Lauren Jackson and Carrie Graf: two legends discuss #WNBL20
Lauren Jackson and Carrie Graf are two of the greatest winners in WNBL history. Talking to this site at the launch of the league’s historic 40th season, they reflected on the past, present and vibrant future of the competition.
Jackson’s first memory of the league is a quirky one; she saw Trish Fallon on a current affairs show training to throw down a slam dunk. “I’ll never forget this,” Jackson recalls. “I was just a young girl, but I remember at the time West Coast Wine Coolers was a sponsor of the WNBL and they had put $10,000 on the table for the first woman to dunk it.”
Jackson was only 12 or 13 when she saw this forgotten chapter of league history and became intrigued by the world of professional basketball. Remarkably, she and Fallon would share the league’s MVP award just a few years later.
Today, she retains that initial excitement towards the sport, the fire that fuelled a storied career, including five championships with the University of Canberra Capitals and a stunning triumph with the youthful AIS squad.
Looking ahead to WNBL20, she is excited to see Perth Lynx import Imani McGee-Stafford in action. “She’s going to be very exciting and a big player in this league. She would have been able to mix it with Lizzie (Cambage).
“Then there’s the Opals – Abby Bishop is back in our league. There’s a lot of great people that are out here and hopefully that will take us to great places.”
For her long-time coach, six-time WNBL champion Carrie Graf, silky Canadian Kia Nurse is a firm favourite. Graf says the returning Capitals standout reminds her of Alana Beard, the WNBA all-star she coached as part of the 05/06 Capitals side. “They’re pure athletic talents,” she enthuses. “They can break peoples’ ankles with their ability to change direction on a five-cent piece.”
On Opals and imports
Graf believes imports have added an extra element of flair to the league over the years. “I think their passion for the game is exciting to watch,” she says.
“Sometimes, the Aussie players tend to hold back in showing that, but the US imports tend to be more overt when they make a big play and I think that’s entertaining. But I look back at some Aussie athletes who did bring that; Tully Bevilaqua was a classic. When she came home from playing in the WNBA, she thought: ‘You know what? It’s fun to celebrate the big plays and get the crowd engaged’.”
Graf is also heartened to see many of the Opals squad members playing domestically. “They’re legit world stars…they set the standard for how Australians play: gritty defence, intelligent, hard-working and with a fair amount of flash.”
Coach Carrie on WNBL’s 40th season
The master coach, cutting a dapper figure in a blazer and a black broad-brimmed hat, sees the upcoming competition as even and difficult to predict. She does, however, particularly like the chances of her old team, the University of Canberra Capitals, and the battle-tested roster assembled by new franchise Southside Flyers.
She believes the game’s analytics-fuelled evolution towards ‘pace and space’ basketball will continue, with teams looking to run and seeking out either lay-ups or three-pointers. “The mid-range game has been lacking in basketball in general,” she notes.
“But trends in the sport can shift and if a team is a successful with a strong mid-range game, that will shift a whole league.”
Whatever the stylistic differences from her coaching era may be, Graf sees the current crop of players as historically good.
“The depth of talent across the league is probably the best it’s been in the past decade,” she says.
A new role for the GOAT Jackson
Jackson emphatically says she is loving her new role as Head of Women’s Basketball. She is proud to have all games livestreamed this year and believes that the ongoing relationship with Fox Sports as well as an injection of new staff, including a newly appointed Chief Marketing Officer, will help achieve the visibility she sees as the lifeblood of the league.
“There’s definitely challenges, no doubt. Business is so different to being an athlete; dealing with people on that level is very different. But I love being part of the league again and working towards something that I’m so passionate about.”
Both Graf and Jackson are in favour of an expanded competition at some point. Graf says a Brisbane team makes sense, but also nominates Newcastle as a “really intriguing” location for a new franchise.
Jackson notes there were discussions about a ninth team last year and is hopeful the WNBL can scale up. “We’ve just got to make sure that we’re a sustainable league and teams that come in are also sustainable so they can keep moving forward with the league.”
“We’re in a really good place,” Jackson concludes. “We may not be as visible as AFLW or whatever, but we are working towards getting there.
“I think we’re on the cusp of something really exciting. We’re getting all the pieces together and then we’re just going to keep growing.”
Header image credit: &DC from Coulsdon, Gtr London