UK Men's Basketball

Wynyard brings a Polynesian flavor to Kentucky

Tai Wynyard’s ancestors came from east Polynesia to New Zealand sometime in the late 13th century. They became the indigenous people of New Zealand known as the Maori, a word that means normal or natural (as opposed to deities or spirits).

In relative isolation, the Maori developed their own language, mythology, crafts and performing arts.

Wynyard and his siblings carry their Maori heritage in their names. In the language spoken by the Maori, “Tai” means tide, as in ocean tide. His brother’s name, Tautoko (pronounced Toe-two-coo), means support. His sister’s name, Moananui (Mah-won-a-new-eee), means big ocean.

“It’s like supporting the tide,” Wynyard said. “The tide supports the big ocean.

“Pretty cool.”

According to a 2013 census, the Maori numbered 598,605 in New Zealand. About 150,000 more live elsewhere in the world.

Wynyard is unaware of a famous athlete among the Maori people. A Google search offered one basketball player: Brendon Te Mauri Cathie-Pongia, a 6-foot-2 guard who played 15 seasons in the New Zealand professional league before retiring in 2009. He also was a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Speaking of dancing, Wynyard has an uncle who became well known for the haka, a dance originally performed by Maori warriors before battle. The foot stomping, bulging eyes and rhythmic shouts were intended to intimidate, but the dance has evolved to become part of welcoming ceremonies and a way to recognize great achievement.

For the last 30 years or so, New Zealand teams have been known to dance the haka before international competitions. “I led my three-on-three basketball team in the haka,” Wynyard said. He also was part of a haka performance before a game against a Team USA.

Of course, Wynyard was a late addition to Kentucky’s team last season. He arrived in mid-December. Ultimately, it was decided he would be a redshirt.

“It was tough just jumping straight into it,” Wynyard said. “But at the same time, it was really good to redshirt. . . . It gave me a jump on everything now. Like I already know how it works and kind of how Coach Cal works over here.”

UK Coach John Calipari mentioned this greater awareness in assessing Wynyard this preseason.

“Knowing what’s expected,” Calipari said was the big difference. “I still think he’s a little behind physically (and in) conditioning. Until you break that, it’s really hard to break through because you’re behind the action, which means you’re late to balls. Which means your shots get blocked. Being in great condition. That’s what Isaac (Humphries) has done, and what Tai needs to do.

Listed at 6-10, Wynyard was immediately seen last season as the possible answer to Kentucky’s aching need for an inside presence.

“I really, really wanted to step in and everything like that,” he said. “But at the same time, I knew that I needed to work on my conditioning and things like that so I could stay on the court.

“So I was ready in my mind, but physically I wasn’t ready.”

Wynyard remembered being able to bang with UK’s “bigs” in practice. “But I couldn’t do it for long . . . ,” he said. “When I first started, I couldn’t run up and down the court. It was crazy.”

The adventure that took Wynyard from New Zealand to Kentucky presented a basketball culture shock.

“Back home in New Zealand, things are done a little bit differently,” he said. “People aren’t as athletic there as they are over here.”

Wynyard described basketball in New Zealand as “a physical game,” while “a running game or a sprinting game” is the style preferred in the United States.

“They really, really love the transition game and pushing the ball up the court and getting it up as fast as you can,” Wynyard said of basketball in America. “But if you can’t do that for a long time, then what’s the point of you being on the court?”

His personal goals this season revolve around completing the transition to the transition game.

“Be able to push myself to my limits and be able to stay on the court and get on the court,” he said. “That’s obviously one of my main goals.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

About this series

This is the last in a series of 14 stories about Kentucky’s 2016-17 men’s basketball players. If you missed any, you can go to KentuckySports.com and read them all.

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