The Evening Game

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Suzy Batkovic on WNBL19, the evolution of the game and the 1999 AIS WNBL triumph

Suzy Batkovic on WNBL19, the evolution of the game and the 1999 AIS WNBL triumph

Suzy Batkovic’s career achievements are staggering, reading like some basketball version of that old Christmas carol: seven WNBL all-star five appearances, six MVPs, five championships, four WNBL top shooter awards and three (should have been four) Olympic tournaments.

The sheer weight of numbers easily makes her case as one of the league’s all-time greats, but what the accolades don’t quite convey is the hunger and competitiveness that she brings every game and that have made her one of the great winners not just in the WNBL but in all Australian sport.

The finish line is now in sight with Batkovic announcing this will be her last campaign. But she says the thought of retirement is still “surreal” and won’t be front of mind during the season. “I think it will be more put on the back burner, and I'm just focusing on my job at hand,” she tells The Evening Game.

“I still have plenty to give. I still love the game, and I know that eventually, I'll miss it. But for me, it's just business as usual.”

Reflecting on the evolution of the league, Batkovic says the days of easybeat teams have passed and talent is now evenly spread. “You could go back quite a few years ago, and you had your top half, and your bottom half. There's no game where (you think) ‘At least we've got this team, and we should be fine against them’. You're battling every team. I think that's great. That's what we want the league to be like.”

The virtue of stubbornness: “I didn’t want to be put in a box”

Batkovic has long been dominant around the rim, but her game is based on a lot more than simply muscling into the key. She has a soft touch from mid-range, an excellent passing game from the post and enough nous to inevitably get to her favoured left hand and preferred shooting spots.

Discussing the evolving game and a trend of bigs increasingly becoming three-point shooters, Batkovic says the best fours and fives have always had a broad skill set.

“If you look at Lauren (Jackson), she has always shot threes,” she says. ”Myself, if I’m wide open, I’ll take a three ball. Darcee Garbin – that’s one of her strengths. Ally Mallott is the same.

I still have plenty to give. I still love the game, and I know that eventually, I’ll miss it. But for me, it’s just business as usual - Suzy Batkovic on her final season

“Back in the day, I remember people used to say: ‘Oh, posts, you just shoot from in here (the paint) and I remember thinking: ‘No, I’m not doing that. I’ll be working on everything’. I didn’t want to be put in a box.

“I was lucky enough that I had coaches that allowed me to work on that aspect of my game. I was probably a bit stubborn. I didn’t want to just be a post player, I wanted to be capable of doing a bit of everything.”

“Just a bunch of kids”: the historic 98/99 AIS WNBL champions 

Batkovic’s first WNBL championship came in one of the most remarkable teams in the last quarter-century of Australian sport; the AIS student athlete team of 1998/99. It’s difficult to think of a comparable victory to this team of teenagers, who were assembled as a purely developmental team and ended up powering to an elite professional title.

That squad was a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent with Penny Taylor and Kirsten Veal in the backcourt, Belinda Snell spacing the floor and an imposing Batkovic-Jackson frontcourt. Batkovic says the team also had an ideal mentor in Phil Brown, now an assistant coach at the University of Canberra Capitals.

“He was a tremendous coach,” Batkovic recalls. “We were basically just a bunch of kids and, if anything, he probably coached us at our toughest point, when we were all going through different things. Puberty and whatever else, growing up. He was just incredible, the way he handled us and there was a lot of respect there.”

Batkovic says she entered the AIS not knowing all the rules of basketball and having never heard of a five-man-weave. She left a much more polished player and a champion.

In Lauren Jackson’s ‘My Story’, she recalls a turning point in the season where the coach and players met and agreed to shift from a development team evenly sharing minutes into a group firmly set on the unlikeliest of championships. Batkovic also remembers that moment well. “We were just playing and enjoying it, but you didn't really think, like, "Oh, wow, we could actually win this." Batkovic says.

“(Brown) kept his composure and kept us composed. We connected really well and I think a lot of credit goes to him, the way he handled everything. He took the pressure off for us so we could just go out there and play.”

A friendship with the GOAT

Batkovic will exit the game with a lot of friends across the league and beyond. Abby Bishop is a close mate. Lauren Jackson, an old AIS teammate, is another. “We went through a lot together,” Batkovic says of Jackson. “We did NSW Country (junior rep team) together, AIS, representing Australia together and then we played in the WNBA together. We got to know each other so well.”

The pair still talk or text every week. “Even though she's retired, she's still that person for me,” Batkovic says. “She's still that close friend. We share a lot of memories together. Our friendship wasn't just all highs though, we have had the lows together.

“When we were younger, we both had stubborn and strong personalities. It was like: ‘How do you deal with this person?’ But over time, it just sorted itself out, and we got to really know each other, and bonded.

“Now, I'm grateful to have played with the best female basketballer Australia's ever seen. I'm very grateful for that.”

Header image credit: Bruce

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