26/02/2024

Can Lauren Jackson return to the Opals? (Photo: Australian Olympic Committee)

What if Lauren Jackson does make a comeback to the Australian team at the age of 41? What if Liz Cambage doesn’t return to basketball? We explore the biggest women's basketball's 'what if' storylines of 2022 and beyond.

There are some fascinating and intriguing storylines in Australian women’s basketball both overseas and abroad, with various domestic and national seasons at important crossroads.

From comeback stories to shock retirements to season-long stories of resilience, The Inner Sanctum has taken a look at some of the most interesting stories and have asked, ‘what if‘? 

What if… Lauren Jackson does make a comeback to the Australian team at the age of 41?

Lauren Jackson has recently publicly declared she is returning to play for the Albury-Wodonga Bandits in the NBL1 East, starting in April 2022.

At her press conference, when it was revealed Jackson would be returning she expressed her excitement to be back on court and playing in front of her home fans.

“To play at the end of my basketball journey here in NSW is special,” she said.

Her announcement to come out of retirement was acknowledged all around the world with nothing short of celebration, with both the WNBA and former side Seattle Storm excitedly sharing the news.

There is a romantic notion that her return to the hardwood may mean a return to wearing the Opals singlet once more.

Although when asked about it, Jackson was tame in her response.

“It would be absolutely stupid of me to say I’m going to be there, but I’m not [going to declare that I will play for Australia], not at this point.. it’s day by day.”

Although unlikely, Jackson did not categorically rule it out. So if the 2012 flag bearer was to represent Australia once more, what would it mean for the Opals team? 

To state the obvious, it will give the team a veteran leader, especially with previous captain Jenna O’Hea unlikely to be suiting up.

Jackson would provide invaluable support to the new wave of young players, similar to what she is hoping to achieve in Albury.

“I want to give them that experience and inspiration,” Jackson said, acknowledging the youth of her Albury teammates. 

Jackson’s presence in the team would also help the other centres like Ezi Magbegor. It would give her a chance to compete with one of the best bigs of all time at training.

With all of Jackson’s experience and knowledge, maybe a player/assistant role would be best – a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ situation.

On the flip side, would the fairytale of bringing her back be a good enough excuse to take a roster spot from a future young player such as Zitina Aokuso?

And of course we don’t know what her ‘game’ will be like. With her time away from competitive basketball, it may be too big a gap to bridge when it comes to production on the court. 

Whether she plays for Australia in September or not, the feat to return to competitive basketball is one of the best stories in women’s sport right now.

One of our beloved Australian athletes and arguably the greatest Australian basketball player of all time, returning to play in front of her home fans in a stadium that is named after her is nothing short of special.

 

Jackson has announced she will be returning to play competitive basketball once more. (Photo: FIBA)

What if… the Perth Lynx win the WNBL title without playing a single game at home this season?

It would have to be one of the greatest sporting achievements by a professional sports team out of Western Australia. A strong statement to make considering the Perth Wildcat’s unbelievable record (10 championships) in the NBL and the West Coast Eagles’ success (four premierships) in the AFL. 

Doing so whilst playing away from home and the uncertainty of not knowing when they are going to see their friends and family again would be an exceptional feat.

Some of these women – like a lot of women’s sports stars – are semi professional, and have left their job behind to help the team compete for a championship. Others have left young families behind, and in the case of Sami Whitcomb, a pregnant partner. 

Although they are an extremely talented team and one of the favourites to win the title, the mental toll of this season must be having an impact.

The leadership of the team and club must be incredibly strong to help keep this side together and playing as a unit. It will be a master stroke from coach Ryan Petrik and captain Garbin if they are able to win under such adversity.

But with the form they’re in, sitting atop the table with a league best 6-2 record, it may not just be a dream.

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What if… the Opals don’t win a medal at the World Cup in September?

We have become accustomed to the Opals being one of Australia’s greatest sport teams.

They’ve won four Olympic and five World Cup medals, the most recent being silver against the USA at the World Cup four years ago.

There are only a few names that will be missing from the squad that played in that silver medal, one of them of course being one of the biggest, in Liz Cambage. 

Cambage, one of the best centres in the world, is a huge loss, which showed in the recent Tokyo 2020 campaign, where the Opals failed to medal.

The Opals winning silver medal at the 2018 World Cup. (Photo: FIBA)

It is currently one of the most intriguing times to be an Australian basketball supporter.

There are so many unanswered questions when it comes to the direction of the squad, and what its priorities are moving forward.

Does head coach, Sandy Brondello change up the team dramatically or make just minor changes? Does she build a team for now, or for the future?

Irrespective of who’s selected in the final 12 for the World Cup and why, the expectation is that Australia medals in a home event.

Although Australians want to see players develop and be given opportunity to play on the intentional stage, they also want to win.

If Brondello and her staff are unable to deliver a medal in a home World Cup, it’s unlikely that they will be given a chance to compete for another one.

With the talent the Opals have at their disposal and the Cup being on home soil, it may be Australia’s greatest chance to push the USA for gold. 

What if… Liz Cambage doesn’t return to basketball?

Cambage, who is a WNBA free agent and is yet to sign with a club, has been linked to Los Angeles Sparks. Her cryptic messages on social media have led people to believe she will not be returning to the Las Vegas Aces. 

Cambage’s exit from the Australian team before Tokyo 2020 and her very public promotion of her image and brand has left some questioning her commitment to basketball.

What if Cambage decides to retire and hang up the basketball shoes? She has threatened to do this in the past, voicing her opinions about the lack of financial reward for WNBA players.

The WNBA is the best women’s basketball league in the world, with some incredible athletes still competing, but if Cambage was to retire prematurely, she would be a loss not only to the competition, but the sport as a whole.

She’s a PR machine for the league, the first player’s image that pops up when you click on the WNBA league pass. She’s not afraid to make her voice heard, but any publicity can be good publicity, especially with women’s sports fighting for the spotlight against the likes of the NBA, NFL and MLB in the USA. 

Cambage is one of the best players in her position in the world, and there aren’t many ‘up and coming’ centres to replace her in the Opals squad.

Although she is no longer playing for Australia, fans do still want to see her dominate and utilise her strengths against the best players in the world.

What if… more and more junior girls basketball players pick AFL in their late teens rather than aiming to go to college in the USA? 

Prior to the formation of the AFLW competition, it was every young female basketball player’s dream to play college basketball in the USA.

Basketball players in Australia are rather lucky, with a lot of the American colleges looking at Australia to recruit. With most junior basketball associations having contacts and the recruiting programs that exist, there are endless opportunities for talented young girls to head to college in America if they want to.

The popularity of Aussie rules and the AFLW league has changed the landscape for basketball players forever.

They now have the opportunity to continue playing football past the age of 12, knowing that there could be an opportunity to continue their pathway and play professionally. 

EX-WNBL player, Monique Conti now a star of the AFLW competition. (Photo: Richmond FC)

There are a number of basketball players that have converted to AFLW, including Richmond’s Tessa Lavey and Monique Conti. Although both still play basketball at some capacity, they are showing the way for other athletes to follow. 

With new clubs entering the AFLW competition next season and the need to fill rosters, there will be a pull for athletes from other sports and codes to make the change.

The rise of the AFLW competition has definitely had an impact at the junior basketball level. Whether it will impact the future of the WNBL or the elite junior pathways is unknown, but it is sure to be monitored closely. 

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