11 Jonah Palelei (TGA)
19/06/2024
Oceania
to read

Chasing Polynesian Pride: A Tongan Basketballer's Journey

PERTH (Western Australia) – A Tongan basketballer's career took an unexpected turn after being cut from his suburban Western Australian team in 2020.  Facing doubt and deflation, Jonah Palelei, found himself training in the backyard of a legend during the lockdown.

That legend was former NBL and WNBL Coach, and Hall of Famer, Andy Stewart.  During that lockdown period, Stewart was the igniting force that sparked Palelei’s hunger for basketball.

“Having Andy train with me during lockdown was really a turning point for me, I was ready to throw in the towel, and had lost my passion for the game,” Palelei said.  “We trained most days, and it reignited my passion for basketball and in a way, it started this journey I’m now on playing NBL1 with the Cockburn Cougars and representing Tonga at the Pacific Games last year.”

 

For Palelei, basketball isn’t just a sport; it’s an outlet.  "It was a way to navigate the challenges life threw my way," Palelei reflects.  It was also a tribute to his family's unwavering support.  "My parents' sacrifices for me and my sisters, that's what kept me going," he says.

Why Basketball? A Shifting Motivation

Growing up, Palelei craved role models who reflected his heritage, players who looked and played like him.  The lack of Polynesian representation fuelled a new fire within him.  "I didn't see anyone I could relate to," he remembers, "it made it hard to believe there was a future for me in basketball."

That's when a new mission emerged: "I want to be a pioneer, to inspire the next generation of Polynesians.”

Seeing Alissa Pili drafted, and now playing in the WNBA has further contributed to Palelei’s desire to represent his Polynesian heritage on and off the basketball court.  “Having someone like Alissa being drafted made everything really real for me,” Palelei said.  “She’s on the biggest stage of all, showing Polynesians everywhere that anything is possible, and I want to be able to do that too, to show the young Polynesians everywhere that you don’t have to fit a certain mould.”

Pacific Games Debut

This newfound purpose intertwined perfectly with the opportunity presented by Tonga Basketball.  Stepping out of his comfort zone in Australia, he embraced the chance to represent his heritage on the international stage.  The Pacific Games became a cultural and basketball bonanza.

"I loved every minute of it!" Palelei said. He revealed in the different pace, the strength and skill of players from other countries, each encounter adding another layer to his game. But the most cherished moments were forged off the court.  "The shared experiences, prayers, and hymns built an unbreakable bond with my Tongan teammates," he said.

Mentorship and Inspiration

Palelei sights Jack Isenbarger as a significant influence on his basketball career resurgence.  “Jack’s guidance has been instrumental in shaping my game and helping me find his own style,” Palelei said.  “He encouraged me to play my own game, and to be comfortable backing myself in.”

Another source of inspiration comes from a personal tragedy. The loss of a young friend on the court left a deep scar. To honour his memory, he carries his friend's name, Tyreez Mundroina, on his mouthguard and tattooed on his arm, a constant reminder to play with heart.  And his heart is something his dad acknowledges as to what separates him from the pack.

“He plays with so much heart,” Soa Palelei says with pride.  “Alongside that he shows resilience beyond his years, he just continues to show up, no matter what happens, you can’t teach resilience and I take no credit for it, he’s just built this resilience and continues to put it to good use.” 

L-R - Family Affair with Yana (Mum), Hannah (sister), Jonah, Lesha (sister), and Soa (Dad).

Looking Ahead with Tonga Basketball

He may be the youngest member of the Tongan team, but his dedication is unwavering.  He sees himself as a bridge.  "I'm willing to give my all to push the team forward until the next generation takes the torch," Palelei said.  This is just the beginning for this Tongan baller.  With his talent, cultural connection, and a burning desire to inspire, he's poised to make a significant impact on the world of basketball.