Lauren Jackson How the Opals sparkled in Sydney

A silver medal at the 2000 Olympics represented a major breakthrough for women’s basketball in Australia and kick-started a decade of distinction. The success was due in no small part to the rise and rise of Lauren Jackson. Twenty years after her Olympic debut, Jackson spoke to ESPN to reflect on Australian Women’s basketball’s “coming of age.”

For those watching, the memory of the women’s basketball gold-medal match at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games still burns brightly.

It was the first time the Opals appeared in the Olympic decider. Dominant performances in their first seven games sent them into a blockbuster showdown on their home court against world powerhouses, the United States.

The Americans ultimately proved to be too strong, winning 76-54, but it marked the start of a halcyon period for Australian women’s basketball.

A young Lauren Jackson was Australia’s top scorer in that match (20 points, 13 rebounds), with her double-double showing the world that the 19-year-old Olympic rookie was something special.

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In contrast to the hype around her meteoric rise in the game, Jackson says some of her memories from that fortnight are a little hazy.

But she hasn’t forgotten the thrill of playing for Australia in a home Olympic Games.

“I was so young, I had no prior experience of that environment. I really had no idea of what the Olympics was like, living in a village, the dining hall, any of it. You don’t know until you experience it,” Jackson said.

“I felt at home. My Dad’s family is from Bankstown [in southwest Sydney], so I knew Homebush really well, but I had no preconceived ideas about playing at an Olympics. I just knew it was special to be playing at that level.”

For someone who would become a household name, it’s ironic that Jackson’s memories are of “seeing lots of famous people” in the village.

“I was rooming with Kristi Harrower in a little portable demountable. I remember it was a small room, and we had our own bathroom, which was great,” Jackson said.

“Every time you came back into the village, there would be someone new, someone recognisable. Famous Australian musicians would be playing in our quarter. Iconic people would be there mentoring the athletes — famous people who wanted to be a part of it. Pretty cool things happened.”

Five years’ prior, Jackson had been offered an AIS scholarship at the age of 14, and she made her Australian debut the same year on the national under-20 team.

Opals coach Tom Maher was quick to spot her potential and fast-tracked her into the senior program, in which a 17-year-old Jackson helped the Opals to a podium finish, with bronze at the 1998 World Championships.

Even then, it was all about the basketball.

“It was so long ago,” Jackson said. “I think that first World Champs I was in, I was so young and naïve and stepping onto the world stage at that point in time, I had no expectations. I wasn’t starting, so it was just about getting on the court to help the team.”

By the time the Sydney Olympics rolled around, Jackson was no longer a bit part player.

“I think I had come of age a little bit. I was starting at that point, and I’d taken on more of a scoring role. Tom [Maher] had been working really hard with me in the lead-up, working individually on my game, getting into the rack in the middle of the floor. He’d tried to make a real scorer out of me, so I’d taken on that role.”

Jackson credits Maher and the culture he created as central reasons behind the Opals’ success.

“It was a combination of a few different things, Tom Maher and what he’d instilled. Leading into the 2000 Olympics, the Opals were always known for their relentlessness. He created a culture where we fought,” Jackson said.

“Come mid-’90s and into 2000 with that generation of female basketballers, we became some of the best at that time in the world. So combining the culture that Tom owned and the next generation of athletes coming through, we were able to take the program to the next step.”

Jackson featured prominently in the progression to that successful phase, but she says she was shielded from any pressure to perform.

“I think that my teammates, like Shelley Gorman, Rachael Sporn and Timmsy [Michelle Timms], were great athletes and really aware of what the pressure and focus of the media might do to me, and they were careful in exposing me to that.

“The coaching staff and manager, too, made sure to protect me from any sort of pressure and recognised how important that was. They were all incredible. I couldn’t have been as successful as I was without everything they did around me.”

In sport, there’s rarely such a thing as an overnight success.

That certainly holds true for the Australian women’s basketball team. From the first side to qualify for a World Championships in 1957 in Brazil to the 1994 side that officially became “the Opals” — and formed the backbone of the successful teams of the future — to those who stood on the podium in Sydney clutching silver medals, this team worked for every milestone.

An Olympic gold medal remains the one thing missing from the Opals’ CV, and their road to qualify for the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games was not an entirely smooth one. After a loss to qualification-tournament hosts France in February, they needed strong performances against Puerto Rico and Brazil to book their spot in Japan.

There’s no longer a Lauren Jackson, a Penny Taylor or a Michelle Timms, but the likes of Liz Cambage and Rebecca Allen have stepped capably into the void.

However, the Opals are not the only ones who have improved since those Sydney Olympics 20 years ago. Women’s basketball is now on a different level globally.

But Jackson, now Basketball Australia’s Head of Women in Basketball, is confident.

“This is the new generation of athletes, the ones that came in after us. The rest of the world has certainly caught up. The USA are still at the top, but in terms of talent, our Opals are right in there, no doubt about it,” she told ESPN.

“After Rio, they had a bit of rebuilding to do. They’ve done that, and it’s going to be an interesting time in Tokyo. It’s going to be fun.

“These players live in a different world to the one we existed in. They are exposed to different things. They have a great leader in Sandy Brondello, and there will be no stopping them.”

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