For the first time in five years, the WNBL competition is without Australian Opal and UC Capitals mainstay Marianna Tolo.
When the Capitals took to the court in their season opener against the Sydney Uni Flames, a large presence was clearly missing.
The defensive talents of Kelsey Griffin and American import Brittney Sykes more than made up for her absence, but it’s a hole in the heart of the league.
Tolo rejoined the Capitals in 2016 after stints in France and the USA, the latter of which was cut short due to an ACL injury. In her return home, she won her third WNBL championship in 2019, and was named Defensive Player of the Year and in the All-Star Five in 2017.Embed from Getty Images
But playing in Australia was never an endeavour in accolades for the 32-year-old.
“I knew [the Capitals] would take care of me and do what’s best for me in my situation, my knees and stuff,” Tolo told The Inner Sanctum.
It meant Tolo had a race with time to play at the 2016 Rio Olympics, back when Liz Cambage was still a rookie and before Erin Phillips traded the Spalding for the Sherrin.
Her drive to push for Opals selection continued to spur her on.
“National team stuff drives my motivation, hugely, it’s the reason why I play sport basically, I want to play with the Australian team,” Tolo said.
“I love playing with the Australian team, and I want to get a medal with the Australian team.
“It’s been heartbreaking to go to both Olympics… and losing the quarter final. I know that’s basketball, and it just shows how tough it is to, to win and to get a medal and get on that podium.”
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The Opals barely qualified for the quarter finals at Tokyo 2020, just winning by the margin required over Puerto Rico for a shot at the mighty USA. It was a game in which Tolo starred, with a 26 point, 17 rebound double-double.
She laughs that even though she’ll be 35 when it comes around, she still wants to be playing for her country at Paris 2024.
And that’s exactly what’s led Tolo back to where she is now: Landes, France.
Making a home at Basket Landes
For the past two months, Tolo has been plying her trade at Basket Landes in France’s Ligue Feminine de Basketball and the EuroLeague Women.
The reigning Ligue champions have gone 6-3 in the French competition so far, but have gone at the exact opposite record in the EuroLeague.
Averaging 27 minutes on court, Tolo has averaged 8.9 points at 43.1 per cent, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in the Ligue Feminine, while in the EuroLeague she’s averaged 11 points at 49.4 per cent, five rebounds and 2.6 rebounds.
It’s a long season between both, running from October until playoffs in June. It’s significantly more time than she’s spent on court in Australia, with the WNBL typically only running for four months.
“I think playing in Europe definitely helps me, it’s a really good style of basketball for me, it’s a lot of basketball,” Tolo said.
“Whenever I can get as much time on the court under my feet as I can, it’s really beneficial for me. It’s a tough league, it’s different again, it’s a different style of basketball.
“It’s one of the best leagues in the world, and you play against and with some of the best players and that, in itself is really awesome.”
Outside of basketball, Tolo has also enjoyed the lifestyle that France gives her.
Playing in the EuroLeague means travelling to a different country across Europe every week, getting to experience the best of what the continent has to offer.
“To be able to travel and experience different things, not just on the basketball court, but away from the court, so many different cultures and cities, I love exploring and traveling, so that has been awesome,” Tolo said.
“Especially in this time of COVID where Australia was pretty locked down. It was weird to come over here and there was so many people like when I flew from Australia, flew through Dubai, and then on to Paris and in Paris, there were so many people everywhere.
“It was so weird to see and kind of made me feel a bit uncomfortable at the start!”
In between the WNBL season and the Olympics, Tolo did manage a brief extra stretch in Australia, in the NBL1.
While she only managed four games for the Knox Raiders in that time, she showed off the best of what she could do. Tolo averaged 20 points at a massive 72 per cent shooting, 7.75 rebounds, 2.75 assists and 1.25 blocks.
“I’ve forgotten how tough NBL1 was, it’s been a long time since I played in that beforehand,” she admitted.
“I actually loved it, and it was such a great experience. The team was awesome, the coach Kennedy [Kereama] was awesome. We had such a great time.
“It was sad I could only play four games, but really I think that really helped me my preparation for the Olympics because the WNBL season was shorter.”
The future of the Opals and what’s next
Representing Australia and playing at the highest level of European basketball may seem like it’s the perfect spot to be in at 32, the end of her career much closer than the start.
There’s plenty more basketball still to come for Tolo, though. Despite not having represented the franchise since 2015, the Los Angeles Sparks still own her rights.
It means there’s still the very real possibility that the centre could return to the WNBA, and it’s a goal she’s going to keep working towards.
With that in mind, it’s easier for Tolo to continue to push herself nationally, overseas, and playing basketball at the highest level she can.
“So initially, like I thought… after the Olympics, I want to try and go back to the WNBA,” she ruminated.
“But I guess that just depends how everything goes. And because the season in France goes for so long, I don’t know if that will kind of work out with them.
“It’d be great to be able to get back in there and test myself out again, because I had the one season last time and it was cut short, just at the end by injury. It’d be great to be able to get the opportunity to play there again.”
The Opals will always call her name, but Tolo is aware that the changing of the guard is well underway.
She was recently selected in the 24-woman Opals squad for the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, set to be hosted in Sydney in September.
Tolo watched on as a very young and inexperienced national side claimed bronze in the Asia Cup, while the Gems took out silver in the under 19s World Cup.
The likes of Jade Melbourne, Maddison Rocci, Keely Froling, Zitina Aokuso, Shyla Heal and Ezi Magbegor are undoubtedly the future of the Opals.
“It was so good to see at the Asia Cup, the new talent coming through,” Tolod said.
“I think they were so close to doing even better than a bronze medal against Japan, and also China.
“It’s really refreshing to see that we do have another layer, another group of girls coming through and ready to take the reins of the Opals, when you know, players like myself and Cayla [George] and Jenna [O’Hea] and Katie [Ebzery] do stop playing and we can have faith that will be good for a long time.
“I think we’re in good hands… you can tell on the court that they really enjoyed being there. That’s what we’re about, we want to play our hardest for our country and do it together and enjoy doing it for one another and for everyone out there that couldn’t be there.”
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