- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Seattle's Lauren Jackson came out of the locker room after a recent game wearing a Border Bandits T-shirt, explaining, "Had it made for my daddy."
It was a new "throwback" shirt representing an Australian club team her father had played for. And then she talked about why the Olympics were so important.
"See, I'm representing my country, and there's a whole lot of history there with my mom and dad," she said of hoops-playing parents Maree and Gary. "So that's my No. 1 priority. That's the best thing you can do. The gold medal would be great, but having to surpass the Americans to do it is a tough feat.
"I think I play my best basketball over here, and I'll have that edge going on to my team, knowing that I've been playing here, working my butt off. That's why I love America so much."
Now, it's important to note, lest you've never heard Jackson speak, that much of what she says is with that wink-wink Australian sense of humor that is hard to replicate in print without the vocal inflection.
But even if you're hearing her, you can't always tell, right off, exactly what level of serious she is. After all, this is somebody who can answer a question, "Kinda not really. Yeah, sort of."
Clearly, the representing Australia and mom and dad part is very serious. The loving America part we have to ask about.
Does she? Do Australians ever? Don't they just put up with being around us? Does Jackson really have fun here?
"Yeah, I do," she said. "My first two years were really tough, I struggled to get through them and wasn't sure I was going to come back. But I'm glad I did; it was the best thing I ever did."
One big reason is Storm coach Anne Donovan, a 6-foot-9 former Old Dominion star and three-time Olympian.
"Anne's been the best coach for me that I could possibly ever dream of," Jackson said. "She makes me work harder than anyone, yet she's a players' coach."
Plus, well ... America has grown on Jackson. Which is lucky for the WNBA. She's so talented, so much needed in this league. What a shame it would have been if she'd stayed home and American basketball fans would miss out on one
of the best big women you're ever going to see.
Too early to say that about the 23-year-old? Nope. Watch her instinct for the basketball, her great hands, leaping ability, finishing touch, range, mobility, body control, fearlessness. Jackson is maximizing the great genetic package she got. And then there's the famous Aussie characteristic of really caring about what she's doing but acting very laid-back about it.
"She just has a presence, offensively and defensively," Seattle point guard Sue Bird said. "She could probably go scoreless in a game, but the way they guard her, it will open everything up for everyone else.
"We look for skip passes more, because they're fronting more, and the person who's guarding the opposite guard really cheats and is all the way down the lane. So we can do a lot of different things. And when she does get 20-30 points? Makes everything better."
Donovan came to Seattle last year, which was pivotal. Jackson did not enjoy her first two years here. She should have been the league's rookie of the year in 2001, but it went to American Jackie Stiles. Jackson's scoring average went up to 17.2 per game her second year, and the Storm made the playoffs, but she was still debating if it was worth missing home to be over here.
Then last season, Donovan arrived and, figuratively speaking, so did Jackson. She was the league's MVP, averaging 21.2 points and 9.3 rebounds. Seattle didn't make the playoffs because of its five-game losing steak that started in mid-August, but Jackson did everything she could in that stretch, notching double-doubles in four of the five games.
And, most importantly for her future, she decided it was OK in the States after all. Donovan, while at Charlotte, had watched and coached against Jackson for two years and had not been sure what to expect.
"The M.O. on Lauren was, 'Get physical with her, she loses her temper. She likes to float out on the 3-point line. She doesn't like to do the work down low and is an iffy 3-point shooter, dangerous but not deadly,' '' Donovan said. "I didn't know how coachable she'd be, how moldable she was. But she's a coach's dream: To have somebody who really wants to get better: 'Show me how and I'll listen to you.' That's been her approach since day one with me.
"She's such a complete player. We've been talking to Lauren a lot about her defense this year and picking that up to a high level, and she's responded and really focused on that. But she can post up with anybody or can step out to the 3-point line and drill it. She's now one of the best 3-point shooters in the league. So it's complete versatility. She does all the little things.
"And the best thing about Lauren is she is somebody who takes a beating and you'll rarely see her complain about a call or a non-call. She has an intensity and a focus about her that's what sets great players apart. They don't whine; they're not looking for calls, just playing the game."
So you ask Jackson about all this, what's she's doing better this season ... you can guess how she responds, right?
But Anne talked about how you'd improved your defense ...
"Defense? Anne said that? That's interesting," Jackson said, grinning. "She hasn't said that to me. Actually, I think that's worse. But I guess ... trying to be aggressive each day. That's what I'm trying to do."
During a victory over Sacramento, Jackson had a little skirmish with the Monarchs' Yolanda Griffith. You know, a little mouthing off, a little posturing. Jackson sort of rolled back her neck while saying something that we'll leave to the imagination.
I learned that from 'Jerry Springer:' 'Don't go there, girlfriend,' '' Jackson said, laughing.
But it was all OK after the game with Griffith, whom she'll face in the Olympics. It was no big deal, Jackson said.
"She gave me a little (nod) afterward. She's nice .... (stuff) happens."
So we ask if Jackson has sensed that as she has grown fonder of America, American fans have responded in kind to her.
"Since I did the nudie shots,'' she said, "they're loving me."
OK, speaking of "don't go there" ... ah, darn it. I was all ready to just say never mind, ignore it, let's just write about Jackson's play, but ...
Yes, Jackson did some nude poses in the Aussie magazine "Black and White," along with other Olympic athletes from her country. Yes, in typical fashion for the American sports media, that got Jackson way more attention than her
great play has. What a surprise.
Yes, I think any time a female athlete takes off her clothes and gives the come-hither stare, that's not "asserting her power." It's pandering, even if unintentionally, to an audience that isn't comfortable with women unless they're sexualized.
Yes, the magazine itself and a lot of people will call it art, and there was the usual stuff from Jackson that female athletes say when they decide to do this: "I take pride in my athletic body..." As if they actually believe that's going to be why most people are looking at the pictures ... you know, to share in that completely aesthetic "pride." It's sort of like admiring a museum piece, don't you know.
Donovan said something about it being a different culture over in Australia ... but come on, naked is naked.
Jackson said she knows in 20 years, she won't have this body so why not "take pride" in it now. One could point out that in 20 years, she might not have the same mindset, either, and then might regret doing it.
But Jackson couldn't have seemed less worried about that ... and it absolutely is her choice.
"We Aussies just have fun, enjoy the moment," she said. "What do you enjoy if you don't enjoy the moment?"
Fair enough. We'll enjoy Lauren Jackson, the basketball player. In the Olympics and the WNBA, hopefully both for a long, long time.
Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The WNBA and fans in the U.S. are lucky Australian Lauren Jackson found a second home in Seattle.