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Paul Kennedy

Lauren Jackson continues to wow crowds ahead of expected record WNBL attendance for Southside Flyers vs Sydney Flames

Watch closely, don't wait for the replay; it's happening right now (and might never happen again). 

Lauren Jackson, The Greatest, is still playing — with a busted foot, mind you — as happy as she's ever been, her aggression and precision and deftness attracting people from all over Australia, like Field of Dreams on polished boards.

There she is at 41 in the WNBL, hitting threes and her still-unguardable turnaround jumpers, immovable on defence, glaring at refs, demanding more from teammates who were far too young to have seen her win her first Olympic medals in Sydney and Athens.

Now she's sitting post game with both her feet in an Esky brimful of pain-numbing ice … that feels better … signing autographs and smiling for selfies until the last beaming fan wanders away and the stadium's echoes belong only to Jackson's children, Harry and Lenny, who probably think all of this is normal, but will one day know it was special, some sort of magic that Mum conjured up.

"Lauren Jackson is the gift that just keeps giving," former teammate and fellow champion Michele Timms says.

"From playing days to retirement to working in women's basketball, back to playing and still working with women's basketball, she's just this wonderful gift not only to women's basketball but women's sport, inspiring a nation of young kids.

"It's quite incredible when you think about it, the impact that she has had. You can look at any of the athletes who have come through Australia, the great ones. We're talking the Cathy Freemans, the Ash Bartys, the Dawn Frasers, you know, Andrew Gaze, the big-time athletes who are legends.

"Lauren Jackson has to be up there with the greatest exports of sport in Australia, not just basketball, she's definitely the best export in basketball. She's right up there with icons, legends of sport in Australia. 

"I can't speak highly enough of her, not just as an athlete but what she's done off the court as well. The path that she's chosen to inspire young girls to play sport, get kids active in sport.

"Although it might be her last season in the WNBL, it's not the last we'll hear of Lauren Jackson because she's got a passion."

Training for the play-offs, top of the ladder, broken foot

It's practice, two days before Jackson's top-of-the-table Southside Flyers host the Sydney Flames at John Cain Arena, a game likely to set a record attendance for the WNBL.

Southside owner Gerry Ryan has hired the venue as a celebration of Jackson, whose appeal will help fill all the seats.

"Good on Gerry," Southside coach Cheryl Chambers says.

"It'll be awesome. It's what female sport deserves, and it shows how much impact Lauren has had. She's a big drawcard."

Jackson is training Thursday morning despite her injury: she's gritting her teeth to join in a few drills before resting for the big game.

She's lucky, in a way, and so are the Flyers, that there was some confusion over her latest injury, which happened on December 8, eight rounds ago.

If the doctors found a fracture straight away, "LJ" would probably have stopped playing.

"I broke it against Perth," she explains.

"I thought it was arthritis for three weeks so in mind I thought, 'Well this is arthritis, this is my new normal that I have to deal with'. I had a few [cortisone] injections to try to settle the pain down. And it settled it down enough that I could load it and start running again.

"I just had to wrap my head around the pain and if I wanted to keep playing I had to deal with it. So I went back to the doctor to get another injection because it was so painful; after games I was really struggling to walk. It was brutal."

Finally, she went for the scans that revealed the source of the pain.

"They found the break and some other damage," she says.

"I think it was probably a blessing in disguise really that they found it because at least I had the confidence to keep playing on it." 

"Apparently the fracture is in a good spot," Chambers adds. "So it can't cause anymore damage, so it's not in the middle of the bone. But you can see on her face it's painful [during games], it's painful the next day, for a few days.

Jackson is less certain about how much damage she's doing. 

"I don't know," she says.

"It's one of those things where I'm just going to see the season out, do what I can and then I'll deal with it after.

"At least knowing that it is broken now, I know that it will heal eventually, and I can make decisions from there. But I want to help them team win, and I want to be a part of this. If I had've found out it was broken straight away I might not have played on it. At least I know I can play on it now, and I'm getting all the support I can get." 

Teammates inspired by the GOAT

Nyadiew Puoch, 18, is the Flyers' rising star, recently named in the Opals squad. 

She'd never seen Jackson in action until the champion came out of retirement last year.

"I only started playing basketball when I was 12," she says.

"I wasn't really familiar with Australian players and Opals stuff. Now, as I'm older and in the league I know a lot about her. It's amazing. It's not everyday, you get to play with the GOAT.

At the start it was a bit intimidating But she's great. I've learnt a lot. Still at this stage it amazes me that I can come to training and go up against her and play with her."

Jackson is renowned for urging her teammates to lift their standards.

"You can't take it personal because she's trying to make you better," Puoch says.

"She's been through it all. I just gotta know that when I'm playing and she's out there, I've just gotta work hard all the time and do what I do the best."

Jackson was once in Puoch's teenage world of promise and ambition. Her parents Maree and Gary both represented Australia in basketball so it was natural for her to start shooting hoops.

At 15, the girl from Albury, New South Wales, was invited to train at the Australian Institute of Sport. A year later she was called into the Opals squad; her first World Championship was in Germany in 1998.

"She was going to be something special then," Timms remembers.

"And she was very much still a kid, you know, she still held hands with her mum and was very close to her mum, sat on mum's lap. But then when she hit the court she was like a mature woman. 

"She probably didn't have the international body at 16, which is one that can endure the high intensity, so she was playing sparingly. But what she was able to do in her minutes was jaw dropping. 

"She's come on and have the most efficiency out of anyone. You looked at her stat line and she plays 16 minutes and has 16 points. Even from her first moment with the Opals at that World Cup in Germany we knew she was going to be something special."

Jackson first played in the WNBL [Australia's league is one of the strongest in the world] for the AIS team and won her first championship in 1999 with a group of other teenagers who would become celebrated Opals: Penny Taylor, Suzy Batkovic and Belinda Snell. 

"We came together in 1999," Southside assistant coach Snell remembers.

"We had mini-battles at training. It's something I'll always remember, winning [the title] as 16, 17, and 18-year-olds."

Jackson was already a leader; she won the league MVP and top scorer award.

"So tough, so hard to guard, so strong," Snell says.

"You wouldn't want to cop one of those elbows of hers. And she could shoot the ball as well as anyone in Australia."

Snell would later play with and against Jackson in the world-best American league, WNBA.

"She was intimidating to so many players," Snell explains.

"She was amazing. There was hardly anyone that would stop her. She's got letters from the president inviting her to the White House." 

A year after Jackson dominated the WNBL in 1998-99, the 19-year-old led Australia to a gold-medal play-off at the Sydney Olympics. The Opals lost to the USA but Jackson scored 20 points and brought down 13 rebounds.

"The impact that she was going to have," Timms says. "By Sydney she was a fully fledged champion and the best player we had even back then. She'd taken on Lisa Leslie and the big powerhouses in the women's game and done extremely well."

In 2001, Jackson packed her suitcases for the United States; Seattle Storm was lucky to have number one pick in the draft.

Timms saw Jackson's future clearly.

"From all-star fives to MVPs to winning championships ... didn't surprise me at all," she says.

"What surprised me, because she always spoke about it when she was young, she was [saying], 'I'm going to retire early', but she never did. She just went on and on to do so many amazing things and have such an impact, not just here in Australian but worldwide in the women's game. Iconic, household name.

"[She was] the biggest thing in women's basketball."

The GOAT dominates the world

Over the next decade, Jackson became a three-time MVP (best in the world!), two-time WNBA champion, and seven-time WNBA All-Star. Her full list of awards would require an appendix.

Jackson would have won more MVPs and championships if not for injury, according to Brian Agler, 2010 Storm championship coach.

"There was a stretch there where she was the best player in the league. She was the most dominant player when she was healthy [without injury]. There wasn't anybody better."

Agler witnessed Seattle's devotion to its champion import.

"The city basically adopted her," he says.

"That Sue Bird-Lauren Jackson combination was extremely special, probably the best combination ever in the league. They made each other spectacular.

"She could dominate the game defensively. The unique thing about Lauren was she was really good with her back to the basket, yet she was also a phenomenal free throw shooter and an exceptional three-point shooter. I mean she was so versatile."

Jackson's famous American teammate Sue Bird retired last year a five-time Olympic gold medallist (you'd need another appendix needed to list her exploits).

The Australian won three silver Olympic medals and one bronze; she was given the prestigious role as flag bearer at London 2012.

"The Opals was her house," Timms says. "She always shone. Her and Penny Taylor … I know it's a Lauren Jackson game but Penny Taylor, what they both did for basketball internationally is phenomenal. They both took the same route.

"When you throw Kristy Harrower in there — the era they had — great things happened during that time — a first ever gold medal in a World Cup."

The Jackson-led Opals won a gold medal at the 2006 World Championships; the final was against Russia, which beat USA in a semifinal. 

Timms wonders whether Jackson regrets never beating the USA in a gold medal game because she wanted to do it so badly.

"You always knew the Americans were tough but what LJ did — because of how successful she'd been in America — she broke down any doubt in anyone's mind about Opals being able to beat the USA. 

"None of the Opals went into games under Lauren's tutelage thinking that they couldn't beat the Americans because they'd seen her first hand going against them in big games." 

"She always tried to fire us up," Snell says.

"If we weren't performing she would definitely let us know. It's why we were such a strong unit."

In the WNBA off seasons, Jackson played in Europe, Asia, and Australia. Like the other top female basketballers, she had to compete twelve months a year to maximise her earnings.

Men didn't have this problem because they were being paid millions of dollars more in the NBA. 

It meant Jackson's body was often struggling to recover from the constant strain.

By her mid-30s she appeared to be worn out.

Early retirement

Jackson was playing in China when she injured her knee leading up to the Rio Olympics.

A subsequent leg infection cruelled her slim chances of going to Brazil. 

It was all over.

Initially, she struggled with the loneliness of retirement, albeit supported every minute by her parents back in Albury.

"Some people have the fairytale, no doubt," she told broadcaster Mia Freedman. "But when bodies break down that's how it goes, and you have to make that decision and it becomes about quality of life and how you want to live your life.

"For me, the rollercoaster I was on and just how it was playing out was so toxic and so bad and I needed to get away."

Medical cannabis played a role in her rehabilitation.

"I've been open about my battle with prescription medication during my career and when I retired I went off everything because I wanted to raise my kids and just be the very best version of myself." she said.

"It's [medical cannabis] 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."

By the end of 2021, Jackson was a mother-of-two working for Basketball Australia, and enjoying games of weekly social basketball for the Albury-Wodonga Bandits at the Lauren Jackson Sports Centre.

She felt her life was complete.

Months later, quarter of a century after it happened the first time, she was added to the Australian squad: her beloved Opals were hosting a World Cup in Sydney.

"The last six years, I've been the happiest I've ever been," she says.

"With my kids and work and living a normal life. So it [the comeback] wasn't ever about finishing on my terms or anything. I did want to lose weight. I wanted to feel better about my body." 

As her sons started school, Jackson could afford to spend time on her fitness.

"Work said, 'We support you to get fit, if that's what you want to do'. I'd mentioned it to a few of my colleagues and they were like, go and do it. So with that in mind, I started going. And I had consistency with my training. I was able to keep going. I think it was just commitment to body, initially. 

"The comeback was just a comeback, it was just me playing at Albury and it just sort of morphed into everything. I really just wanted to play for Albury and have the kids travel with me on the bus and to be able to give back to the community. But it just got bigger than Ben Hur really, didn't it? 

"It's just about loving the game and enjoying the game. And I guess just playing until I can't play anymore."

One amazing night in Sydney, September 2022

The World Cup was the "fairytale" finish to international basketball that Jackson thought beyond her.

Prior to the tournament, the Opals had gone through some uncharacteristically poor years.

Under astute coach Sandy Brondello, Jackson did what she had always done — demanded excellence from everyone around her.

"I couldn't believe it," Tims says.

"But I've known Jacko a long time and I knew she wouldn't do this as a publicity stunt. What she did for that team, for the culture side of things, well, she rebuilt it.

"The culture had been severely compromised. And one of the strengths of Opals of old was that the culture was strong. Everybody had each other's backs and everybody played for each other. And that got lost. So what LJ was able to do, whether she was going to play a minute or not [at the World Cup] her job was done because she really established what it meant to be an Opal again. 

"Had the girls playing hard every possession. I attribute that to Sandy Brondello as well. But I think Lauren had a lot to do with that locker room and guiding the girls to believe in themselves, believe in each other and the outcome spoke for itself."

Australia made the top four and lost to China in a semifinal; Jackson played a small role off the bench.

Then came the bronze medal play-off against Canada.

The GOAT shot a tournament high 30 points to carry Australia back onto the podium.

"Who scores 30 points in a game?" Brondello said. "Lauren changed the game with her presence inside."

"What she did during the tournament was phenomenal," Timms says. "Her final game was just ridiculous. You never thought it was going to go that way but for LJ to come through in true LJ form — she's never down — was incredible. I was just so happy for her. And she deserved to go out the way she did, again."

Brian Agler, watching from the United States, saw similarities to Kobe Bryant's 60 point final game in the NBA.

"Very similar," he says. "I'm sure that the adrenaline was flowing and she just rose to the occasion. What a fitting end. That had to be a special moment for the Opals and for Basketball Australia. She has that knack of big moments, she'll produce in big moments. The special ones do."

Jackson still finds it hard to believe her final international act.

"No, I can't explain that," she says. "I don't think anyone can. It was such a weird … I don't even know. I think, at the end of the game, I'm pretty sure I was like, 'What the hell just happened?'. And I'm pretty sure my parents thought the same thing. Dad actually said to me, 'What just happened? How did that happen?' It was just one of those things, didn't really expect it, really wanted to help the team win." 

Some rare athletes never lose their competitiveness.

"I mean I think that's just naturally part of my game," Jackson says.

"I'm competitive regardless or whether I'm scoring or whatever. I think I was just really in the moment. To be honest, I don't think I hit a turnaround jumper all tournament. I hadn't. So, once I hit the first one, I was like, 'Righto, I'm starting to feel it a little bit more.' I'd been training for eight months at that point and I was just starting to get my timing back.

Cherly Chambers was an assistant coach with the Opals throughout the World Cup year.

"We had a camp in Canberra and I wasn't quite sure [about Jackson's capabilities] because she's played NBL1 [for Albury] and whether that's going to translate into international basketball. We trained and she looked good in training.

"But she's a hooper, so we played this boys team and I think we were eleven-zero down and I put her in and we're back [level on scores], we scored 12 points in I don't know how many minutes. I thought then, wow. She's got something unique that we don't have, that we're going to able to use."
Jackson was finding her rhythm.

"You see her still building and building," Chambers says. "She's this athletic body who can score. And she steps over that line and she has that, 'I wanna win'. Some players have that and she's always had that. It doesn't matter what it takes, I wanna win."

The World Cup still seems like a dream to Chambers. 

"It's crazy. You kind of pinch yourself to be in amongst it. I feel really lucky to be around it," she says.

"That bronze medal game was sensational. It was like we were all just … 'Let's just give her the ball, let's keep going'. It's just amazing."

Timms says Jackson was saying goodbye the only way she knew how.

"I think she probably knew during the tournament she wasn't going to be doing another round with the Opals," she explains. "Knew it was her last hurrah. I don't know but I imagine Lauren being the competitive beast that she is that sitting on the pine the game before against China really hurt her.

"And so I think she stepped onto the court knowing this was going to be her last green and gold game and knowing it hurt her not being able to contribute to the team the night before — so there was a lot of passion, a lot of emotion."

One final season?

Jackson does not know whether the current WNBL season will be her last, but her summer tour around Australia with the Southside Flyers has been a mutual celebration unlike anything basketball has seen in this country. 

At the conclusion of games, Jackson sits down, ices her weary feet, and enjoys watching the fans create a queue that goes on forever; she obliges with gratitude.

At away venues, teammates go back to the hotel, while Jackson stays with the fans, accompanied by one of the Southside staff.

"It's happened in every stadium we've gone to," Cheryl Chambers says.

"She waits for the last person in the line. In Adelaide, they hadn't been getting great crowds, but they got a full stadium and she sat there and it was an hour and a bit after the game and she left. She wanted to [sign everything for the fans] and there's not many players that would give back like that. It's a hard task for her and she's got the sore foot.

"She's just a champ that way. She gets the sport and she gets her profile. But every stadium we've gone into has been packed. We haven't had an empty stadium around Australia. They come to watch Lauren but then they come to barrack for the other team."

"It's been amazing," Jackson says. "A lot of those kids, they've never seen me play before, or had seen me play before worlds [ last year's World Cup].

"They may have heard about me from their parents but I feel like I am signing autographs for kids and their parents and their parents' parents. And it's funny how generations are coming out to see us play. Yeah, It's beautiful. It's a really sweet thing and I'm just glad that I can do it."

Her sons have witnessed it all. The Flyers employ a nanny for training and game days; Jackson is not the only mother on the team. At home games the club operates a creche inside a room that overlooks the court. 

"I think it's really special for them," she says.

Jackson had to drop Harry and Lenny back home in Albury this week so they could resume their schooling, cared for by their grandparents while she prepares for the John Cain Arena game:

"They've always been like that. They're incredible people," she says.

"And it's hard on [the kids]," she adds.

"Harry, he was just shattered because he knew I was coming back to Melbourne today. He's been travelling with me this whole six-week holiday and he's just devastated that I'm not going to be there and I think that's probably the hardest part. 

"It's beautiful that we've been able to share all this time together. They've been a part of it and see it, and they still will of a weekend, they'll be up and back, but it's hard not being with them." 

Tonight's game against the Flames is not just an attempt to break the attendance record, it is critical for Southside's attempt to win the championship.

"It's unreal that we're doing it and the WNBL has got to the point where it even entertains something like this," Jackson says. "I hope people come and watch and support the game and hopefully we get a win.

"It really is humbling. I don't know how to articulate how I feel about it. I think, knowing how big the game is in terms of where the ladder is sitting, I'm a little bit nervous. I just want to make sure the girls, we're all focused to play the best basketball we can play. We're on top of the ladder but I don't feel like I've hit our stride yet."

Southside has impressive bench depth, but the WNBL has five teams capable of taking the crown. 

Chambers suspects Jackson, broken foot and all, is still improving and might be the difference in the March semi finals.

"I'm thinking to myself, how is someone who's been out [of the game] for seven years — and the game's changed a lot — how is she going to be able to adapt to it?

"It just shows her IQ of how to read the game. Everyone's bought in. Everyone knows she's the GOAT. Young kids like Nards [Nyadiew Puoch], we think she can be anything, so Lauren's often trying to help her and do all that stuff, so it certainly helps us as a team."

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