There was a time when Ta’a Tuinei didn’t think she would be here, standing on a basketball floor with fans cheering her.
She’s anxious - tears are already welling in her eyes. The announcer calls Ta’a’s name, and the 17-year-old senior walks to the middle of the basketball court at Skyline High and smiles as her sister hangs a yellow lei around her neck.
It’s Senior Night, and Ta’a is one of the honorees. Her teammates have gifts for her: a quilt, an autographed portrait, warm embraces.
Her mother, Paloma Tuinei, comes to meet her, cradling a 4-month-old baby. His name is Tereinga. He is Ta’a’s son.
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She takes the boy from her mother, holding him as the announcer reads why her teammates love her: She is a leader.
She always hustles. She’s the perfect person to laugh or cry with.
Tears come now for Ta’a, rolling down her cheeks as her son quietly watches in her arms. She hugs her mother, then her coach, her sister, her teammates. She closes her eyes as she grips them.
Tereinga shares each moment. He’s not old enough to understand what it means.
Last summer, Ta’a’s life took a turn when she learned she was pregnant and had a whole lot of growing up to do. She thought her days of being a teenager - of caring only about school, cute boys and basketball - were over.
“I knew a lot of things were going to have to change,” she says. “I knew everything would get switched around, and I thought basketball was going to be one of the things I would have to give up.”
Ta’a has made sacrifices, but so have many others around her. Life is different, but not necessarily in the ways she thought it would be. She still plays basketball, hoping that every game - even every point - brings her closer to a better future.
Now she plays for her boy.
The “little king”
Tereinga is a quiet baby, with seemingly perpetual curiosity that lights up his chestnut eyes. He’s already sleeping through the night - a blessing to his bleary-eyed family.
For Ta’a and Tereinga, home is a crowded but cozy upstairs condo in Cottonwood Heights. Ta’a moved in from her father’s house after she had the baby, and she’s squeezed in with her six siblings and Paloma, a firm but loving 43-year-old Fed Ex driver who immigrated from the Cook Islands.
Her bed is a cream-colored couch in the living room, next to Tereinga’s wooden crib, still with a brand-new polished sheen. Paloma insisted there would be no hand-me-downs for her first grandson.
In the few months since Tereinga’s arrival, he’s quickly asserted himself as the center of his family’s little world. The crib itself is in center of the apartment, its beating heart, and everyone has learned to set their rhythms to the whim of the infant boy.
“He’s the little king,” says Nicki Tuinei, Ta’a’s 14-year-old sister.
Ta’a doesn’t like to talk about the baby’s father, whom she declined to identify. She acknowledges he comes to visit his son occasionally, but adds her relationship with him is tenuous.
Most nights, Ta’a stays home. She used to go out often.
That all changed with Tereinga’s arrival, but she insists she doesn’t miss it, even passing up chances to get out of the house to stay with her child.
“It’s good to see her know she has one priority now, and that’s him,” Paloma says. “She’s matured a lot.”
She is finally back on a full-time school schedule after a stint in the Young Parent Program in West Valley City.
Between school and her motherly responsibilities, she squeezes in basketball. She’s one of Skyline’s top players, a lanky 5-foot-10 athlete with speed and hustle.
She’s not the tallest player on the court - that’s usually her 6-3 teammate Miquelle Askew - but she always seems to be the first to a rebound.
She’s not the fastest, but she’s always the first to dive out of bounds for a loose ball or first to the basket on a fast break.
Ta’a loves basketball. The demands of motherhood wear her out, but she comes alive on the court.
She’s passionate about the game; a loss can darken her day, but a win can bring her to a place where life seems easier and less weighty.
Only a few months ago, she was preparing to give it up.
Reality sits in
Last spring, things happened that Ta’a explained away. She figured spells of fatigue were tied to a bout with pneumonia.
A little offseason weight gain didn’t initially concern her. It wasn’t until she was getting ready for bed one June evening that she felt something she couldn’t rationalize: a kick. Inside her.
“I never even took a test,” she says. “At first I thought I was just twitching or something, but then it was hard enough that I knew it wasn’t just my stomach growling.”
For nine days, she told no one.
During that time, she joined Skyline at a team basketball camp in St. George, and she played a lot. Despite her efforts, her teammates became suspicious of Ta’a’s fatigue and changing body.
“It was a really rigorous tournament,” coach Deb Bennett says. “By the end of it, I think the whole team was starting to guess.”
She was pregnant.
Even after the camp, Ta’a was slow to spread the news, though she eventually told her stepsisters, then her father and stepmother, with whom she lived at the time.
Paloma was the last to know, and the revelation temporarily shattered her image of her daughter. She always envisioned Ta’a as a college student, perhaps even scholarship student, given her basketball skills.
“To me, she could do no wrong,” Paloma says. “She was the one who was going to make it all the way.”
Paloma swallowed her disappointment and immediately began taking care of things Ta’a had neglected until then, such as an ultrasound, prenatal vitamins, slowing down her schedule and showing her how to be a mom.
“My biggest supporter is my mom,” Ta’a says. “No matter what, I always try to make her proud.”
Deb Bennett has been coaching for 32 years. She’s won two state championships at Skyline and coached hundreds of players.
Never once has one of her players gotten pregnant.
Bennett empathized with Ta’a personally, but as a coach, she couldn’t help but be disappointed by losing one of her best players heading into a season with title aspirations. She prepared for basketball without Ta’a.
But in July, as Ta’a was caught in the whirlwind of impending motherhood, Paloma called Bennett.
She wanted to meet with the coach. Bennett agreed to meet, ready for disappointment. But to her surprise, Bennett found herself discussing with Paloma how her daughter could rejoin the team.
“She said she wanted to play basketball, but she knew it would be tough,” Bennett says. “We said we’d help her. I think the whole team was elated by that.”
Paloma was a dancer before setting aside her dreams for her children.
She was determined that wouldn’t happen to her daughter. In fact, she felt even more strongly about it after Tereinga entered their lives. If her daughter couldn’t go to college, what future remained for her grandson?
“I’ve always told her life is never easy - that you work and work at it, but it’s always hard,” Paloma says. “She’s a great athlete, and I know this is a way for her to get to college. She can use that to better her life. And your son is the reason you need to go on. He’s the one you need to do this for.
“It took her a while to believe that,” she adds.
Taking care of Tereinga is a family operation when Ta’a is away. Her brother Tama Tuinei watches him when Ta’a is at school. Her sisters take over when they get home from school, caring for Tereinga when Ta’a is at practice. If Skyline plays a game, Paloma picks him up after she gets off work, and the two go to see his mother play.
Back in the game
Ta’a’s wanting to resume playing basketball was one thing. Getting into basketball shape less than a month after giving birth was another. It was grueling, Ta’a says. The conditioning was hell, and despite getting medical approval before the season-opener against American Fork, she wasn’t prepared to play.
She scored 2 points in a game she remembers as “exhausting.”
Ta’a estimates it took her a month before she was in game shape. It’s telling that in the first month of the season, Skyline went 2-5. In the games since, the Eagles went 13-1 to finish the regular season, and won their first two Class 4A state tournament games. Ta’a is the top rebounder and one of the top scorers on the team, averaging 8 points and 8 rebounds a game. But there’s more to it than that.
“She’s a lot more mature now,” Bennett says of her captain. “We have 13 freshmen in our program, and she’s a good leader for all of them.”
“You could almost call it ‘motherly.’ “
In turn, Tereinga has a host of new “aunts” who coo at his every action. Two dozen teenage girls have adopted him in spirit; his visits are highly anticipated.
“He loves the attention,” Paloma says, passing the baby around at a game. “He hates to be ignored.”
Tereinga doesn’t seem to mind the buzzers, the pep band, the screams and cheers. He’s at home at a basketball game. And everywhere Tereinga goes, giggles and smiles seem to follow.
“He’s the team mascot,” Ta’a says. “When I have to go home, they’re always sending the baby their love.”
Though Ta’a has developed a routine that works for on and off the court, money is tight, as is living space in the apartment.
School also has been tumultuous. Since returning to Skyline full time, she is on track to graduate, but there’s little margin for slacking on academics. Her mother makes sure she doesn’t.
Ta’a still hopes for a scholarship offer - Portland State and Sacramento State have shown interest.
But there are days when she feels overwhelmed by her responsibilities and by the judgments of others. Ta’a thinks the stigma of “teenage mother” follows her a lot of places. Her friends are understanding and protective, but they can’t always relate to her responsibilities waiting at home.
Occasionally, she’ll get worked up to the point of tears. Her Skyline teammates are the first to comfort her.
“My teammates tell me that I’m one of the strongest girls they know,” she says.
And then there are those times when the game itself is too much. Basketball, like her life, is filled with daunting challenges.
Once in a while, she still just needs to cry in her mother’s arms.
But inevitably, Ta’a looks to her son in the stands.
She stands a bit straighter. Feels a bit lighter. She remembers why she has to be strong, to keep playing.
“I look at this as my biggest season,” she says. “People might judge me, people might doubt me. But this is the only year I know my son can watch me play.”