I used to dislike Lauren Jackson.
As lifelong Los Angeles Lakers fans, it was only logical for me and my dad to adopt the Los Angeles Sparks as our WNBA team when the league started in the late ‘90s. Lisa Leslie was the new star we pinned our hopes on and Mwadi Mabika and DeLisha Milton-Jones were the role players we adored.
Leslie was the face of the WNBA right from when she got drafted in 1997. She was not only a dominant center but also the ambassador the league needed to get off the ground in its early days. She was mythic, having scored 101 points in a half in high school. She was imposing as her three MVP awards would prove.
She also needed a rival. Diana Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury were scary, but Leslie dominated every matchup against their smaller lineup. The Houston Comets were past their prime.
It wasn't until a gangly, six-foot-five Australian entered the league in 2001 that Leslie had proper foil. The highlights they showed during the 2001 WNBA Draft of Lauren Jackson were staggering. It started with what you’d expect from a center with her smooth post moves and solid interior defense. And then the tape reached the part where she was shooting 3s. At the time, no one in the WNBA truly possessed that unique combination of inside and outside skills. There was also something about her look – her eyes are the bluest blue nature can conjure and the way she walked around with her shoulders raised made her look all the more intimidating.
It didn't take long for Jackson to establish her footing in the league, flexing her myriad of weapons in her rookie year by averaging 15.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks for the Seattle Storm. As dominant as she was, Jackson and the Storm were barely a threat for the Sparks. It was a solo Lauren Jackson show.
But in 2002, the Storm got Sue Bird, who was the perfect partner for Jackson. Bird was, and still is, the smartest player at any given time she's on the court. It wasn't hard for her and Jackson to build chemistry and tear opponents up with tricky pick-and-rolls and high-low plays.
Having said all that, the Sparks still swept them rather handily in the 2002 playoffs. In 2006, the two teams met for the second and last meeting in the playoffs with both Leslie and Jackson on the squads. The series fittingly went to a do-or-die Game 3 where the Sparks just narrowly escaped the Storm.
The thing about hating a player is you’re often tempted to watch them more, looking for holes in their games, and trying to re-enforce your preconceived notions. When I watched more of Jackson, I saw the deft and efficiency in her movements. I found out that she plays with a lot of force but, at the same time, never gets out of control. She’ll unleash silky smooth jumpers and post shots in one possession then barrel her way past two defenders for an offensive rebound in the next.
I found out that I was only caught up in the rivalry. I actually loved Lauren Jackson. Her game was awesome but it was her no-nonsense, straightforward approach to basketball that really drew me in. Australians just have this very easy-going aura – an ability to take anything seriously and not seriously at the same time. This was how Jackson approached basketball – it was her life's work but it's also just a game.
It's no exaggeration to say that Lauren Jackson is the best Australian basketball player ever. The Aussies have exported several players to the NBA and WNBA but no one impacted the game quite she did.
She was a seven-time All-Star and eight-time member of an All-WNBA squad. She might not have toppled Leslie and the Sparks, but she and Bird did lead the Storm to titles in 2004 and 2010. She was the face of Australian basketball from the 2000 to 2012 Olympics as she led the Opals to three silvers and a bronze in the Summer Games. She also carried the Aussies to the 2006 World Championship.
Wherever she went, from the NBL to the WNBA to Korea to Russia to China, Jackson was a champion. It's only right that she becomes the first Australian to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Watching Jackson during her final years in the WNBA was heartbreaking. She probably played more years with a major nagging injury than she did at complete health. In her final two seasons, she barely played 20 games combined.
It was devastating when she announced that she was stepping away from the WNBA after 2012. It seemed so abrupt. It felt wrong for her to leave the league on a whimper when she was one of the biggest reasons basketball stayed alive in Seattle.
I was disappointed to the point of tears when she revealed that she wasn’t going to be healthy enough for a swansong with the Opals in the 2016 Olympics. As a hater-turned-fan, I felt like I was robbed of one last chance to watch a big part of my early basketball fandom.
After a couple of years, I finally know why I was so upset. I wanted one more Olympic medal for her, maybe even a gold. I wanted to admit she was way better than Lisa Leslie.