Among the many remarkable things about Lauren Jackson, the
Australian who plays center for the WNBA's Seattle Storm, is the
fact that she has been described in print as "a shrinking
violet." This is a woman who collected so many technical fouls
in the first half of last season (six in the first 17 games;
none in the last 15) that the final few were called, she says,
"only because the referees assumed it was me swearing when it
really wasn't." This is the same woman who changed her hairstyle
and/or color for almost every game during the 2001 Aussie pro
season and who attended her own recent Rocky Horror-themed 21st
birthday party as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the show's strapping
transvestite star. Wearing fishnets and four-inch platform
shoes, the 6'5", 185-pound Jackson took to the stage at a
Canberra cafe and danced the night away. "There aren't many 6'5"
women who would do that," says Carrie Graf, Jackson's coach with
the Aussie league's Canberra Capitals and an assistant in
Seattle, "but Lauren likes being different."
This is good news because, if Jackson's career goes as
predicted, she'll someday be the premier center in the WNBA, an
agile post player whose athletic gifts and small forward's
perimeter skills put her in a class by herself. Tom Maher, who
has coached both the Australian national team and the Washington
Mystics, calls Jackson a once-in-a-lifetime player. Says Seattle
coach Lin Dunn, "If she's willing to do the work, there are no
limits to what she can do."
At 19 Jackson was the first pick in the 2001 WNBA draft, and she
led all rookies in scoring (15.2 points per game), rebounding
(6.7 per game), steals (1.86), blocks (2.21) and minutes (34.5).
She also led the Storm in those categories and sank a team-best
40 three-pointers. That she finished second to Portland's Jackie
Stiles in Rookie of the Year voting bothered Dunn--who calls the
result "ridiculous" and clear evidence of the media's "bias
against foreigners"--a lot more than it bothered Jackson. "I
thought about it, but it wasn't a crushing blow," says Jackson.
"Maybe it would have been if I were an American."
Or maybe it would have been had she not already been playing the
international and pro game for so long that the term rookie
seemed misapplied. Lauren is the only daughter of Gary Jackson,
a 6'6" center for the Australian national team in the mid-1970s,
and his wife, Maree, a 6'2" Aussie national teamer who played at
LSU for two years in the late '70s and still holds SEC records
for points (1,021) and rebounds (539) in a season and for career
scoring average (26.4 points per game). Their daughter grew up
in gyms and joined her first team, in her hometown of Albury,
New South Wales, at age four. At 15 she left home to attend the
Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra, and a year
later she became the youngest player to be selected to the
Australian women's national team. At 17 she averaged 10.9 points
and four rebounds in 12 minutes to help Australia win the bronze
medal in the '98 world championships. A year later, after three
seasons in the Women's National Basketball League as an amateur
for AIS, she joined Canberra as a pro and won her second league
MVP. At 19 she had 20 points and 13 rebounds in Australia's
76-54 loss to the U.S. in the Olympic gold medal match in Sydney.
To most Americans who watched that game, Jackson is remembered
best for accidentally yanking out Lisa Leslie's hair extension
in the closing minutes. But the Aussie made a much deeper
impression on Dunn, who'd followed Jackson's career for several
years. Because Australia has never had enough size in the post
to compete under the basket in international tournaments, its
tactic has been to move the post player to the perimeter. As a
result Jackson didn't have the repertoire of low-post moves that
American players typically develop, but she made up for it with
weapons not usually seen in a WNBA center. "I've coached Lisa
Leslie, Natalie Williams, DeLisha Milton, Tari Phillips and a
lot of other great post players, and I thought Lauren had better
perimeter skills than any of them," says Dunn. "She can handle
the ball, she can pass, she can shoot the three. She's just
Dunn wasn't alone in her estimation. Nine teams tried to trade
for the first pick in order to draft Jackson, who's happy to
have landed in Seattle. "I hope I never go anywhere else in the
WNBA," says Jackson, who spent the fall and winter back in
Australia, helping lead Canberra to the Aussie league
championship. "Coming back this year was great because I now
have friends and teammates here that I love."
As those revolving hairstyles last year showed, Jackson is a
free spirit who keeps the game in perspective and her teammates
loose. "She'll often make a wisecrack that will lift your
spirits and remind you that, hey, we're not saving any lives
here," says Seattle point guard Sonja Henning. "At the same time
she's feisty, a natural leader. She doesn't wait around for
someone to say, 'Lauren, what do you think?' She says what's on
her mind, and she doesn't hold anything back."
That explains some of last year's technicals. Others were the
result of Jackson's frustration at being double-teamed every
night as the Storm's one reliable offensive weapon. This year
the arrival of No. 1 overall pick Sue Bird, the UConn point
guard who was the national collegiate player of the year, will
take some of the pressure off.
The physicality of the WNBA may have surprised Jackson last
year, but now she knows what she's up against. She bulked up in
the off-season, and in recent exhibition games she has already
shown more inclination to post up and take a drop step toward
contact inside than she did last year. "I'm still weak as
water," she confesses. "I don't enjoy lifting weights, but I'm
going to have to get used to loving it if I'm going to be the
best player I can be."
How good is that? "I think she has the ability, down the road,
to dominate the way Lisa Leslie did last year," says Graf.
"Right now, Lauren is oozing potential. When she decides to
invest in her body and be the best in the world, she'll do it.
It's just a matter of time."