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Larry Stone

Larry Stone: Storm legend Lauren Jackson gets second chance to revive career, and looks like her old self

SEATTLE — Lauren Jackson, on the shortlist of the greatest women’s basketball players in history, limped reluctantly into retirement six years ago. Her heart and mind were still willing, but her chronically ailing knees simply would not allow Jackson to play the game she had dominated for so long in Australia, Seattle and around the world.

As her longtime teammate and great friend, Sue Bird, said while choking back tears at the 2016 ceremony at KeyArena to retire Jackson’s No. 15 Storm jersey:

“How things had to end hurts me. I know it hurts you.”

But now Jackson is getting that rarest of occurrences — a second act, providing her an unexpected but joyous opportunity to revive her career at age 40. Jackson, in fact, will turn 41 in two weeks, a birthday she will commemorate as a member of her hometown Albury-Wodonga Bandits in Australia’s NBL1 league (who play their home games at the Lauren Jackson Sports Centre).

So far, so great. In her first two games, playing back-to-back last weekend, the 6-foot-5 Jackson — who lost over 30 pounds while training for her return — showed signs of her old dominance. On Saturday, in a 78-61 win over the Central Coast Crusaders, Jackson scored 22 points in just 21 minutes, including five 3-pointers. She also had five rebounds and a block. On Sunday, Jackson had 36 points and 15 rebounds in 19 minutes.

Megan Hustwaite, an Australian sports journalist who has covered much of Jackson’s career and broke the story of her decision to come back, told me in a Zoom interview: “She’s in terrific shape. She’s lost a lot of weight. She looks fantastic. And I think the really impressive thing with her comeback on the weekend was the ease in which she got up and down the court. She just moved so, so well, which given her injury history and her age, and that she hasn’t played since 2016, is pretty amazing.”

Jackson’s performance in what is described as the “second-tier” pro league in Australia caught the eye of former Storm coach Jenny Boucek, who was an assistant in Seattle when Jackson and Bird led the Storm to WNBA titles in 2004 and 2010. Boucek, now an assistant for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, tweeted:

“This makes me smile so HUGE! @laurenej15 I still believe that if not for injuries in the prime of her career, it wouldn’t even be a debate that LJ was the most dominant player EVER. And the Storm would have several more rings. So proud of you, friend! Much love and respect!!!”

And it certainly caught the eye of Bird, who keenly watched highlights of the games.

“Listen, she’s a basketball player,” Bird, 41, said Sunday at the Storm’s media day. “It’s in her blood. So it’s no surprise. She works super hard. She got herself in as good of shape as you can, given having a knee replacement. I can’t even fathom playing on that. And so the basketball, the fact it’s in her blood, that’s just taking over. She’s blocking shots, she’s hitting threes.

“I know she was really nervous going into the first game. I can relate a little. You always question that first game. How’s my body going to feel? After years of not playing, it’s a legitimate question. So she was a little nervous about that. She played back to back, though. I don’t even know if I’ll do that this year. So that’s a good sign for her.

“And she’ll probably just take it from here. We were talking on text last night. It’s just day one for her. So if she feels pretty good with some soreness, this is just the beginning. It’s just the start for her. It will just get better and better as her body adjusts as the games come.”

It’s an astonishing comeback for a player who had moved on with her life after being ravished by injuries — hip, Achilles and both knees, among others — and countless surgeries that ended her brilliant Storm career in 2012. Jackson tried competing in other leagues, aiming for the 2016 Olympics with Team Australia, but announced her retirement on March 31, 2016.

After that, Jackson dived into motherhood (her first son, Harry, was born in 2017, with another son following in 2018), broadcasting, social causes and basketball administration. Last year she was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Eager to resume physical activity she had to curtail because of her injuries — especially after she shed her reliance on prescription painkillers — Jackson began experimenting with medicinal cannabis, in consultation with her doctor. In fact, Jackson said a conversation with Bird, who endorses Mendi, a sports-focused CBD company, helped sway her toward medicinal cannabis, which has been used successfully to treat chronic pain.

Jackson told the website “The Inner Sanctum” in January that the relief was almost immediate.

“I started taking medicinal cannabis in the form of CBD oil, and it’s just changed my life,’’ she said. “I’ve been in the gym every single day. I’ve made a real effort, because I want to get back out on the court. I want to play at some level, because I feel like my career ended so abruptly with the injury, that there’s always been a part of me that asked, ‘What if? What if I could’ve gone that little bit longer?’

“I actually went back to Sue, and I just said, ‘Thank you so much. What it’s done for my body, it’s changed my life and it’s given me the opportunity to go and train again.’… It’s helped me a lot and gotten me to the point where I’m able to train again and live a very active lifestyle with my two little boys.”

Where will this comeback take Jackson? Many Australian hoops fans hope it takes her back to Team Australia for the women’s World Cup in September in Sydney. The Opals’ ouster in the quarterfinals of the most recent Olympics doesn’t sit well with fans — or with Jackson, who called it “a disaster.”

Jackson is noncommittal but hasn’t ruled out the possibility. For now she wants to see how her body responds and just savor being back out on the court.

“A big reason in her wanting to come back was to play in front of her sons,” Hustwaite said. “And the eldest one, Harry, went on the road trip at the weekend. The first leg of the road trip was a seven-hour bus trip, and he went on that with her. I don’t think she’s ever been happier than she has been since becoming a mom.”

The best part of all, Bird said, is that Jackson now gets to finally go out on her own terms.

“I’m really happy for her, because it took a lot to get to this point,” Bird said. “She was nervous, and I think these first two games under her belt allows her to calm down, relax a little bit and just enjoy it. Because as we all know, the way her career ended wasn’t fair. So it’s great she gets to have this chance.”

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