Rise issue 10 cover

Hoop dreams

William Wallace Award winner Philip Baldwin practises for the glory ahead.

Philip Baldwin is in the middle of hurtling full speed downhill on Rotorua’s (in)famous luge ride, but he still manages to get to the phone and answer our call. It's a surprising – yet surprisingly apt – introduction to the up-and-coming basketball star.

A sportsman through and through, as well as a talented artist and a musician who learnt to play the guitar by ear, 17-year-old Philip was a winner at this year's William Wallace Awards.

These prestigious Awards are given out annually by Child, Youth and Family to outstanding young people in care. The awards provide scholarships to help them pursue tertiary, vocational or leadership goals.

This year, 13 young people travelled from all around the country to attend the ceremony at Parliament where they were presented their awards by the Minister for Social Development and Employment, Paula Bennett. Rugby League legend Stacey Jones was there to congratulate the young people, along with Mike Chunn, former member of iconic Kiwi band Split Enz.

Winning the award - an amazing experience

As part of the Emerging Junior Tall Blacks, Philip must surely be no stranger to such accolades. “Actually – this was the first time I've ever won an award like this; it was a big buzz,” he says. “Just getting the letter saying that I had won was an awesome highlight.”

Julie Nicholas, who Philip refers to as ‘mum’ and who has been his foster carer since he was 10 years old, says the experience was “amazing”. “Paula Bennett mentioned his name during her speech, and you should have seen his face. I said to him it was quite an honour; it was so cool.”

“I was so proud of him that day that I could have popped,” she laughs.

Learning the meaning of unconditional love

It was a significant milestone on their journey together, which began when Julie became Philip's teacher aide while he was still at primary school. “We immediately hit it off,” says Julie. Philip, who was already in foster care, was brave enough to ask Julie if he could come and live with her. Unbeknownst to him, Julie and her husband Paul had already applied to become his foster parents.

The first years were not easy, and Julie says he was “just an angry, scared boy”, but she was determined not to give up on him. “No matter how bad things get, kids need to know that you’re always going to be there for them. Personally, that’s what I think fostering is all about.”

“What has happened to these kids in the past is not their fault, but it affects their behaviour, and it's not an overnight fix. They'll be dealing with it for years and even the rest of their lives. That’s why I wanted a long-term, permanent home for Philip. I really do believe that foster parents can make a difference.”

Their special bond is summed up in a small but moving story. Julie remembers Philip asking her one day, “Even though I'm so naughty, why don't you send me away?”, and she replied, “It’s called unconditional love, Philip.”

“Then a week later, he was being really naughty and I was telling him off, and he turned around to me and said, ‘But it's unconditional love, mum!’. I couldn't help but laugh.”

Being discovered

His gift for basketball was discovered by fluke only three years ago when he was 13. He went along to a mate's practice. They were short of players, so Philip was asked to give it a go. He didn't even know the rules, but the coach immediately spotted his talent. This was soon affirmed by a talent scout who said that Philip had the skills and potential to get a scholarship and play NBA basketball in America.

While most boys dream of NBA stardom, this is a real possibility for Philip, who has been accepted into the Emerging Junior Tall Blacks. He also represented New Zealand in the Pacific Grand Slam, a competition between our country and states all over Australia. Philip was in the team when New Zealand won for the first time ever.

His long-term dream is to play for the New Orleans Hornets or Orlando Magic. Yet he says the best thing about basketball is not the sporting glory, but “the travelling and socialising with really good people”.

A family's support

Philip will be backed all the way by his foster family, who have already spent tireless hours fundraising and supporting his talent. They are also in the process of getting permanent care of Philip and his four-year-old sister, so that they will always have a place to call home.

Today, Philip – who stands at six foot two – is not only tall in stature, but also in mana. He is described as “a natural leader”, he's a mentor to troubled teens, has spoken to other young people about turning his life around, and is a coach at his old primary school. “He's a gentle giant and he’s got a very caring nature,” says Julie. “He's just an awesome kid and I'm really proud of him.”