BEATING AN INJURY CURSE
Lauren Jackson is a global giant in the world of basketball. She is universally regarded as one of the all-time greats of the game and has been a pioneer for women in sport.
Lauren I guess everyone must ask how long you’ve got left in the game. So let’s start with that shall we?
Yeah well I’m definitely in my twilight years. I’m taking the year off. I just thought I’d like to take a season off to be my own person for a while and renew my passion for the sport and then I think I’ll probably spend another two or three more years in the game and then that will be it.
Is your body struggling?
The last two years have been so difficult. I’ve had three operations. Lots of muscle tears and I haven’t had any time to properly rehab any of my injuries. I’ve just sort of jumped straight back in and then something else has gone.
That must be so frustrating to be constantly injured?
Since the Olympics I’ve been battling with this hamstring injury so I had surgery at the beginning of February. And basically I’m just trying to get everything right and that way my last three years in basketball aren’t going to be plagued by injury like it has been lately. I just feel like the injuries I’ve had in the last three years have taken their toll emotionally, mentally and obviously physically because I haven’t been able to play at the level I want to play. I know I can play better and it’s just been debilitating.
If the Olympics weren’t on would you have played 2012?
No. I hurt myself in June and that’s when a lot of this really started to weigh me down. Right before the Olympics I had to have an epidural in my back because they thought the pain was coming from my lower back and causing nerve pain. But ultimately that wasn’t it. It was a hamstring injury. It was very, very painful and it was just one of those things where I had to get through those few months.
Doesn’t help if you’re not getting the right advice I guess?
I thought that I would be okay. I thought that I’d be able to play through it. Then I went to America and it got to the point where I couldn’t run, I couldn’t walk. I was doing everything I could to try and suit up but I couldn’t practice. I’d be getting off a plane and I just couldn’t move. It was really, really horrible. I guess once you’ve gone through an injury like that it makes you think pretty hard about things. And yeah, obviously taking so long to find out what it was didn’t help. In hindsight I should have gone to a surgeon a lot earlier because all the advice I was getting was taking me nowhere. Doctors were saying we’ll fix it with needles but it just never worked.
Nothing was going to stop you playing in London though?
No way. It’s one of those events where you just drop everything and do what ever you can to play.
You got to carry the Australian flag. What an honour. Has there been a prouder moment in your career?
No that was the proudest moment by far.
You had to keep that news a secret. How tough was that?
It was awful. Anyone who knows me knows I am a nervous wreck. But it was everything I could have dreamt of. I really can’t remember a lot of it now though. I was so high on emotion. But I do know it was the best moment of my career.
Were you given permission to tell anyone at all?
No. And it was very difficult. Especially in the last few days. My teammates seemed to know something was up. They were saying to me ‘what’s wrong, what’s wrong?’ and I was like ‘oh nothing.’ I guess I must have been acting differently or a bit weird. But then once it was announced some of the girls were like ‘we knew it. We knew something was up with you.’ I think when people know you they can tell when something’s up and it was just one of those things. I knew it was going to be the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me. I knew it was something I’d always aspired to do. Although I thought it was way out of my realm of possibility. It was crazy.
What did you say when Nick Green told you?
I think my response was ‘why?’ I didn’t really have an opinion on who should be doing it but I did ask ‘why me?’ I know it’s one of those things where it’s chosen by the highest people involved with the Australian Olympic Committee but you can’t really guess it. Of course I would loved to have done it but I never thought it was going to be me.
There was a huge betting plunge on you to do it. Did you hear about that?
Yeah I did. I wasn’t really following the media but one of my friends just said in passing ‘oh have you heard about what’s going on with people backing you to carry the flag?’ And that was the first I knew of it. At that point though I was so focused on getting ready to play. Our first game was two days later so the whole flag experience wasn’t exactly at the forefront of my mind. I was very excited to be doing it and it didn’t feel all that real. But at the front of my mind was that we were about to play, it was my fourth Olympics and I wanted to win.
No Australian Olympic team has ever had as much negative press, during and after the Games as the one that went to London. As the team captain does that disappoint you?
Yeah in a way. But it’s an interesting role. I was proud to have the job but I certainly didn’t know all the athletes who were there. I didn’t spend any time with the swimmers or hang out with them either. So that’s where it’s difficult. I mean as the captain of the Opals that’s one thing but leading an entire nation’s Olympic squad is another. There’s no official role that you have to play apart from carrying the flag in the opening ceremony. It’s a name. It’s a title. I tried to be the best Lauren I could be and support all the team but using the swimmers as an example, there are some things you just have no control over. I do feel sorry for what they’ve had to go through after the Olympics though.
It was your fourth Olympics. Did you notice anything different about the swimmers this time around?
I’ve spent very little time with the swimmers over the years to be honest. But you do notice that they’re a lot younger as a group. Over the years there’s been some amazing role models come out of their squad. People like Leisel Jones. They always had this amazing chemistry and camaraderie and a swagger about them. They’re a lot younger now and I think it’s time for them to re-build and have that leadership group again. It’s something that a lot of coaches and administrators in other sports are really big on. Building that leadership group so that there are people you can model behaviour on. I don’t think they necessarily had that this time within their team. It’s disappointing that it’s ended up like this for them but it’s a learning curve for them too. They’re going to have to learn from it and develop ways of dealing with it in the future.
You’ve been such a success in the big leagues overseas. Do you feel like you’ve paved the way and shown other Australian girls that cracking the WNBA is achievable?
Maybe. Over the years basketball has evolved. My Mum played at Louisiana State University in the ‘70’s. She was one of the first Australian women to go over to the States and give it a go. But there was Michelle Timms before me. Tully Bevilaqua. And there were a lot who were playing in Europe too. But I think I’ve had a role to play for sure with my success.
Is the talent pool deep enough to sustain the sport here in Australia?
There’s a lot of great talent coming through that I think is going to help Australia reach great heights. I think having someone to look up to and try and emulate in a sport that you love definitely gives you confidence and hope.
The Opals have been so good for so long. You’ve been the key to that. Can Australia stay near the top?
I think here in Australia it’s in a good place. It’s been a slow process that’s for sure. Women’s sport is a hard market to break unfortunately. And with basketball, globally it’s massive but in Australia it isn’t so big. Although come world championships and Olympics people really embrace the Opals. There’s been some really positive changes from an administrative level in Australia and there’s huge potential for growth. Will it happen is the question. I think it will. I think we’ve got all the resources at our disposal. We’ve just got to keep putting the pieces together. The talent is there. We’re successful on the international stage.
What about globally? The financial crisis is making it tough on sport these days.
In America it’s a little bit different. Professional sport over there is a huge market and women’s basketball takes up a little tiny piece of that. It’s a very young reach. They’re still trying to pave the way and get new sponsors and get bums on seats and I think that’s still going to take a little bit of time. But I think the league is secure.
Europe is massive though too isn’t it?
Yeah. In Europe in particular it’s been very strong for a lot of years. And I don’t see salaries going down. I don’t see teams folding. Although one of my old teams did. It’s in Spain and was one of the hardest hit by the global financial crisis. But I think when it comes to women’s sport globally, basketball is still one of the strongest sports.
How did you feel when the government put all sporting codes on notice over drugs?
Basketball answers to ASADA and WADA and I just think if they want to have all sports on a level playing field they just have to do it. They can’t say ‘oh the AFL have these rules and the NRL have these rules’ because that creates double standards. ASADA need to govern all sports in Australia so that doesn’t happen and we need to be all held to the same standards regardless of whether you’re a male footballer or a car racer or a women’s basketballer. You look at narcotic use in AFL. People have tested positive. If that happened in any other sport there would be massive repercussions. There would be two-year bans, none of this three strike policy stuff.
How often do you get tested?
In an Olympic year, a lot. Probably three or four times. In certain parts of the year people will come to your door and you’ve got a 24 hour whereabouts protocol in place. They can be quite intrusive knocking on your door at odd hours. But that’s fine as long as they’re going to hold everyone to the same standards otherwise there’s no point.
Are you confident basketball is clean?
Yeah I am. The testing is so thorough. And from a young age it gets drilled into you what the rules of ASADA are. It’s made pretty clear what you can take, what you can’t take and if it’s in your system, regardless of how it got there, you’ve got to be responsible for it. Sometimes it’s really different and people make mistakes. Sometimes people get tricked into taking the wrong vitamins and that’s horrible. If that happened to any of my teammates I would support them 100% in trying to get justice quickly.
When will we see you back on the court?
I’m running pretty pain free right now so pretty soon I imagine. I just need to get things right physically and mentally and then get back out on the court.
The Rio Olympics are only three years away now.
Very true. And I think this break will do me the world of good.
You think it could prolong your career?
Yeah I do. I’ve never felt this good physically in my life. I mean now I can get out of bed and I’m not limping. It’s a crazy feeling.