Lauren Jackson was born to Maree and Gary Jackson on May 11, 1981, in Albury, New South Wales, Australia. Her brother, Ross, came along a year later. Lauren’s mother, who stands 6-2, played basketball for the Opals, Australia’s national women’s team, beginning in 1974. She starred for Louisiana State University from 1976 to 1978, returning Down Under each year to join the Opals. Maree was so dominant a center during the late 1970s and early 80s that she was called the female Wilt Chamberlain.
Lauren’s father, three inches taller than his wife, owned a laser-like jumper and also played for Australia’s national team (the men go by the nickname “Boomers”), though he was never a big star. His favorite player was Chamberlain, too. Both parents coached youth teams in New South Wales province during Lauren’s childhood.
Lauren went on her first hoops road trip at two weeks and was holding a tiny basketball at four weeks. At two years, she was guaranteeing Australia would win Olympic gold with her help. At four years, she already looked comfortable on the court—and under the bleachers, where she spent countless hours exploring (and napping) while her parents practiced for, played in, and later coached in national tournaments.
While most families
commune around the dinner table, the Jacksons interacted most naturally
on the pebble-and-tar court they laid out near their house. Fun games
often turned nasty, however, as Lauren learned an early distaste for losing.
And she never, ever, backed down. In the mates-versus-sheilas half-court
battles, Lauren and Ross were not allowed to guard each other, because
a fight would inevitably result.
Lauren was very curious about the man her mom was nicknamed for. She began collecting videos that starred Wilt the Stilt, and marveled at his athleticism. He was so tall, yet so agile. As she read up on Chamberlain she realized that he was more than a basketball player. A high-jumper and sprinter in college, he could have been world-class in track & field. Lauren began to set her sights on becoming a unique player, like Chamberlain. As a teenager, she would meditate in front of a poster of him prior to games.
By age nine, Lauren had prodigy written all over her; at 13 she made the national junior squad; at 14 she stood six feet tall and was invited to attend the Australian Institute of Sport; at 15, she accepted.
For Lauren, AIS was a wonderful opportunity on many levels. She was teased throughout her youth for being tall and gawky. Now she was surrounded by kids who shared her immense talents. At AIS, young athletes live together in dorms, weight train in the morning and take academic classes after lunch. Then it’s off to practice or games. Maree missed Lauren terribly, and Lauren was having a hard time adjusting to this new environment. Located in Canberra, AIS was three hours away from the Jackson home, so Gary and Maree decided to move closer to their daughter and took up residence nearby.
Being accepted into the AIS program and playing for coach Phil Brown was an important step for Lauren. Virtually every AIS graduate turns pro. In fact, about half the players in Australia’s Women’s National Basketball League are former AIS players.
Lauren was long, graceful,
incredibly athletic and, of course, so completely immersed in the culture
of basketball that there was little a coach could teach her that she hadn’t
already discovered on her own. What her coaches adored was the fact that
she didn’t seem to know how much better she was than the other girls.
Lauren was always thinking “team” first and “me”
Lauren was invited to join the Opals for the 1998 World Championships in Germany, and at 17 became the youngest player ever on the national squad. What a thrill it was to hob nob with the country’s top player, Michele Timms, and team captain Robyn Maher, who had actually been a teammate of her mother’s years earlier.
In June of 1998, at the World Championships, Lauren made her international debut for the Opals and helped them win a bronze medal. The teenager was a benchwarmer unknown to the basketball world outside Australia when the tournament started. By the end, she was the Opal’s go-to girl. For the tournament she averaged a point a minute, and rebounded like a whirlwind.
ON THE RISE
Following this exhibition, Lauren was offered contracts by European and South American clubs, and there was interest on the part of ABL and WNBA teams. She also was being wooed by sporting goods companies as a potential endorsing athlete. Meanwhile, coach Tom Maher was retooling the Opal offense to revolve around Lauren’s enormous talent.
In January, Lauren became the focus of a bidding war between Australia’s pro teams, which were allowed to audition a group of nine girls who would be graduating from the AIS program. A two-week recruiting window was opened in part to prevent the under-the-table recruiting that was taking place with its students.
Lauren’s preference was to play for a team on the east coast, near her home. Fans wondered whether she would receive the $25,000-plus paid to the WNBL’s top players, like Rachael Sporn. They were also curious to see if Lauren was ready to take the next step and develop into a full-time pro. A similarly touted AIS grad, Rohanee Cox, had previously signed with Perth and played her way on to the bench.
This would not be the case in Canberra, where Lauren signed a two-season deal to play for the Capitals. Had she accepted an offer from one of the U.S. pro leagues, there is little doubt she would have been a star. But Lauren was still rough around the edges, and felt that a year or two at home honing her game for the 2000 Olympics might be a smarter move.
Before joining Canberra, Lauren had one more year of study at AIS, which fielded a club in the WNBL. Matching up a squad of teens against the big girls had traditionally resulted in a string of humiliating losses for AIS—a toughening-up process, as it were. In her final AIS season, however, Lauren changed that tradition. Joined by point guard Kristen Veal and sharpshooter Penny Taylor, she led AIS to the WNBL championship and won the league MVP to boot. Imagine a team of high schoolers finishing atop the WNBA—this was the magnitude of the AIS victory.
Canberra coach Mike McHugh was no dope. He started designing his offense around Lauren months before she became a Capital. She responded with two All-Star seasons, including a co-MVP nod in 2000.
Lauren was a handful, to say the least. She was too quick to be guarded by centers, and at 6-4 too big to be checked by more agile players. Lauren could not be intimidated, either. She had learned from her parents how to give better than she got. In two seasons with Canberra, Lauren won one scoring title and led the Capitals to the 2000 WNBL title.
Lauren’s work for the Opals, meanwhile, consisted of tournaments and exhibitions against other national squads in preparation for the Olympics. Though one of the team’s youngest members, her competitiveness and tenacity—and her unwillingness to back down—made her a natural leader.
Anyone wondering how Lauren would fare in the face of top competition got their answer during a game against Team USA in September of 1999. While battling for position with Lisa Leslie, she buried an elbow in her opponent’s ribs and was whistled for a foul. When Leslie wagged a finger in her face, Lauren unleashed a stream of obscenities at the world’s top player that left everyone on the court breathless for a moment. They continued to tangle the rest of the game, and neither apologized in the press afterwards. A great rivalry was born.
Lauren spent the next year gaining much-needed experience, improving her defense, and working on her left hand. As one of four teenagers on the national team, she also became a ringleader, encouraging her young teammates to explore their wild sides through tattoos and piercings, and by listening to musicians like Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.
In June of 2000, the Opals went on a four-nation tune-up for the Olympics. In the two years since Lauren burst upon the world basketball scene, she had played in more than 50 international games, and gained enough confidence to experiment when the situation on the court dictated. When she found herself in a new situation, she typically responded by trying something brand new, often to the amazement of fans and teammates.
This got to be a problem
for coach Maher, who worried that his players were starting to to depend
too heavily on Lauren's scoring. She was capable of hitting for 30 on
any given night, but not every night. The Opals had relied on balance
during their bronze-medal performance at the 1996 Olympics, and now they
were straying from this team tradition. As he warned his players, Lauren
was the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.
In the final exhibition before the Olympics, the Opals received a wake-up call when the Americans trounced them 83-62 in Melbourne. During the game, tempers flared repeatedly. Lauren got into a dispute with Sheryl Swoopes, and Leslie intervened. The two centers bumped chests in a memorable stare-down. There was plenty of trash-talking the rest of the contest. Lauren and her teammates could hardly wait until they met again.
As Olympic competition began, Lauren was the girl to watch, and the Australians, with homecourt advantage, were touted as a slight underdog against the powerhouse Americans. Lauren now stood 6-5 and weighed in at a respectable 160 pounds. But she still played girlishly at times, unwilling to throw her weight around, especially under the boards. Although the Aussies had eight WNBA players on the roster—including Sandy Brondello and a hobbled Timms—they did not have an enforcer, and it would ultimately cost them.
The Opals breezed through the first round, winning all five games in their qualifying pool and setting a course for a gold-medal showdown with Team USA. Australia defeated Poland in the quarterfinals and scored a 64-53 victory over Brazil in the semis. The Opals were playing great defense—good enough, even, to ambush the Americans.
The gold medal final, played in front of a raucous crowd at the Sydney SuperDome, capped a series of U.S.-Australian confrontations that added a little spice to the Summer Games. The two countries had already clashed dramatically in swimming, water polo, pole vaulting and softball.
Unfortunately for Australia, the women’s final proved what the American players had been telling Aussie reporters all week: Lauren was very good, but she was one star against a half-dozen U.S. players who could compete at her level. The Opals were simply overwhelmed, as Team USA cruised to a 76-54 win. They were helpless against the U.S. transition game, as Leslie and Yolanda Griffith inhaled rebounds and fired long passes to Swoopes and her fast-breaking teammates. Lauren scored 20 and hauled down 13 boards, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
The game did generate one unforgettable image for the Jackson family scrapbook. Midway through the second half, Lauren and Leslie were fighting for position, and Lauren ended up with her opponent’s hair extension in her hand. Leslie sneered that Lauren could keep the hair—she’d take the gold.
After the game, Leslie accused Lauren of doing it on purpose. Lauren didn’t argue the point. She thought Leslie had been a little dirty under the boards, and in general did not like the attitude of the American players. On the popular Channel 7 show “The Dream,” Lauren admitted that yanking Leslie’s pony tail was the highlight of the Olympics for her.
After the Olympics, Lauren pondered her next move. It was tempting to play one more season for the Capitals, but her experience in the final against the Americans drove home the fact that she still had a lot to learn—and that the place to learn it was in the U.S., where she could face the high-caliber competition of the WNBA.
Lauren’s Olympic experience had also underscored the disadvantage of playing in Australia, which does not have a tradition of developing post players. Lauren was devastatingly effective on the perimeter, but hadn't developed a true post-up game. The WNBA offered an education that Lauren wasn’t likely to find Down Under.
The only sticking
point was the standard league contract, which did not offer much in the
way of salary and incentives. Lauren’s agent, Leo Karis, knew that
there was a wave of interest in his client stateside, and demanded that
she receive a lucrative marketing contract with Nike in addition to her
WNBA pact. With just two days to go before the draft, a deal was hammered
out and Lauren’s course was set. She irritated many WNBA veterans
when she challenged the league’s salary structure. But her success
opened the eyes of the players, too. After all, they weren’t going
to get paid more until they asked for it. Lauren’s base salary of
less than $60,000 made up just 15 percent of her total compensation package.
On April 20, 2001—three weeks before she turned 20—Lauren’s name was the first called in the WNBA draft. The Seattle Storm, coached by Lin Dunn, had won just six of 32 games during the 2000 season, which entitled them to the league’s top overall choice. Lauren was at the head of a rookie class that featured a boatload of talent in Ruth Riley, Tamika Catchings, Jackie Stiles, the Miller twins—Kelly and Coco—and fellow Aussie Taylor, who edged Lauren for the WNBL MVP earlier in the year.
Taylor wasn’t the only familiar face in the league. Lauren’s Canberra teammate, point guard Kristen Veal, was also drafted; Canberra’s coach in 2001, Carrie Graf, came to the WNBA as an assistant for the Phoenix Mercury; and Tom Maher, the Opals coach, was hired to guide the fortunes of Chamique Holdsclaw and the Washington Mystics.
MAKING HER MARK
Lauren was the centerpiece of a rebuilding program in Seattle. Able to play any position on the floor, she was ideally suited for this role. A top-flight center, she could handle the ball like a guard and run the offense if need be. Murder finishing the break, she also had a turnaround jumper that would soon become one of the WNBA’s un-defensible weapons.
From Lauren’s standpoint, going to a losing team was a drag, but the chance to live in Seattle was worth it. She had read about the grunge movement and the music culture as a teenager, and could hardly wait to experience it herself. It didn’t hurt that Storm teammate Katrina Hibbert, also from Australia, served as her guide.
Lauren made her debut against the Mercury, scoring 21 points in an 83-70 victory that established a new franchise record for points. Her numbers remained strong throughout her rookie season, but Seattle lost twice as often as it won, finishing 10-22. Besides Lauren, the team had one other budding star, Semeka Randall, a rookie guard from the championship program at Tennessee. Her 28 points in a June game against the Orlando Miracle set a Seattle record.
Lauren finished among the leaders in every significant statistical category, and was runner-up in the Rookie of the Year voting to Stiles. She led the Storm in scoring 19 times and in rebounding 18 times, and scored 11 points in the All-Star Game.
The WNBA was everything Lauren had hoped it would be, but life in the states was not. The added workload aggravated a sore shoulder that had bothered her since her AIS days, and kept her from competing for the Opals after the WNBA season. Also, she became terribly homesick, and was so miserable by the end of the season that Maree had to fly to Seattle to get her through the end of the year. When Lauren returned to Australia, there was some speculation that she would not return.
With time to reflect on her first WNBA campaign, Lauren decided she had chosen the correct career path, and by spring camp in 2002 she was eager to get back in uniform and guide the Storm to their first playoff appearance. This year she would have some help in the person of UConn grad Sue Bird, the Storm’s top pick in the draft.
On opening night, with Lauren on the bench nursing an ankle sprain, Bird picked up the slack with 18 points in a 78-61 loss to the Liberty. Clearly, Seattle needed Sue and Lauren in the lineup working together. As the season unfolded, Bird continued to light it up, while Czech center Kamila Vodichkova provided help inside. In June alone, the Storm set a franchise mark with 90 points (paced by Lauren’s 23) against Phoenix, beat the Sacramento Monarchs by 26 points, and scored an incredible 10-point comeback against the Miracle.
In July, Seattle upended the defending champion LA Sparks, led by Lauren’s nemesis Lisa Leslie. A few days later Lauren dropped 27 points on Orlando, then matched that total in August against Utah (and blocked 10 shots in the process). The win over the Starzz secured a playoff spot for the Storm.
Lauren finished the
year fourth in the WNBA scoring race with a 17.2 average, going for double
figures in each of the season’s final 20 games. Once again, she
was selected to the All-Star squad, and also wound up 10th in the MVP
voting. The season ended on a down note, however, as Leslie exacted revenge
when the Sparks beat Seattle in the first round of the playoffs.
Lauren’s breakout year came in 2003, under new coach Anne Donovan. Lauren showed new poise under pressure and a broader repertoire of post moves. In early June, she became the youngest player to score 1,000 points in the WNBA, and had her first 20-20 game a few days later. Her highest-scoring effort came against the Sparks, with Leslie sidelined. Lauren set a WNBA record with 17 field goals and Seattle won 92-56.
Unfortunately for the Storm, a balky knee kept Bird out of the lineup for long stretches, and Seattle began to fade. When Vodichkova was lost for the year with a foot injury, hope for a playoff berth all but ended. She was having the best year of her career at the time.
With no other options, Donovan instructed her players to lean on Lauren. She responded with a great second half, often taking over games in the final quarter. Lauren’s finest performance came against San Antonio in August, when she hit for 32 points and grabbed 18 rebounds.
Although there was no post-season for Lauren, there was much to be proud of. She finished ’03 as the WNBA’s leading scorer (21.3 ppg) and was second in rebounds (307) and blocks (64). Her clutch play against double- and triple-teams in the second half earned her the respect of MVP voters, who named her the league’s top player.
With the goal of adding more quality support players in 2004, the Storm found just what they needed when the Cleveland Rockers went belly-up and Seattle chose veteran shooting guard Betty Lennox in the dispersal draft. The team also traded for small forward Sheri Sam and center Janell Burse. There were other new faces on the Seattle bench, which led some—including ESPN’s Ann Meyers—to predict the Storm would finish in the WNBA cellar.
Lennox turned out to be a godsend, Bird stayed healthy and Lauren kept up the heat as the team rounded into shape in early July. When Lennox broke her nose and needed surgery, Lauren stepped up with a 33-point game against Sacramento. Not only did she dominate the Monarchs inside, she popped out to the perimeter and literally filled Lennox’s role by drilling three three-pointers. At one point in the campaign, Lauren was actually leading the WNBA in three-point percentage.
When the season broke in August for the Olympics, the Storm had the league’s second-best record at 17-8. Bird headed over to Athens with Lauren, where they met again in the finals, as Australia and the U.S. fashioned perfect records on their way to the gold-medal game. The Opals were weaker than in 2000, which enabled Leslie and her teammates to bottle up Lauren all game long. She shot a disappointing 4-of-16 in a 74-63 loss.
After receiving her silver medal, Lauren decided to go home and visit her ailing 83-year-old grandmother. It was also a chance to rest her sore foot, a nagging injury exacerbated during the Olympics. In Lauren’s absence, the Storm dropped three straight, but she righted Seattle’s ship upon her return, with a blowout over the defending champion Detroit Shock. The team secured second position in the West with one game to go, meaning its finale against the Sparks had no bearing on the standings. Still, nearly 15,000 fans showed up at Key Arena to watch the two rivals tangle. LA won an 83-80 heartstopper when Lennox just missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Once again, Lauren
finished the regular season as league scoring champ, with 20.5 points
per game, and ranked among the leaders in shooting, rebounds and blocks.
The playoffs started on a distressing note for Seattle fans, as Lauren found herself on the bench in foul trouble against the Minnesota Lynx, and Lennox suffered a concussion in the second half. The Storm still won easily, but in Game 2, Bird broke her nose. A nine-point outburst by Aussie reserve Tully Bevilaqua saved the day, and the Storm advanced to the semifinals against the Monarchs, who had shocked the LA Sparks on the other side of the draw.
Lauren’s joy was dampened by the news that her grandmother had died. She felt a need to return for the funeral, and asked permission from her team. The Storm left it up to her. When Lauren phoned her parents, they told her to stay and play. Nana would have wanted it that way.
Game 1 of the Western final was a taut affair, with neither team able to grind out a win in regulation. In the closing moments of overtime, Ticha Penicheiro picked Lauren’s pocket and forward DeMya Walker flipped in a difficult lefthanded layup to give Sacramento a 74-72 victory. Lauren’s 30 points and 13 rebounds went to waste. With their backs against the wall, the Storm held off a late charge by the Monarchs and evened the series with a 66-54 win.
Game 3 was a classic, as a bemasked Bird returned 24 hours after surgery and doled out a record 14 assists. Lauren was all over the place, rebounding, defending, scoring inside and drilling six three-pointers. Everything she put up went in—it was just one of those games. A close contest became a blowout when Seattle went on a 20-point run midway through the second half. Their 82-62 win earned them a shot at the WNBA crown against the Eastern champs, the Connecticut Sun.
Prior to the Finals, Lauren and Sue were named First-Team All-WNBA. Leslie, meanwhile, edged Lauren in the MVP voting.
Game 1, played at Mohegan Sun Arena, was a disaster. The Storm were sloppy, and only a late surge made the score close, as rookie Lindsay Whalen led Connecticut to a 68-64 win. Game 2, in Seattle, drew a sellout crowd of 17, 072. They roared as the Storm sprinted to an early lead, then fretted as Nykesha Sales got hot and began to chip away at the Seattle advantage. The Sun guard scored 10 in a row late in the game, but Lennox answered with 16 points in the second half to give the Storm a 67-65 advantage with time running out. Connecticut got the ball to Sales at the buzzer, but her jumper hit the edge of the backboard and Seattle escaped with a heart-stopping victory.
Another sellout crowd cheered on the Storm in the deciding game of the series. The two clubs jousted in a spirited first half, with neither able to build a lead. Up a point at halftime, Seattle took control with a 12-4 run to open third quarter. The Sun managed to close the gap to five, but then Lauren & Co. tightened the noose on defense and established a 13-point fourth-quarter lead. A few minutes later, Donovan began removing her starters to huge ovations. The final score was 74-60, and Lennox was named Finals MVP.
After briefly basking in the afterglow of her championship, Lauren returned to her family in Australia. The prospect of a WNBL season on the heels of her WNBA and Olympic schedule may seem daunting, but Lauren adores the game and all that comes with it.
In 2004, Lauren had
returned from Down Under with a dead-on three-pointer. It not only gave
Seattle a new dimension—a championship dimension—it opened
the eyes of those who thought that Lauren was approaching the limit of
those same folks can’t wait to see what she is planning to spring
on the WNBA in 2005 and beyond.
After adding long-distance shooting to her repertoire in 2004, Lauren has truly become the WNBA’s ultimate do-it-all player. Her game was good before she set foot in the league, and during her career she has become an elegant post player. Significantly, her three-point proficiency has not impeded her progress in the paint. Like church and state, she keeps them separate. Lauren’s ability to score after being hacked also sets her apart from her WNBA counterparts.
Though Lauren is not considered to be a “streak” shooter, when she gets hot there is no stopping her. Whenever she gets her hands on the ball, wherever she happens to be on the court, she has more ways of putting it in the hole than any player in the world. And by all accounts, she is getting better, perhaps still three or four years away from her prime.
Lauren has muscled up during her WNBA career, but her remarkable mobility remains the key to her defense. Her maturity has also helped her D. Instead of stubbornly refusing to back down, she has learned to bend when situations call for it. In 2004, ESPN Magazine named her as the WNBA’s top defender.
The difference between
Lauren today and a few years ago is that she has begun to see that she
can’t win every game by herself. In some respects, the fact that
Betty Lennox won the Finals MVP in 2004 says more about Lauren’s
maturity than any stat she's put up to date.
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