Who would not follow Lauren Jackson into battle?
A ferocious, lightning quick 1.96m forward and centre, she has been a force of nature in her sport since, aged 14, she was selected in the Australian Under-20 team and then, at 17, led the AIS side that won the Women’s National Basketball League championship.
Said Opals coach Tom Maher of the emerging champion, “She’s so good she could be the best sportswoman in the world. She’s that extraordinary.” Time has proved him correct.
In a sport where elite players usually give allegiance to the club team that pays them millions rather than their national side, Lauren’s stellar career with the Seattle Storm in the US WNBA – she has been a regular in the WNBA All Star side – has played second fiddle to the Australian national team commitments. “The pride and sense of responsibility I feel toward the Opals is something I cannot express,” she says.
After helping the Opals win the silver medal in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, she assumed team captaincy in 2008 when Australia again took silver. In all three Games, the crack Americans were our nemesis.
At the 2012 London Olympics, where the Opals won bronze, Lauren was chosen to carry the Australian flag at the Opening Ceremony. “I’ll feel great pride about [carrying the flag] until the day I die.” She was Opals co-captain when they won gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and skipper of the gold-medal winning team at the FIBA World Championship for Women in Brazil the same year.
“She is an alien,” the great US player and coach Nancy Lieberman has said. “I don’t know what planet she comes from. She is that good.”
It helps Lauren’s captaincy cred, too, that as well as being probably the best women’s basketballer in the world, she may also be the coolest. She loves grunge and alt-rock along with the Bee Gees, has tattoos and piercings, and been photographed nude for Black + White magazine.
The Albury, NSW-born daughter of parents who both played basketball for Australia and describes herself as “a pub kinda country girl,” is completing a degree in gender studies and works selflessly for the Rape Crisis Centre.
And her tenacity and refusal to take a backward step on the court makes her a natural captain. Her run-ins with rival centre Lisa Leslie of the US are legendary. In their clashes since they first butted heads in 1999, they have fouled, elbowed and trash-talked each other relentlessly. In one altercation Lauren came away clutching Lisa’s hair extensions. “She talks even more trash than I do,” the American champion once laughed, “but I don’t understand anything she says!”
Still just 32, Lauren plans to drive on her Opals to Olympic Glory. Realistically her best, maybe last, chance will come in Rio in 2016. “There’s not too much I haven’t done,” she says. “Except win a gold medal for Australia. That’s all I’ve dreamed of since age two.”
No. 10: Tomorrow
No. 11: Lauren Jackson
No. 12: Michael Voss