Commentary

LJ happy, healthy, ready to lead Storm

After ankle surgery and pondering move to Phoenix, Jackson is back in Seattle

Originally Published: June 4, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Lauren JacksonAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesAnkle surgery forced Lauren Jackson to miss the '08 playoffs; Seattle lost in the first round.

Seattle Storm center Lauren Jackson is, of course, officially a citizen of Australia. From a practical standpoint, though, she's a citizen of women's basketball.

It's like this for many women who play hoops professionally. Most who compete in the WNBA also go overseas in the fall and winter months. By playing nearly year-round, they hope to maximize their income from the limited amount of years any pro athlete has.

Yet Jackson's talent and value to a team are so great that they put her almost in a special category. Hey, LJ, as the old Billy Squier song said "Everybody wants you."

She has been the centerpiece of the Australian national team since she was a teenager, and no "duty" is more sacred to her than to play for her country. The WNBL, the women's pro league in Australia, would love to have her play there again. She's wanted in Russia, where she has competed the last few years. Before that, she played in Korea, and they'd take her back in a second. And, of course, she's wanted in the WNBA.

As a free agent, she could have gone anywhere. Every team would have been overjoyed to have her, but the only other place she really considered relocating to was Phoenix. She decided to stay in Seattle, and it doesn't sound like it ever really was that close a call.

"You know, it's fun being good at what you do," Jackson said. "I can't imagine my life without playing in America or Russia, as well as Australia. It's a nice feeling that people are so happy to have you there. And it's given me the opportunity to travel, to see so many things."

LJ recently turned 28, and she said she'd always heard that your late 20s was when you more seriously begin taking stock of everything around you. When you really grasp that your youth has an expiration date. When you develop a deeper appreciation of people and things that matter to you.

Most of us in the United States had heard of Jackson as the Aussie prodigy before seeing her play at age 19 in the 2000 Summer Olympics, where she had a "hair-raising" little run-in with USA center Lisa Leslie. Some saw that as Jackson being a bit bratty, while others thought it was just hilarious: Down Under vs. the diva.

Jackson's play and personality long ago won over everyone on both sides. She has matured while globe-trotting. And while she's still a "kid" in some ways -- one who loves shopping, hanging with her mates and listening to music -- she's a wiser woman with each passing year.

A chronological inevitability, you say? Not necessarily. Some people get older, but not smarter.

"You definitely go through stages in life," Jackson said. "At 27, 28, I just know that I've been through so much and witnessed so much. You grow up. For a long time, I was living in a little basketball bubble."

The daughter of basketball players, Jackson has genetic gifts matched by her own competitive desire. She stands out … but still wants to fit in. She is thoroughly Aussie in that way.

We Americans actually do "get" Australians and appreciate them, even though we are not intrinsically the same. Americans love being teammates, revel in all the emotions of being part of a team. But we also are willing to accept it when the lone wolf appears on teams. In fact, we expect that to happen at least some of the time.

The stereotype of Aussie athletes -- even those in individual sports like tennis, golf and swimming -- is that they always want to be part of a pack of their buddies. They stick together as if their camaraderie were the very glue of their lives.

So when Storm coach Brian Agler took over in Seattle last year, he said he was just committed to let Jackson be herself.

"Because I knew everything she did was for the team," he said. "She was always focused on the team. If you know Aussie culture, you know it's really like that. They are really team-oriented."

Agler said the Storm supported Jackson's decision to have ankle surgery after the Olympics last year, even though that ended up keeping her out of the WNBA playoffs.

[+] EnlargeLauren Jackson
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhether playing for the Storm or representing Australia, Lauren Jackson has a team-first mentality.

"She was playing well, but we knew she was going through a lot of pain at that time," Agler said. "She wasn't at 100 percent, but she's not that type of person who will ever make excuses. She's got a blue-collar mentality.

"We knew we would not get her back last season, but it was something that would help her be better this year. And it has -- she obviously is fresher physically and mentally now, and I think she's very hungry to do well. She feels good about being here."

Despite considering Phoenix -- or maybe because she did that -- Jackson more than ever considers Seattle to be "home." As in, she feels as at home there now as she does in Australia.

While it's hard to leave her family and friends in Australia from an emotional standpoint, it's not as if Seattle is some distant second in her heart now. Hearing from Storm fans during her free-agency exploration touched her more than she realized it would. Agler's visits to watch her play overseas this winter, and their conversations that didn't feel pressured … those things mattered, too.

And it sure doesn't hurt that the music scene is so good.

"I told my agent the other day that there are at least 10 concerts I want to go to this summer in Seattle," Jackson said. "You know, Seattle has become a huge part of my life."

Jackson helped the Storm to the 2004 WNBA title, and winning a championship again in this league is a driving force in her career. She is old enough now to realize that every chance for any title is precious, and she grieves more when one slips away. She was crushed in Beijing about taking home another Olympic silver, even if rationally she realizes how incredibly difficult it is for Australia to beat the United States.

"The silver medal is still a great accomplishment," she said. "We've got a smaller population, and for us to achieve what we have is something special. But you never know how many opportunities you'll have to win a championship. So yeah, I was a little bit upset after that game. It hurt."

And it was hard to watch her Storm teammates in the WNBA playoffs, even though she knew the surgery was critical to her future.

"Hopefully this season, with me back," she said, "we can emulate the team chemistry that we had last year. They all did so well; they were great. All the pieces were playing together."

Except the most irreplaceable piece of the puzzle wasn't able to join in. Then in the offseason, Agler prepared for the possibility that Jackson might leave for Phoenix, but tried not to think about it too much.

"We knew we could find some more post players if we had to," he said. "But obviously, we're not going to find another Lauren Jackson."

For her eight-season WNBA career, Jackson has averaged 19.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. Injuries have kept her out at times, and she's more committed than ever to maintaining her fitness and strength.

"There are always things to work on," she said. "The athlete who is motivated and wants to get better never stops trying. I'm pretty sure that I will be able to give it a good run this year. I will become a better player."

And she'll do it in a Storm uniform. Lauren Jackson, citizen of women's basketball, belongs to Seattle once again this summer.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.