Lauren Jackson's legacy comes full circle
SYDNEY (Australia) - Lauren Jackson's legacy was already set in stone as a legend of the game whatever result her appearance at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2022 would turn out to be.
Even then, it's not surprising that the eventual ending at the World Cup for a legend like Jackson would be as if it was written in a movie script.
You had to see it to believe it.
The first farewell
31 March, 2016 was when Lauren Jackson's legendary career with the Australia Opals was supposed to have come to a close. Jackson had been hopeful to play in her fifth Olympics in Rio, but instead decided to announce her retirement.
"It really is so surreal retiring here where it all began 19 years ago," Jackson said as per Australia Associated Press. "Today I'm announcing my retirement from the love of my life, basketball."
At that point, Jackson had already solidified a legendary career at all level whether it was with national teams or with professional clubs all around the world. She was named to the senior national team at the age of 16, at the time the youngest ever to do so, and won the bronze medal at the World Cup in 1998. She won MVPs, awards, and championships almost everywhere she went.
But towards the mid 2010s, injuries had slowed her down.
A large number of athletes, even one of the best of the best like Jackson, do not get the opportunity to walk away from their sport the way they envision. That seemed to be the case for Jackson as she announced her decision to retire from international basketball in 2016.
"I tried to suit up a couple of times," Jackson recalled as per The New York Times. "but I was just in so much pain that I couldn't move."
"It definitely wasn't on my terms," she said.
And just like that, she had to bid farewell.
"To say goodbye to my love, what was my life, my identity, this hurts."
"A few tears have been shed and I feel kind of empty right now; really empty. But I guess ready and excited for the next chapter - whatever that may be."
Build up of the comeback
Jackson probably didn't know at the time that one of those chapters ahead of her life - 6 years ahead - would include a return to playing basketball once again. But there she was, early in February, announcing her return to professional basketball with her hometown team, Albury Wodonga Bandits, in the NBL1.
"My career didn't end the way that would have been nice," she told ABC news at the time.
"Basketball had taken a huge toll on me emotionally, whereas now, I'm a different person."
"I feel good. I've had a lot of time to recover and just get my body right."
Even then, playing for the Opals in the World Cup seemed like a distance away. One thing led to another and early in August, after going through a scare where she had ruptured her entire plantar fasciitis before the start of the NBL1 season, she was announced to be a part of the Opals squad to play in the Women's World Cup.
"I don't think there was ever a moment where I was like, 'I'm going to make the World Cup,' until I was actually told by Sandy," Jackson had said at the time.
As tough as it was physically to get herself back to the point of being ready to play at the international basketball level, it was just as tough mentally for Jackson as well.
"It was a head game," Jackson said at the end of the World Cup. "I think I sort of said to everybody that it wouldn't have mattered if I was just playing for Albury or Australia, the training that I did would have had to have been the same regardless because my body was in such bad way that I had to get as strong as I could possibly get to even play for Albury."
"There were hurdles like when I ruptured my plantar fasciitis early on before I even started playing again, it was pretty bad. Just brutal lingering injuries, things like that. It took me back to when my career ended so the head game was real."
"Once I started getting back to high performance, there were times when I was highly emotional. Like things that would make me cry so quickly just because of the experiences that I had had and it had been like a roller coaster."
There she was on 22 September, 2022, suited up and ready to make her first appearance for the Opals after so many years against France.
Lauren Jackson is playing basketball at her 5th World Cup in less than two hours.— FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWWC) September 22, 2022
Let that sink in 🤯#FIBAWWC
The crowd roared as loud as they could when her name was announced during the pre-game lineup announcement. They roared again when she checked into the game in the first quarter. They were ready to erupt as she attempted and missed her first shot, though they wouldn't have to wait too long to celebrate before she scored her first points - a three-pointer which put her at 600 career points in the Women's World Cup.
It's likely that Jackson could have just stopped there and done nothing else for the rest of the entire World Cup and it would still be considered a win, just for being able to get back on the court and compete with the best players in the world.
Of course, that is not how this story ends.
Not just yet.
The grand finale
Maybe Pau Gasol knew something we didn't. Maybe, as a basketball legend and the Ambassador of the Women's World Cup, he was able to anticipate that a miraculous story was being told.
"There are many stories like every championship has, if you pay close attention. There's always some of the inspiring an exceptional stories that come out," Gasol had said ahead of the Semi-Finals.
"Personal stories, human stories, the sacrifices that have to be made. The love for the game, the passion that women play with. To me, there's a lot there that would attract interest of people and fans that haven't watched much of women's basketball."
He even mentioned that he would have loved to hear more from Jackson herself about story of her comeback. She provided him with the a fairy tale finish while he watched the Third-Place Game between Australia and Canada from the courtside seat.
"You can't script it any better," Jackson's teammate Sami Whitcomb told ABC Sport at the end of the game.
You could try, but there are not many ways you could script a better ending to Australia's run to a "Rose Gold".
View this post on Instagram
Jackson was playing in her fifth World Cup at the age of 41. She had been retired for over 6 years before making a comeback. She had not played more than 14 minutes in any of the games prior to the Third-Place Game and has only reached double-digit scoring in one game so far.
Yet here she was in what was her "Last Dance", logging over 20 minutes and scoring the bulk of the points for Australia in a medal-clinching victory.
With just under three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Jackson received the ball on the left low post. She goes to work on Canada's Natalie Achonwa.
Dribble. Dribble. Turn-around. Fadeaway jumper.
On the LED boards around the court during this exact play of Jackson scoring her 27th and 28th points of the game, the signs read "Hoops is never done".
It's a moment that seems so perfect as if it was lifted off directly out of a movie.
"When good players get rolling, they get rolling," said Canada's Kia Nurse after the game. "Not a lot you can do about that and obviously she's got a ton of experience. She's the G.O.A.T of Australia basketball for a reason. One of the best in the world."
"You know those tournaments where they have those fairytale endings? This one had to be a fairytale ending, but we're on the other side of it. It was like 'come on!'."
The immediate offensive possession afterwards, Jackson was fouled and proceeded to knock down two free-throws to reach 30 points. She was showered with MVP chants and a long standing ovation from the crowd in Sydney before being subbed out for the last time. A few moments later, Jackson and the Opals were celebrating a bronze medal won on their home soil in front of their fans.
If this was a movie, this is where the director would zoom out and slowly fade to black as the end credits start scrolling up onto the screen.
Except this was real life that happened right in front of our very own eyes.
"Honestly, I wasn't even thinking," Jackson said about her 30-point finale in the post-game presser.
"I was so emotional like from the beginning of the match, I just wanted to win. I just wanted to get the team back on the podium and be a part of that and I wanted to win for Sandy as well. That was all I was thinking, I didn't realize I had that many points until the end."
"She's a pretty humble superstar, isn't she?" Sandy Brondello, Australia's head coach also said in the press conference. "Who scores 30 points anyways? I don't think I ever have in an international competition."
Brondello and Jackson's relationship during this World Cup was as coach and player, but their bond goes back over two decades of playing together as teammates with the Opals and even at the professional level with the Seattle Storm.
"Lauren is my friend," Brondello had said ahead of the World Cup as per ESPN. "I kind of took her under my wing when she was a 16-year-old at her first World Cup back in 1998 and to think so many years later now I'm her coach. We have a lot of mutual respect but it's not actually weird for me, this is what I do and what I've been doing for the last eighteen plus years since I retired."
Even with her status as a legend and as a friend, Brondello made sure that selecting Jackson to this team was based purely on where she currently was physically and what she could bring to the team. And that's what made the ultimate result all the more satisfying.
"The work that she did just to get back to play at this level, it is unheard of," said Brondello. "She inspired me, she inspired the team. We didn't know if her body could hold up and she had some pretty stiff fitness things."
"Because this is international basketball, we couldn't just give [the roster spot] to her. I couldn't do that even if I'd have loved to just because her presence as a player. She was picked on merit so I think I made the right decision definitely."
"As a friend I'm really proud of her of what she did. There's no player - I got to play with Lauren as well, not just coach - there's no player as mentally tough as her. Even though she's a softie off the court - we were both crying before the game - it's just her toughness, that's the sign of greatness for me."
"Her legacy was never going to change. I couldn't have scripted it any better and I'm so bloody happy for her because she deserves it and she's been such a great leader, this team - the girls just love her."
"I'm just happy we got the bronze and she can go out on her terms now."
Journey of a lifetime
"I don't believe in fairy tales," Jackson had said after losing to France in the opening game of the World Cup as per The New York Times. "I just don't. But if it ends today, if it ends tomorrow, I don't care. I've had the ride of my life."
That ride - whether you look at it from the perspective of her entire career or just of this particular year-long comeback - has been unforgettable. Jackson might not believe in fairy tales, but this is as close as you can get to a fairy tale in real life.
"This journey, I've said it before to all of you, it's just been the most humbling but incredible ten months of my life," Jackson said in the press conference. "I said to Sandy after the game… just thank you for selecting me, because it's given me the opportunity to just play the sport I love in front of Australia again and to say goodbye this way is just magnificent. I couldn't have imagined it."
"I could never have dreamed of this. Honestly, I didn't think she was going to select me two months ago," Jackson said, motioning to her head coach and friend that was seated next to her.
"I did not think you were going to select me," she said to Brondello in emphasis.
"I can't imagine - I can't articulate how I feel right now. It's a dream come true. The fact that it's over is nothing to be disappointed about. It's just so special. I've had the ride of my life. Doing it here, like the crowds that we've been getting is just remarkable, it's perfect."
One last ride?
After playing the most minutes and attempting the most field goals in a game in the eighth and final game of the competition, Jackson did show some signs of physical fatigue while seated at the press conference. She was also full of emotion - teary-eyed at moments - but in general she looked at peace.
As Brondello had said, Jackson can now go out on her own terms.
"I'm excited because I get to go back to my day job now and launch She Hoops which is really exciting," Jackson said about her post-tournament plans. "Look, I am so honored to wear the green and gold. There's nothing more important to me and never has been in my career. So to be a part of bringing us back to the podium and to be able to do it with such an incredible group of people in Australia, it's been so special."
"But I'm looking forward to going back to work though because I hurt. My body hurts right now, it doesn't hurt at work," she added, drawing laughter from the audience.
When asked about her plans in 2024, specifically whether she would consider returning for another run at the Olympics like when Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi returned for Team USA for the Tokyo Olympics, Jackson replied firmly without much thought.
"No," she said with a smile.
"They didn't have two children that rely on them," she added, referring to Bird and Taurasi. "My kids, they're only babies. They've made sacrifices for me to be here. I've spent a lot time away from them for the last two months and it's too hard on me and it's too hard on them."
"They need their mummy and I need my babies so I'm done."