SYDNEY, Australia — It was an not easily seen return. Just over a 12 months ago, Lauren Jackson, certainly one of the best players in women’s basketball history, returned to the suburban courts of Albury, a small regional city in southeastern Australia, to play social basketball. No crowds, no fuss. Just hoops.
“I used to be pretty chubby,” Jackson said. “But I could still stand up and down the court. I could still shoot the ball. And I used to be still very competitive.”
Jackson, 41, was a four-time Olympic medalist for the Australian national team (nicknamed the Opals), a two-time W.N.B.A. champion with the Seattle Storm, a three-time W.N.B.A. most precious player and a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. But she had been out of the sport for years, having retired in 2016 after injuries all but ended her profession in 2014.
She didn’t consider her return to her hometown courts as a comeback, but it surely turned out to be just that. Jackson, who had an office job with Basketball Australia, last month accomplished her remarkable return to competition when she was named to the Opals’ squad for the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Sydney. Australia meets Serbia on Sunday and Canada on Monday.
As Jackson spoke about her comeback in an interview at her team’s hotel, in Sydney’s Olympic precinct, tears formed in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I get emotional about it,” she said. “The game has meant a lot to me, on and off the court. Even the actual fact I’m still working in it — I just wish to see it thrive. So to have this chance, this last shot at being an element of something special — this journey is likely to be probably the most significant in my entire life.”
Jackson, the daughter of two national basketball team players, was a teenage sensation in Australia, entering the Australian Institute of Sport at 16 and leading its team to a national championship at 18. The W.N.B.A.’s overall No. 1 draft pick in 2001, she was a seven-time league all-star.
“Everyone I confer with has her in the highest three” of all time, Kobe Bryant said of Jackson in 2012. “And I mean everyone.”
A series of injuries, including chronic troubles together with her right knee, sidelined Jackson late in her profession. It was her dream to retire after the 2016 Olympics, where she hoped to steer the Opals past their archrivals from the USA. Jackson’s Australian team had lost to the Americans within the Olympic gold medal matches in Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, and within the semifinals in London in 2012.
More on the W.N.B.A.
- A Star’s Comeback: Lauren Jackson, a three-time W.N.B.A. most precious player, has rejoined the Australian national team after injuries knocked her out of the game in 2014.
- Swan Song: Sue Bird, who had said she would retire after this season, shepherded the Seattle Storm to the playoffs. The team’s loss on Sept. 7 marked the top of her incredible profession.
- Greatness Overshadowed: Sylvia Fowles, who has also announced her retirement from basketball, is one of the vital successful American athletes ever. Why isn’t she higher known?
- A Critical Eye: As enthusiasm for ladies’s basketball and the W.N.B.A grows, fans have gotten more demanding of the league and more vocal about their wishes.
But she wasn’t in a position to return.
“I attempted to suit up a few times,” Jackson recalled, “but I used to be just in a lot pain that I couldn’t move.” Missing out was a cruel end to a two-decade basketball profession. “It definitely wasn’t on my terms,” she said.
Jackson returned to Albury, a city of fifty,000, and took a position with Basketball Australia, leading its women’s basketball program. She had two children. She began taking medical marijuana, as a part of a clinical trial, to ease her knee pain.
In time, she returned to the court, at age 40, at a neighborhood facility named in her honor: the Lauren Jackson Sports Center.
Local players were star-struck — and a bit intimidated, even unhappy, to be facing down a legend of the sport. “There have been lots of complaints,” Jackson said. “I used to be like: ‘I’m a single mom, I’ve just had two kids and I actually have a knee substitute — and also you’re complaining?’ Nevertheless it was fun, lots of fun.”
Jackson discovered that the pain relief she got from the cannabis allowed her to return to the gym. “One training session led into one other,” she said. Her training partner and best friend since childhood, Sam McDonald, also happened to be the assistant coach of the Albury Wodonga Bandits, a semiprofessional team. He suggested a return and, by April of this 12 months, Jackson was competing again.
She scored 21 points in 22 minutes for the Bandits in her first competitive game in nine years. “Is the G.O.A.T. back?” tweeted FIBA, basketball’s global governing body.
With Australia scheduled to host the World Cup in September, whispers soon spread of a national team comeback. Jackson initially brushed off the thought, but then was invited to a training camp with the Opals.
“I remember once I first went into camp, I said to the women: ‘I don’t expect that I’m going to go any further than this, but it surely’s an actual honor to be here — to be a part of this process, to see the way in which you train, to assist in any way I can.’” That led to a world camp in Recent York.
“I remember pondering, behind my head, that is going to be it,” she said. “Because I just didn’t understand how my body was going to carry out.”
Yet last month, the Opals’ coach, Sandy Brondello, who also coaches the Recent York Liberty, told Jackson on a video call that she had made the team. In a recording of the decision, Jackson looks shocked. “I don’t think there was ever a moment where I used to be like, ‘I’m going to make the World Cup,’ until I used to be actually told by Sandy,” she said in an interview.
On Thursday in Sydney, Jackson played her first competitive game for Australia in almost a decade. She wore the number 25 on her jersey, marking the quarter-century since she first played for the Opals.
Jackson checked in halfway through the primary quarter, to an enormous roar from the group. She missed her first shot, but soon nailed a 3-pointer, causing one other eruption within the stands.
It was a decent game until the ultimate quarter, when France pulled away to win, 70-57. Jackson played greater than 10 minutes, proving essential defensively but not adding any further scoring.
“It’s pretty crazy to be here,” she said after the sport. Jackson was dissatisfied by the loss, but added, “I can’t wipe the smile off my face because I’m so honored to be here representing Australia.”
Brondello called the sport “an incredible comeback for Lauren.” She conceded that Jackson was not more likely to dominate as she once did, though she expected her to grow into the tournament. “This doesn’t change her legacy in any respect,” Brondello said.
The Opals’ prospects on the World Cup are uncertain. Their loss to France was not a promising start, but they bounced back on Friday with a 118-58 win over Mali (Jackson contributed eight points). As ever, the USA is more likely to stand between the Australians and a gold medal.
In response to Jackson, this tournament shall be her last. She has no plans to play within the 2024 Olympics in Paris (she shall be 43; it might be her fifth Games). “No way,” she said. “I say that to you knowing full well where I’ve come from, so anything is feasible, but I don’t think that’s happening.”
It’s not clear if she shall be welcome back at social basketball, either. “I don’t know in the event that they’ll let me,” she laughed.
But after her first farewell to basketball led to agony, Jackson is glad to be bowing out on her own terms. She still endures the knee pain — “I feel it day by day,” she said — but because of medical cannabis and a therapeutic use exemption (marijuana is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list), Jackson can have one last dance.
“I don’t consider in fairy tales,” she said. “I just don’t. But when it ends today, if it ends tomorrow, I don’t care. I’ve had the ride of my life.”