Sydney, Australia – It was an inconspicuous comeback. A little over a year ago, Lauren Jackson, one of women’s basketball’s greatest players, returned to the suburban courts in Albury, a small provincial town in southeastern Australia, to play social basketball. No crowds, no fuss. Just hoops.
“I was overweight,” Jackson said. “But I can still get up and down the field. I can still shoot the ball. And I was still very competitive.”
Jackson, 41, is a four-time Olympic medalist for the Australian national team (nicknamed the Opal), two-time WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm, a three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player and a three-time Basketball Hall of Fame delegate at the Naismith Memorial. . But she was out of the game for years, having retired in 2016 after injuries, but ended her career in 2014.
She didn’t think of her return to her hometown stadiums as a comeback, but it turns out it was. Jackson, who had a desk job in Australian basketball, completed her impressive return to the competition last month when she was named to the Opals squad for the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Sydney. Australia meets Serbia on Sunday and Canada on Monday.
When Jackson spoke about her comeback in an interview at her team’s hotel, in the Sydney Olympic district, tears formed in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I feel emotional about it,” she said. “Sport means a lot to me, both on and off the field. Even the fact that I’m still working in it – I just want to see it flourish. Until I have this opportunity, this last shot of being a part of something special – this journey may be the most important of my entire life” .
The daughter of national basketball team players, Jackson was a teenage sensation in Australia, entering the Australian Institute of Sports at the age of sixteen and leading his team to a national championship at the age of eighteen. Seven times in the All-Star League.
“Everyone I talked to made it into the top three,” Kobe Bryant said of Jackson in 2012. “And I mean everyone.”
A series of injuries, including chronic problems with her right knee, sidelined Jackson late in her career. Her dream was to retire after the 2016 Olympics, where she hoped to outsmart Opals over their arch rivals from the United States. Australia’s Jackson team lost to the Americans in Olympic gold medal matches in Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008, and in the semi-finals in London in 2012.
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But she was not able to return.
“I tried to put on the suit several times, but I was in so much pain that I couldn’t move,” Jackson recalls. The loss was a harsh end to his two-decade basketball career. “It certainly wasn’t on my terms,” she said.
Jackson returned to Albury, a city of 50,000, and took a position with the Australian basketball team, leading the women’s basketball program. She has two children. She began taking medical marijuana, as part of a clinical trial, to relieve her knee pain.
In time, she was back on court, at the age of 40, at a local facility named in her honor: the Lauren Jackson Athletic Center.
Local players were hit by the stars – and a little scared, even unhappy, to take on the game’s legend. “There were a lot of complaints,” Jackson said. “I was like: ‘I’m a single mom, I have two kids and I have a knee replacement — and you’re complaining? “But it was fun, a lot of fun.”
Jackson discovered that the painkillers she got from cannabis allowed her to return to the gym. “One training course led to another,” she said. Her training partner and best friend since childhood, Sam MacDonald, also happened to be the assistant coach of the Albury Wodonga Bandits, a semi-professional team. He suggested a comeback, and by April of this year, Jackson was competing again.
She scored 21 points in 22 minutes for the bandits in her first competitive game in nine years. “Has the goat come back?” chirp The International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the world governing body for basketball.
With Australia set to host the World Cup finals in September, whispers of the national team’s return quickly spread. Jackson initially shrugged off the idea, but then was invited to a training camp with Opals.
“I remember when I first went to camp, I said to the girls, ‘I don’t expect to go any further than this, but it is a real honor to be here – to be a part of this process, to see the way you train, to help in any way I can.'” To an international camp in New York.
“I remember thinking, in the back of my head, this is going to be it,” she said. “Because I didn’t know how my body would handle it.”
However, last month, Opals manager Sandy Brundillo, who also coaches the New York Liberty, told Jackson in a video call that she had formed the team. In the recording of the call, Jackson appears shocked. “I don’t think there was any moment where I felt I was going to be in the World Cup, until Sandy actually told me,” she said in an interview.
On Thursday in Sydney, Jackson played her first competitive match for Australia in nearly a decade. She wore the number 25 on her jersey, marking the quarter century since she first played with the opal.
Jackson reached the middle of the first quarter, amid a huge roar from the crowd. She missed the first shot, but quickly nailed a triple pointer, causing another volcano to erupt in the stands.
It was a tough match until the last quarter, when France withdrew to win 70-57. Playing more than 10 minutes, Jackson proved his worth defensively but didn’t add any more goals.
“It’s crazy to be here,” she said after the match. Jackson was disappointed with the loss, but added, “I can’t wipe the smile off my face because I am honored to be here representing Australia.”
Brundello described the game as “a great comeback for Lauren”. She admitted that Jackson was not likely to dominate as she once did, though she expected to develop into the championship. “It doesn’t change her legacy at all,” Brundello said.
Opals’ prospects at the World Cup are uncertain. Their loss to France wasn’t a promising start, but they bounced back on Friday with a 118-58 win over Mali (Jackson contributed eight points). As always, the United States is likely to stand between the Australians and the gold medalist.
According to Jackson, this will be her last tournament. She has no plans to play in the 2024 Olympics in Paris (she will be forty-three, and this will be her fifth Games). She said, “Impossible.” “I say that to you and you know very well where I come from, so anything is possible, but I don’t think that’s happening.”
It’s not clear if she will be welcomed back into social basketball. “I don’t know if they’ll let me,” she laughed.
But after her first goodbye to basketball ended in agony, Jackson was happy to come out on her own terms. She said she still had knee pain – “I feel it every day” – but thanks to medical cannabis and a therapeutic use exemption (marijuana is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list), Jackson can dance one last time.
“I don’t believe in fairy tales,” she said. “I just don’t. But if it ends today, if it ends tomorrow, I don’t care. I enjoyed the ride of my life.”