BY MEGAN SHEEHAN
PHOTOS BY ALICE G. PATTERSON
If you have not yet heard the name Tiana Mangakahia, get ready.
Said to be the top basketball player (player period, between both men and women) at Syracuse University, Tiana is a woman with goals, records, and success on her mind and in her future. Tiana will no doubt be in the WNBA before you know it.
But it wasn’t such an easy start. Hailing from Australia, Tiana went right into professional basketball after high school.
“I decided to play one year professionally in Australia,” she said. “After that year I was going to go play again for another team but Hutchinson Community College in Kansas offered me a full ride to go there.”
Playing professionally, however meant Tiana was no long considered amateur and wasn’t actually allowed to physically play or the school would end up with some hefty violations. Tiana stayed with the school and was able to practice with the girls. By the time sophomore year arrived, she finally got some court time. Tiana was not able to play in actual games, but she was able to participate in scrimmages.
This is when she would be seen and get her shot at a Division I school. Tiana received offers from Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Virginia Tech, University of Southern California, University of Massachusetts, and of course, Syracuse University.
“I felt like the [basketball] program was a better program than the others,” Tiana said. “Growing up when I’d watch basketball on TV I always saw Syracuse so I decided to come here.”
The question remained, however: Would Tiana get to play?
SU Women’s Basketball Coach Quentin Hillsman broke the news in August of 2017: The NCAA ruled Tiana three years eligible.
“I had to pay back the money to my team that I played for, I had to write in letters, get receipts, appeals — it was a lot of work.,” Tiana said. “But it was definitely worth it.”
Tiana could finally play alongside her team in games.
And she flourished. Tiana is a four-time ACC Player Of The Week, she’s broken the ACC Tournament record for assists, and she is the fastest player in program history to score 1,000 points.
This bird took off. The draft was on the table for Tiana. By April, she had to decide what she was going to do.
“I didn’t like where I was seeded on the mock draft,” she said. “It was second round. It wasn’t where I wanted it to be and I figured having another year at Syracuse would help me get it to first round, top 5, top 10. That’s the main reason I decided to stay another year.”
It turned out to be the right decision. Tiana graduated from SU and is on her way to getting her master of science degree in sport venue and event management while continuing to play.
The fight of her life
Life, however, has a way of throwing you a curveball when you least expect it, and Tiana was about to find that out.
In May of 2019, Tiana found a lump in her left breast. At first, full panic didn’t set in. She went to the student health center at SU, where she was told the lump might go away on its own. If it didn’t, she was instructed to come back in two weeks.
Instead, the lump grew. Tiana now needed an ultrasound, a mammogram, and then a biopsy. At 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, May 18, Tiana got a call from the doctor. He told her she had stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma. At first, she was stunned. She didn’t understand what the doctor meant.
“I was confused, because I would expect him to just say that I have breast cancer,” she said.
Once the truth sunk in, Tiana started making calls — to her best friend, her parents, and Coach Q. Her parents wanted her to come home to Australia. But Tiana wanted to stay in Syracuse—she could get excellent treatment here, and she felt it would keep her life as normal as possible during treatment.
“Staying here makes me feel more part of the team,” she said. “I feel like if I were to go home or be anywhere else I wouldn’t feel as close to the team as I do now. So it’s been good staying here.”
Being the fighter she is, Tiana was ready for battle straight away. She began treatment on July 5 with her family by her side. Between her parents and five brothers, she’s had family rotating in and out of the States consistently to keep her from facing any of her treatment alone. And Tiana admits that the treatment can be rough.
“I feel tired, and a bit down emotionally for about four days. I get a shot once a month which makes me emotional,” she said. “I don’t like being sad so I try to be not sad. But that shot makes me so mad! I’m laugh crying.”
Despite the weeks of treatment, counseling, hormones, sickness, fatigue, emotional shifts and having to put her passion on hold, Tiana considers herself blessed.
“Everyone is different when it comes to cancer,” she said. “Some go [to treatment] every day. I’m once every two weeks so I’m lucky. I’m blessed. I get a couple days sick and then I’m good. It’s not sick, sick, sick every day.”
A new path
This detour has really given Tiana perspective. It’s given her another goal in life in addition to being a professional ballplayer.
“Now I want to help get the message across more about breast cancer awareness and how it’s really important for people to understand what other people go through,” she said, “not even just for cancer but in everyday life.”
She remembers how upset she was the day she was diagnosed.
“The day I found out, I went to Tops and my cart rolled off,” she said. “It almost hit somebody, and if that person had yelled at me or if that person had said something mean to me, I probably would have just broken down and cried. It makes me think, you just never know what someone is going through.”
That moment and the lack of reaction from the fellow shopper really stuck with Tiana.
“I’d kind of like to get into speaking about what people go through,” she said.
The outlook Tiana possesses is inspiring. She claims she wasn’t fully able to accept her diagnosis or really grasp it at first. Yet she’s living it and already planning on how to help others who may go through a similar journey.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I think there was a reason for this. I know it sucks. I feel like maybe in the future it will help me speak to younger people who go through trials and hard times.”
Tiana believes this experience—which she calls “one of the hardest times ever” in her life—was meant to point her life in a different direction.
“I feel like there’s a different path for me, not just basketball,” she said. “And I never knew what I wanted to do other than basketball. This is definitely something that I can see myself doing, as far as being an advocate.”
That doesn’t mean she’s giving up on basketball. She expects to be back to training with the team in January of 2020. Her most recent ultrasound (as of Sept. 6) shows that her treatment has been successful so far; her doctors plan to keep her on the same plan through mid-October, followed by surgery in November.
When she beats cancer—and she has no doubt that she will—Tiana knows just how she wants to celebrate.
“I want everyone to be there when I ring the bell. I want all of my brothers there,” she said. “That day will be a good day.”
Tiana thanks her team of doctors, Dr. Tucker, Dr. Kirschner, and Dr.Kort, as well as Dr. Partridge of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She’s also grateful to the people in the Syracuse community who have sent her messages of support.
“It makes me think about my decision coming to Syracuse and how amazing it’s been throughout this situation,” Tiana said. “Just thanks to everyone for their support in Syracuse: the community, the school, the program, just everybody. I feel like I couldn’t have asked for more support. Everyone has been there for me.”
She hopes they’ll be there the day she returns to the basketball court. And if she had her pick of opponents?
“UConn,” she said. “I want to play against them so bad. We’re going to be so good. I’m so excited. I can’t wait.”