Tai Webster dreamt of following in his father’s footsteps.
Tony Webster was Hawaii’s Art Woolaway Most Outstanding Player and an All-Western Athletic Conference first teamer for the 1982-83 season. He set the UH single-game steals record of nine (since broken this season by point guard Roderick Bobbitt). For his UH career, Tony Webster was fourth in steals (143), accomplished over two seasons — 1980-81 and 1982-83.
After his UH career, Tony played professionally in New Zealand, where his son was born and raised.
Decades later Tai, a sophomore guard at Nebraska, takes on his father’s alma mater in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.
“I never actually got to see any (footage of my dad’s UH) games, but … he had hundreds of different newspaper clippings and things like that,” Tai Webster said. “So I would always read those. I had them all up on my wall and everything growing up (in Auckland). Growing up, I wanted to come here so bad. This was my dream place to come growing up. I always wanted to come to Hawaii, but it just didn’t work out for me, and I ended up coming to Nebraska.”
As a freshman, Webster put up 3.9 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. He was a key playmaker, if not a big-time scorer, during Big Ten play, starting every conference game and helping the Cornhuskers to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.
This season, the 6-foot-4 guard has been mostly coming off the bench for 6-3 Nebraska (three starts, six reserve appearances). But his scoring is up to 6.6 points per game.
His father still has some family in Hawaii, Tai said. Now that he’s been here for a few days, Tai understands the appeal.
“A little bit (of a connection here),” he said. “I feel a little bit at home, it’s quite like New Zealand. It’s an island, just like where I’m from. It’s a good vibe. I like it.
“Definitely I talked to my dad, he just said ‘you know, don’t get too into all the sand and stuff.’ He told me what it’s like. He said it’s beautiful out here, and it’s everything he said it was.”
Tai was looking forward to a head-to-head matchup with his countryman, ex-UH forward Isaac Fotu. Fotu departed Manoa for the pros in the preseason after being deemed indefinitely ineligible by UH in advance of the NCAA’s release of findings of its investigation into UH.
“I grew up playing with Isaac,” Webster said. “He’s one of my better friends. It’s a shame we didn’t get to (play). … we were talking about it for a long time, you know, we knew we were (meeting up) here for a while. Going back and forth at each other … good banter. It’s a shame what happened to him.”
Like Fotu, Webster (and his older brother, Corey) has experience with New Zealand’s national team, the Tall Blacks. Tai was brought on board when he was just 17 for the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament, and became the youngest player ever to play for the Tall Blacks in a major world event. He held his own, too, scoring 13.5 per game and shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
At this point, it’s clear Webster would have been quite a get for the Rainbow Warriors.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles expects Webster to play well in the middle of the Pacific.
“I told Tai, ‘no matter what if it’s an island, you’re going to play great,’ ” Miles said.
Tai’s father also had some words of advice for his progeny.
“He told me not to embarrass him, you know?” Tai said with a smile. “Don’t embarrass the name.”