BYU women’s basketball team to be a highlight of her career.

Purcell represented her country when she played on the New Zealand National team in 2008, 2013 and 2015. She’s won several championships and received many titles and recognition. Purcell attended Hutchinson Community College in Kansas prior to BYU, and became the most decorated player in its women’s basketball history.

“There’s a lot of things (I’m proud of),” Purcell said. “I think college is definitely up there, because basketball is such a big sport here and there’s so many people that could play. To be here and to be on a team that’s only 15 people, that’s a huge achievement in and of itself.”

But behind her 6-2 frame, the basketball court and all her success, Kalani Purcell is backed by her family despite being thousands of miles away. This sports-oriented family introduced her to the game of basketball. They are her cheerleaders and supporters.

“You know how everyone has some sort of idol that they have?” Purcell said. “Growing up, I’ve never had that famous person where I thought, ‘I’m going to be like this person.’ It’s always been my family. ‘I’m just going to be like my family.'”

Purcell is the youngest child in her family so it was inevitable that her sport-loving family would rub off on her. She was surrounded by basketball. Her parents and siblings all played, despite living in New Zealand where netball is a more popular sport. Netball is more of a passing game compared to basketball, but Purcell stuck with basketball because of the competitive nature.

“That’s probably the main thing that I like about it: the competitiveness,” Purcell said. “I just like to win.”

It was the drive to win and also the desire to be better than her siblings that fueled Purcell to improve her basketball skills. But it was also the mutual high expectations from her family that motivated her as well. It wasn’t for praise or attention. It was because they knew her potential, which made decisions like moving to Australia for basketball and then moving to Kansas to play for Hutchinson Community College easier. Every decision Purcell made in the name of basketball was also supported by her family.

Purcell’s older brother, Nicolas (Nic) Purcell, remembers relying on the internet to keep track of his little sister’s success. He looks forward to watching her play for BYU now that they both live in Provo, Utah.

“I’d always follow my sisters very closely,” Nic said. “I’m very excited to see her play here because she’ll be able to play with players of a higher caliber.”

Purcell is not only skilled as a basketball player. Her personality and character show there's more to her than basketball. (Maddi Driggs)
Purcell is not only skilled as a basketball player. Her personality and character show there’s more to her than basketball. (Maddi Driggs)

The head coach of the women’s basketball team, Jeff Judkins, is also very excited for Purcell to play for BYU. Before the team recruited Purcell, Judkins received several emails from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New Zealand telling him about an extremely good LDS athlete in their country. The coaching staff got information, did research, watched tapes and traveled to see her play. Judkins was thrilled that what people said was true.

“She really is a special player,” Judkins said. “I wish I had her for four years. She’s going to make a big impact in this program, that’s for sure.”

Judkins has also noticed her strengths as a person and depth of character. He said she is dependable, coachable, spiritual, a practical joker and a social person.

“When we recruited her, a lot of players enjoyed being with her because of all that,” Judkins said. “She’s going to be a great player for us, but more importantly, she’s a great kid, a great young lady, who does everything the way things are supposed to be done.”

Perhaps what gives Purcell this positive impact has been her focus on prioritizing aspects with an eternal perspective. It is the LDS Church and her family that Purcell values most and she makes sure nothing becomes more important than those two aspects.

“Everything to me is so temporary, like basketball is temporary,” Purcell said. “As much I love it, it’s not going to last forever. But relationships with people — that’s something that’s going to last forever. So I just want to make sure that I get the best relationship I can can with anyone who wants to have a relationship with me.”

Kalani Purcell is not an average collegiate athlete. She has sacrificed. She has conquered. She’s traveled the world in the name of basketball to help get her to BYU. She plans on playing basketball as long as she can and plans on making it to the WNBA.

Regardless of her future plans, Purcell knows her family will be there supporting her, from her brother in Provo to her parents in New Zealand. Her family’s distance does not limit the drive of her dreams. It enhances them. The 14-year-old girl crying in the airport might have never imagined getting to this point, but Purcell is now grateful for that pivotal moment.

“I feel like she’s going to contribute greatly to the program,” Nic said. “I just want her to be able to achieve what she wants to achieve. BYU is going to be great for in helping her develop more into the athlete she wants to become.”

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