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(Kim Raff | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ta'a Tuinei takes a break from running drills to change her son Tereinga Tuinei's diaper while at practice at Skyline High School in Salt Lake City, Utah on February 9, 2012.
Skyline teen mom athlete plays for her infant son
Prep sports » Skyline’s Ta’a Tuinei balances basketball and motherhood.
First Published Feb 24 2012 07:19 am • Last Updated May 24 2012 11:39 pm

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.

At a glance

Skyline’s season ends

Skyline’s quest to get to the girls 4A basketball championship game ended Friday with a 55-49 semifinal loss to Timpanogos at Salt Lake Community College. Miquelle Askew led Timpanogos with 29 points and 13 rebounds. Skyline’s Ta’a Tuinei, who scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to help lead the Eagles past Maple Mountain to get the semifinals, was held to 2 points and 5 rebounds by the Timberwolves.

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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.

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.

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"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.

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