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Shaun Holkko

Sac State senior guard Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa dribbles at practice on Thursday, Dec. 5 at the Nest. Mauriohooho-Le’afa was a finalist for the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year award in the 2018-19 season.

Sac State senior guard recalls journey from NBL to NCAA

Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa played professionally for free in New Zealand to stay eligible

December 14, 2019

Growing up in New Zealand, Sacramento State senior guard Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa (pronounced Mo-dee-oh-ho-ho Lee-ah-fuh) always had a love for basketball.

“It’s in my blood, I was born and raised in a basketball family,” Mauriohooho-Le’afa said.

Imagine playing for two basketball teams as a high schooler. Going to practice for your school team at either 6 a.m or after school. Then going straight to practice for a National Basketball League (NBL) team. That’s what Mauriohooho-Le’afa did for three years. 

Mauriohooho-Le’afa played for St. Patrick’s College, a secondary school in Wellington, New Zealand for five years and averaged over 20 points per game during his last two years. Mauriohooho-Le’afa was named the school’s Sportsman of the Year and team MVP for his last two seasons and led Saint Patrick’s to a league championship in 2013. 

Mauriohooho-Le’afa spent four years playing professionally for the Wellington Saints NBL team but accepted no compensation to maintain his collegiate eligibility. Mauriohooho-Le’afa and the Saints won an NBL championship in 2014.

Rugby is a very popular sport in New Zealand that Mauriohooho-Le’afa played until he made a decision to focus on basketball full time.

RELATED: Sac State men’s rugby club aims to become official varsity team

“I definitely do like football now,” Mauriohooho-Le’afa said, comparing it to rugby. “Over the years I’ve grown to understand the roles (in football) and more players as we go on.”  

In New Zealand, basketball isn’t as popular as rugby. However, Mauriohooho-Le’afa said since Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams, who is from New Zealand, made it to the NBA, basketball has been the biggest growing sport in New Zealand and gotten more popular with many camps opening and youth players across the country trying to earn a scholarship for basketball.  

In his young career, Mauriohooho-Le’afa has gained a lot of experience, including being selected for New Zealand’s national team in 2013 at 16-years-old, the youngest on the team. In 2015, he was selected to play for the New Zealand national team the Tall Blacks’ Olympic qualifying team and was the captain for the U-19 Junior Tall Blacks national team which represented New Zealand in a 3-on-3 tournament at the 2014 Summer Youth Olympic Games. 

Shaun Holkko
Sac State senior guard Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa displays his tattoo on the back of his right calf at practice on Thursday, Dec. 5 at the Nest. Mauriohooho-Le’afa said the tattoo represents his family and culture back home in New Zealand.

Mauriohooho-Le’afa attributes his success, inspiration and opportunity to his parents, who were both professional basketball players that won multiple championships and exposed him to a professional environment. Mauriohooho-Le’afa’s father, George Le’afa, coached his son for eight years during both high school and NBL play.

“That’s always going to be a tough situation to be put in,” Mauriohooho-Le’afa said about being the coach’s son. “I had to keep working hard, he’ll get on me for everything and anything. But it was all about the team first and when we play I’ll just be another player to him. But off the court, he’ll be my father again.”

Mauriohooho-Le’afa described being able to practice and play in the open court scrimmaging with and against his father as a “luxury,” noting that some players never get that opportunity. 

“My favorite thing was being able to play basketball with my dad, I just see everything he’ll be doing and then I’ll translate it to my game,” Mauriohooho-Le’afa said. “He was a point guard so it was everything I was trying to be and I just wanted to exceed expectations. Just seeing the feelings they would get when they won championships, I just wanted to have that same emotion and feel the same things that they were feeling.”

George Le’afa said Mauriohooho-Le’afa’s love for the sport started with him taking 5-year-old Mauriohooho-Le’afa to his training sessions. When Mauriohooho-Le’afa would be out late with his dad practicing, sometimes his mom would make him come home and Mauriohooho-Le’afa would cry the whole time because he couldn’t wait to play basketball. 

“Ever since he picked up that ball, it has never stopped,” George Le’afa said. 

It wasn’t an easy journey for Mauriohooho-Le’afa or his family for him to go from New Zealand to Sacramento to play basketball, but Mauriohooho-Le’afa knew it was time to pursue a college career.                                                      

“Sacramento, they say it’s a city of trees when I got here, it was just normal because there is a lot of green back home,” Mauriohooho-Le’afa said. “I was definitely a little hesitant, nervous and scared in my mind at the same time. I didn’t know what to expect, I was a kid coming to another country. But everyone in the locker room was like family, I could just feel the brotherhood.”

Mauriohooho-Le’afa said he has grown a lot as a man since moving to the states by having to provide for himself. It was tough on his parents letting their only child play thousands of miles away from home, and Mauriohooho-Le’afa himself was homesick at first transitioning to a new culture in the U.S. but Sacramento felt like another home eventually as he built a bond with his teammates.

RELATED: Sac State’s high-flying center stays grounded with long walks

Head coach Brian Katz said he was able to discover Mauriohooho-Le’afa through YouTube highlights. 

Mauriohooho-Le’afa said his first workout at Sac State was “terrible.” He reflected that It could have been from being on a 13-hour flight and going straight to a workout, but at the time that wasn’t an excuse he was going to use, especially flying out with his mom all the way to Sacramento for the visit.

Shaun Holkko
Sac State senior guard Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa attempts to make a bounce pass against UC Davis senior guard Stefan Gonzalez on Wednesday, Nov. 20 at Golden 1 Center. Mauriohooho-Le’afa is currently averaging 9.9 points and three rebounds per game in the 2019-20 season.

Katz, in his 12th season at Sac State, recalled what happened at the workout.

“We almost didn’t take him, it was a horrible workout,” Katz said. “I sat with his mom and said ‘I know we haven’t offered yet and we flew you out here, but I’m not too sure we’re going to offer you.’ I looked at those five tapes again and slept on it and the next day went with my gut and decided that it was just a bad workout.”

Senior forward Chibueze Jacobs has been teammates with Mauriohooho-Le’afa since his arrival to the states and has witnessed his growth as a player.

Jacobs said Mauriohooho-Le’afa was a “quiet dude” and very humble when they first met, but as Mauriohooho-Le’afa got to know the team more, he became very talkative and treated his teammates like family.

Jacobs added that Mauriohooho-Le’afa’s game has grown with him becoming more aggressive on the offensive end, but that he has always been a great defender. 

George Le’afa said he is proud that his son’s basketball IQ has grown with his toughness and that Mauriohooho-Le’afa has way more poise then he had as a player.

Over four years, Mauriohooho-Le’afa has been a diverse player. He is able to shoot 3-pointers at 37%, being a playmaker with a total of 252 assists so far in his career and a top-notch defender, being a finalist last season for the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year award. 

Mauriohooho-Le’afa said his dream goal is to play in the NBA, but his overall goal is just to play professional basketball somewhere following his final season at Sac State.

Photo of Garry Singh
Garry Singh, staff writer
Gurneet (Garry) Singh joined The State Hornet spring 2019 and is now a multimedia staffer, sports beat writer and podcaster. Garry is from Sacramento and is majoring in business and minoring in journalism. He is also station manager at KSSU, the CSUS student-run radio station, where he has his own weekly radio show. Garry received fifth place “Best of Show” award at ACP/CMA 2020 Fall National College Journalism Convention for broadcast news story.

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