Commentary

LJ says she has more to prove

Seattle star to tie Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes with third regular-season MVP honor

Originally Published: September 2, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Truth pours easily out of Lauren Jackson. If there are exaggerations on her part, they are always made in a self-deprecating fashion.

So she tells you, "I was really bad at school," and that she was "a party kid" as a youngster away from home at the Australian Institute of Sport. And that she thinks perhaps, like so many athletes, she lives too much in a bubble that shields her from certain aspects of so-called real life. And that she has been known to act in contrarian fashion … well, just because.

"I think anybody who knows me would tell you I'm just about as crazy as anybody, but also as laid-back as anybody," Jackson said, dutifully trying to fulfill a request for some self-analysis. "If you tell me not to do something, I'll probably go and do it. Purely because … I don't know."

[+] EnlargeLauren Jackson
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty ImagesLauren Jackson is averaging 20.5 points and 8.3 rebounds this season. She also won MVP honors in 2007 and 2003.

She smiles at that, but it's not the more mischievous grin she had when she came to the WNBA in 2001, having just turned 20 years old and ready to kick tail. Most Americans had first seen Jackson in the 2000 Olympics in her native Australia, a 6-foot-5 multiskilled whiz who was not afraid to go right at U.S. superstar Lisa Leslie.

Now with 10 WNBA seasons under her belt and multiple inductions into various halls of fame already certain in her future, Jackson's status on the short list of best-ever players is taken as a given by those who follow the sport.

Thus, folks might forget that she did have to prove herself that first season with the Seattle Storm. And that even after she did that, averaging 15.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, she wasn't chosen rookie of the year. The award went to the player with whom the American media was more familiar because of her college career, Jackie Stiles.

That vote turned out not to be a harbinger at all, though. Stiles, sadly, would see her body break down in myriad ways as she played just part of one more season. Jackson would have her painful battles with injuries, too -- she missed the WNBA playoffs the past two seasons -- but has finished a decade in Seattle with both feet firmly planted in legend territory.

Adding to that status will be the announcement Thursday night, in front of her adoring Storm fans prior to Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, that Jackson has been selected the WNBA's MVP for the third time. That ought to get the ThunderStix at KeyArena really thundering.

The honor ties Jackson with Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes, also three-time MVP winners. Both are roughly a decade older than Jackson and out of the WNBA.

So LJ, who turned 29 in May, could end up with more of those WNBA MVP trophies than anyone. And this season, when Seattle has been the best team in the league, she and the Storm might also win their second WNBA title. That's a quest that continues in Thursday's West finals opener against Phoenix.

Jackson's good friend but rival in this series, 2009 WNBA MVP Diana Taurasi, is not hesitant to say that she defines herself as a player by how many championships she wins.

"And she has a lot of those," Jackson said.

But does Jackson also define herself that same way?

"No," she said. "I think when I was younger, I'd say I was this kind of angry kid with a chip on my shoulder, and I wanted to win at all costs. I still want to win at all costs but … it's not quite the same.

"You know, I'm just not sure. How would you define me? I don't really think about it."

That's OK. Lots of other people do.

Lisa Leslie and Lauren JacksonAndrew D. Bernstein/WNBAE/Getty ImagesWhether in the Olympics or in the WNBA, Lauren Jackson never shied away from anyone, including U.S. superstar Lisa Leslie.

A genetic gift

"She's the best player," said Seattle's Brian Agler, who also will be honored Thursday night as the league's coach of the year. "Because she can do it at both ends night in and night out.

"People focus so much on her offense, they don't realize how impactful she is defensively. She is really a dominant defender."

(Lauren Jackson) has the stroke of a pure shooter with the body of a low-block beast. If you don't notice her footwork, it's because it's so smooth that she usually seems in perfect position even when she's actually not.

There is a reason, though, that Jackson's offense grabs so much attention. It is not too flowery to say Jackson is truly a beautiful player to watch. She has the stroke of a pure shooter with the body of a low-block beast. If you don't notice her footwork, it's because it's so smooth that she usually seems in perfect position even when she's actually not.

And Jackson says she exercises her mind now even more as she has gotten older.

"Because I've been playing professionally for so long, it gets to a point where you are not afraid to explore different avenues," Jackson said. "Like visualization, conception, things like that. Where you think about the game, more than it being something you just go do."

The thing is, Jackson never really did have to think about whether she wanted to play basketball. It was a genetic gift from her parents, both standout players themselves, but it didn't come accompanied with strings attached.

Gary and Maree Jackson got the idea quickly that they had a headstrong child and lovingly raised her accordingly. But when you suggest that it also might have been a comfort for Jackson to have both parents able not only to support her hoops career but also to understand it from firsthand experience, Jackson shakes her head.

"They're not the sort of people who would say, 'Oh, we know what it feels like, you can get through it,'" Jackson said. "They really care how I feel, and they will just listen.

[+] EnlargeLauren Jackson
Adam Pretty/Getty ImagesMost Americans first got to see Australian Lauren Jackson play in the 2000 Olympics when she was 19 years old.

"They'll maybe nudge me toward something, but they never push me. They always leave room for me to figure things out myself. When I was a kid, they did that, too. They've never said, 'I told you so.' Not with my basketball or anything else. If I didn't want to train, they'd say, 'That's your choice.' And I'd think about it … and maybe I wouldn't practice. Then the next day, I'd train twice as hard."

As she is with so many things, Jackson is passionate about her admiration and appreciation for her parents. Perhaps their wisdom became obvious to her even earlier in her teens than is the case with a lot of people.

"I left home when I was 15, and that was probably harder on them than it was on me. I know it was harder on my mom," Jackson said. "I was really bad at school; I never had a focus other than basketball. But that wasn't instilled from them. That was me.

"In Australia, the legal drinking age is 18, I was out on my own … I was a party kid. I loved it. I went out there and had fun -- but I learned my lessons along the way. And by the time I was 19, I was ready to come over here [to the WNBA]. My path was very clear and right."

Growing up in the WNBA

However, it hasn't been the path of least resistance, by any means. Jackson considers herself very much a homebody, but she has spent much of her life far from home. And that has been hard at times.

"It's a little like the animal world, when you have to learn to fend for yourself," she said. "Pretty quickly, you learn how to deal with life. It can come at you in a million different ways. But I realized my family was there to support me and help me do it … even if they were far away.

"I love it here [in Seattle]. I've been living here so long. My parents and I have maintained our closeness, which is wonderful. I need them in my life. And the WNBA, to me, is the thing I've been the most loyal to in my career. I feel like I owe it something, that I'm part of it. And I've grown up in it. The league has also been my family."

[+] EnlargeLauren Jackson
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesLauren Jackson helped lead Seattle to the 2004 WNBA championship.

Last winter, though, Jackson suffered a heartbreak, as did some other people who felt like family. Spartak owner Shabtai von Kalmanovic was murdered in Russia. Jackson, along with Storm teammate Sue Bird and Taurasi, had played for Kalmanovic's team and been greatly touched by his generosity.

But his death, a gruesome one when his car was strafed with bullets, brought Jackson both grief and some soul-searching. She wondered about what else had happened in Kalmanovic's life -- and what else was really going on in the volatile post-Soviet Union world of Russia -- that she had not previously considered.

"We still dream about Shabtai -- I do, Sue does, and Dee [Taurasi], too," Jackson said. "He was that big a person in our lives. I still talk to his daughter on Facebook like every other day. He and his family were a part of my life. You never expect anyone you care about to be assassinated. And that scared me. It really scared me. Because I didn't know, really, anything about it.

"That blindness … it made me say, 'What else is going on around me that I have no idea about,' you know? So it made me really think about it, which I probably should have done earlier.

"Sometimes I think I'm in this bubble, and it's not real. And when basketball's over, I'll have to deal with real life. As an athlete, all you tend to think about is your sport. How to keep your body in shape, how you're going to play the next day, worrying about if you don't play well, and if you lose a game. You spend your life worrying about something that, in the grand scheme of things, is not do-or-die."

Yet she came back this summer with another MVP season. It wasn't despite that kind of reflection. It was because of it.

"I think once I realized those things," Jackson said, "I became a better basketball player."

She didn't play in Russia over the winter. She stayed home in Australia. She soaked in all that she loves about her homeland. She worked at healing and strengthening herself. She was more ready than ever for the WNBA season.

And the Storm, who won the 2004 league title led by Jackson and Bird, have that prize in sight again.

"I guess … I define myself by my team," Jackson said, going back to that question. "I've been fortunate enough to win championships with my teams.

"But being a great player in someone else's eyes -- especially with what I still think is my potential that I haven't reached -- I don't know if I've proven that a lot yet. I just know when I go out on the court, I enjoy it. I love it."

So maybe that's how the rest of us can define Lauren Jackson. The player who wins three MVP awards but thinks she still needs to prove herself.

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

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