Martin Iti happy to call Invercargill home
When Southland Sharks forward Martin Iti moved to Invercargill this year, his initial plan was to see out the season.
Six months after being eliminated from the playoffs, however, the big seven-footer remains in the deep south and has no intention of moving.
Some would call it a fall from grace for a man who five years ago attracted interest from NBA teams and was once ranked behind superstar LeBron James in a list of America's most promising young basketball players.
Iti isn't concerned, though, and seems content with life.
Talk to the gentle giant and you begin to realise that he's not one for the limelight.
He's experienced the excitement of living in Sydney, Los Angeles, Denver, and the Dutch city of Rotterdam, but it is Invercargill that appeals to him the most.
"It's very nice. Everything is at your fingertips," he said.
"I wouldn't say the weather. Everybody opens arms. It's a small town and everyone is very helpful. The community gets behind you ... That's a big thing I like about it here."
The 27-year-old had a season to forget with the Sharks – featuring in only 13 games, with injuries curtailing his play.
He struggled with back problems early in the season, but looked to have regained the form that made so many basketball scouts sit up and take notice of him, when he dropped 20 points and seven rebounds in a home game against Taranaki.
Disaster then struck, eight games later, when he tore a pectoral muscle while lifting a weight in the gym. That injury ended his season, which he said was one of the most frustrating things he has had to endure in his career.
"It was tough. I would have loved to have finished off the season. Especially making the playoffs and not being able to get out there.
"It was the worst I've had it (with injuries)."
Iti has signed a verbal agreement to return with the Sharks in next year's NBL and said rehabilation from his injuries was going well and that he was close to full fitness again.
"It's one of the hardest off-seasons I've had with conditioning and working out on a consistent basis.
"(World Health and Fitness gym owner) Sid (Cumming) has set up a programme for the majority of the guys. I've started doing conditioning every Friday. He's a killer."
Iti, who was born in Australia to a Kiwi mother and Nigerian father, has experienced more twists and turns than a Disneyland roller coaster in his basketball career to date.
At the age of 15, he shifted from Sydney to the United States to attend high school, but predominantly to further his basketball.
In just three years, he criss-crossed across America, attending six high schools in a bid to fine-tune his game and try to become the best player he could be.
His last stop was basketball powerhouse Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina – a school that has produced NBA stars Tracy McGrady and Amar'e Stoudemire.
In his senior year at Mount Zion, Iti was touted as one of the hottest prospects in America – with ESPN naming him the top centre and No 8 recruit in the country.
Iti said scouts were enamoured by his size and believes he may have been talked up too much at such a young age.
"I was right there behind LeBron (James), ranking wise. I was surprised when they ranked me that high. Back then, there was a lot of hype.
"I was doing pretty good at high school. I was carving up and enjoying it. A lot of guys and coaches saw me as tall and I could get around the floor."
After completing high school, Iti fielded calls from America's most prestigious colleges, including Duke, North Carolina, Cincinnati, The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and The University of Southern California (USC) to name but a few.
In the end, his guardian Courtney Rosegreen opted for UNC Charlotte, which was far from Iti's preferred destination.
"Every school you could think of was after me. My guardian liked them. I was disappointed. I didn't want to go that route. It is what it is. I wanted to go to the bigger schools and stay in Cali.
"He had other thoughts and I ended up going to the other side of the country."
After Iti's freshman year at college in 2003-04, where he averaged six points and six rebounds a game, the bright lights of the NBA began to dawn.
He contemplated putting his name in the NBA draft and received offers to work out for Miami Heat, the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors.
On the advice of Rosegreen, he decided to stay in college and withdrew his name from the draft.
Iti spent another year at UNC Charlotte before transferring to New Mexico State, where he had the chance to work with esteemed coach Reggie Theus, who is now an assistant coach with the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves.
After his senior year at New Mexico State, Iti chucked his name in the NBA draft, but was never confident of being picked up.
"When I was about to graduate, I put my name in, just for the hell of it. I knew it was pretty much a no-go.
"At the end of the day, I wish I did trial for a couple of teams (in 2004). I might have got picked up in the second round ... It is what it is."
Iti put that disappointment behind him playing professionally in the Dutch Eredivisie with the Rotterdam Challengers before linking up with the Sharks this year.
These days, his goals are radically different to what they once were.
Iti is eligible for the Tall Blacks through his mother and his New Zealand citizenship, and said wearing the black singlet in the coming years was one of his major ambitions.
"That would be nice. (Sharks coach) Rich (Dickel) brought that to my attention before I even got here. I want to try and get to that stage."
Iti also confessed he would love to play in the Australian NBL with the New Zealand Breakers or another side from across the ditch.
His immediate focus is just to enjoy his basketball again and make his presence felt for the Sharks next season.
"Rich wants me to be comfortable scoring. I'm pretty sure I'm capable of it. I need to gain more confidence with it.
"At the end of the day, I want to do whatever it takes to win.
If I can help my team win, whatever it takes, five blocks and no points, then so be it."
- © Fairfax NZ News