Press “pause” on rugby, and for a moment switch-off football – whether American, Australian or European. Wrap your head, and arms, around the fact that one of the top basketball prospects in the United States, ergo the world, is a 17-year-old phenom with roots in the South Pacific.
A year ago Rob Dillingham was recruited by Kanye West via text to a basketball prep school the celebrity rapper was starting in California.
Next year he is set to attend the sport’s powerhouse University of Kentucky, with scouting agencies projecting him as a top-five selection in the 2024 NBA Draft.
His father, Donald, recently noted the teenager is “sitting on millions.”
Valaaulia Tailele, who left American Samoa as an adolescent to assist older sisters living on the mainland in California and North Carolina, stressed she sees her son’s position somewhat different.
“It’s not about money,” she said last week during the Rob Dillingham Basketball Camp for which the prolific scorer returned to the small-town gym where he had his start to inspire and coach teenagers who, outside of natural talent, are much like he was several years ago.
“It’s about my son in the future,” Tailele said. “That he’s gonna become a better person. And, I want him to be able to not depend on nobody. You know, make something of himself and help the community. My main thing, I want him to be able to give back. Like here.”
Dillingham gave back to 120 boys and girls and their parents during an all-day camp at the Ridgeview Recreation Center, where his father first led him onto the basketball court at age four.
With corporate sponsorship that is growing along with his fanbase, the teen arranged drills in shooting, ball-handling, finishing at the rim and defensive sliding – and presented each participant with a souvenir autographed T-shirt.
The rising high school senior, who visited American Samoa with his mother at age five, said “to give back” includes strengthening ties with the Pacific and inspiring others to “put in the work” to excel at whatever they dream.
What advice does he have for young people in the Pacific as well as the Americas?
“I would say to the youth not to be so involved with social media and, like, following the crowd and wanting to ‘be like Mike,’” said Dillingham. “Put in the work and success comes with it, and it’s your choice to boost it. But, it’s going to come always as long as you do the work.”
Dillingham’s father saw enthusiasm, hard work and results – along with natural talent, early on from the basketball player.
“When he was four or five years old, he would come back and tell me that he played basketball and how he dominated kids, and I thought he was telling a lie,” the father said with a chuckle. “And one day I just sat down and watched him, and I just knew he was something special.”
“Denzel was the first son I worked with, said the father, who was an average scholastic basketball player.” I had to work with Denzel all the way up (to college, where the now 29-year-old was the 2013 Player of the Year of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in the second-tier, or Division II, of the NCAA). But when Robert got to be eight or nine, I had to take me hands off him because he got beyond my abilities.
“He has God-given talent,” said Donald Dillingham. “A lot of talent comes from his mother, but a lot of talent comes from me. He was just like a natural, it was a natural thing. It’s easy for him, and that’s the way it’s always been.”
Of Dillingham, his mother said, “When he touched a ball for the first time, he was two years old. So, that’s when I seen, you know, how good he was. We took him to the YMCA, he started there. He was, I’m not saying better, but he was more…”
Tailele broke-off the sentence and described her son getting a defensive rebound and attempting to start a fastbreak to his team’s basket.
“When it came out, he would throw the ball so hard it would hit somebody in the head and they would start crying.”
She added, “Some guy coaching asked, ‘Where did he learn stuff like that (leading a fastbreak)?’ He learned it on his own. But, of course his dad and his brother helped him as he got older.”
Tailele has not been to American Samoa in nearly a decade. Nor have any of her children. However, that stands to change.
“The last time I was home was eight years ago,” she said. “Hopefully, someday when I get some money I will go back. Hopefully soon.”
Asked what she misses about her home on Ofu, one of the Manu’a Islands situated 110 kilometres east of Tutuila, the main island of what is an unincorporated territory of the United States, her first word was “bananas.”
“We used to cook them with coconut milk,” she said. “And I liked fish, too. Fried fish, I love – that’s the main food we eat. Another of my favorites is sticky rice with coconut. And we eat a lot of fish raw, like sushi fish.”
Tailele continued describing life as she remembers it back home, “We had taro, cassava, breadfruit, coconuts, onions, a lemon tree. You know, everything is there. You don’t even have to go to a store for nothing. I really miss the food, and then I miss the family, having your own house, land, you don’t have to pay for nothing.
“You have everything, even though it wasn’t like money,” she added. “You have your own. To me that’s the richest thing. Having your own things, growing your own food. And on your own land. And then fish the ocean every day. So, there was nothing lacking.”
Tailele recalled going to Sunday school and church, with her parents seated in back pews watching their children during the main service. “If they see you talking, after church you would be punished,” she said.
She credited the island’s London Missionary Church with providing strength to her growing up, and to her family.
On the track team in high school Tailele ran the 100 meters dash and hurdles, “and was really good. I had all kinds of trophies,” she said.
“I was nominated to go to New Caledonia to train, but did not want to leave my family.”
Tailele said after high school she studied to be a nurse, “and my parents put up a lot of money,” but she was unable to finish as the family’s financial situation led to her going back home.
Despite everything being readily at hand, island life involved hard work gathering food and firewood and cooking, she said, and eventually her family persuaded Tailele to follow other siblings to the mainland.
First she stayed with a sister in California, and then, with her own daughter, moved in to assist a sibling who was pregnant in North Carolina.
After the birth of the niece, she said, “We decided to stay.”
“When I came here, it was hard for me,” she said. “I was a single parent, and I’m still a single parent. I have the same job that I had when I first came here at age 25.
“We struggled every day,” she added. “I mean going through that stuff, trying to figure out what to eat day to day. It came to the point we lived with Rob’s grandma. Growing up, his dad was there. We bought a house, and lost it. We were never married.”
Speaking of Dillingham’s current success, and that of his oldest brother in the Navy, older brother working as a municipal recreation programmer and sister married with three children, Tailele said, “To me, it’s like a blessing.
“As a minority coming here, it was hard, she said. “I remember Rob would always say, ‘Mama, it’s going to be okay.’ I remember there were times we had no lights, and they would go and try to mow lawns to make money.”
She credited her upbringing in American Samoa with giving the family strength during hard times and in dealing with being different from most people on the mainland.
“It came from my parents, because we were raised on an island where everything was there, but you had to work hard,” said Tailele. “The land, the ocean, the fish. That’s how we grew up.
“So I came here, and I tell my kids, ‘You know how they look at you. You are a minority. If you have something, you got to run with it. You know you gotta make something good.’
“I believe the struggle they went through as far as family, like the times you don’t know where to get your next meal, made my kids who they are today,” said Tailele.