Lauren Jackson on the intensity of being one of the world’s best basketballers, and the heartache of retiring. By Richard Cooke.

Credit: BEC COLE

Rebounding: Lauren Jackson, 35, basketballer turned administrator

They retired my jersey in America. I hadn’t been back there in four years, and honestly, it felt like I had never been gone. The fans are so loyal – they are so passionate about the league. I was in Seattle, which is a very cultured city. Its people are diplomatic and open. And the league itself is very professional. I think any athlete who wanted to be a basketball player would want to play over there – it’s the best league in the world. So if you can dominate over there, you can dominate anywhere.

Once I announced my retirement, it kicked in. It did – and I mean I was really down. It took me a good two months to actually get out of my house, get out of my room. It was horrible. I just had my knee replaced and I was dealing with a lot of things at the same time. I was really lucky that this leadership group from Melbourne Boomers came to me and offered me the job, because it’s given me something to look forward to.

You put your whole life into something. I never wanted to be anything else but a basketballer. When people talked about being “a long time retired” I never really listened. Because I never really expected it to happen. I wasn’t prepared for not having basketball in my life anymore.  

I was a really fierce competitor – but that was because I was scared. People wouldn’t actually realise that every time I set foot onto a court I was so nervous. I don’t miss feeling that anxiousness every single day. It’s emotionally draining when you put that much effort in, put everything into the sport. The emotions are high and low, and I’m nervous and scared, but then I turn into this beast. I was just this complex ball of emotions through basketball – it’s very intense. And there was a never a day it was not intense.

It was draining, it was insane – but I couldn’t stop it. On court I’d turn into this maniac. Just go into a different zone, I guess. It made me go crazy in the end. 

When I was in the zone was when I wasn’t thinking. That was when I was at my best, always. You’ll often hear people say you’re in a different world, but nobody can stop you. [You’re] an airhead – but nobody can stop you. I just wasn’t there. I wasn’t really present, but I was. I was playing on intuition and how I knew the game. 

I wasn’t that good as a child. It wasn’t until I hit sort of 12 or 13 that people started taking notice of me. I made an Australian junior camp and it just went from there. A lot of people didn’t pick me on teams, and I was devastated most of the time. Then I was professional by the time I was 15. 

Where do I go from here? What do I do now? Like I said, I really struggled with it. But even with just how my knee is feeling better, I’m living a much more comfortable life. I’m able to spend more time with my family. I missed my family so much when I was playing overseas all year round. I hated it. So that was really hard, too. I never really had a childhood, per se. So I guess I get to sort of have it now.

Going to uni gives you the tools to analyse things a little bit differently. I really didn’t take school all that seriously when I was in high school; I wasn’t a great student.

I went to uni because I didn’t feel like a fully developed person. There was so much more I needed to learn and understand. I had no skills, and I had a very limited view on the world. From a professional athlete standpoint who didn’t finish school who… If I didn’t go back, if I didn’t start studying again, if I didn’t broaden my horizons, I would have been a lot worse off than what I am now. Which is actually kind of frightening. 

Sexism is fairly entrenched in society. It’s not as if it’s something where I’ve just gone, “Oh my God, I’ve been exposed to this.” I think most women at some point in their lives have been. But uni gave me an awareness as well: “Why is this happening?” Oh, this is why. And when I hear people say, “Oh, don’t act like a girl, don’t do this”, it makes me mad. What’s wrong with acting like a girl? What’s wrong with shooting like a girl? Passing like a girl, or playing sport like a girl? It drives me nuts.

I had a conversation with Tim Flannery on one of my TV things. He was fantastic. He sat down and talked to me and he was like: “Have you thought about maybe talking to someone through all of this?” It’s interesting, getting the support from people I’m around. People who genuinely care about how you are as a person, and if you’re handling things well.

A lot of people have just disappeared from my life. I don’t really care that much – but it’s really interesting. One minute you’re on top of the world, and the next minute nobody really cares who you are. Which is a phenomenon in itself. It’s kind of funny. You know it is what it is. But you hear people talking about that, and then it happens, and it’s kind of… a bit of a laugh?

Do I miss it? I miss my friends and just the relationships that I had. My teammates have been absolutely beautiful. I guess they’re going to be friends for life. I missed being in America and being  able to go out there and play in front of all the fans. But I don’t miss the feelings that I had. You know?


1 . This week’s highlights…

Horseracing: Ronald McDonald House Westmead Golden Pendant Day

Saturday, first race 12.15pm (AEST), Rosehill Gardens, Sydney

• AFL: Preliminary final – GWS Giants v Western Bulldogs

Saturday, 5.15pm (AEST), Spotless Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park

• NRL: Preliminary final – Melbourne Storm v Canberra Raiders

Saturday, 7.40pm (AEST), AAMI Park, Melbourne

• Cricket: Southern Stars v Sri Lanka, fourth ODI

Sunday, 2.20pm (AEST), R. Premadasa Stadium, Colombo

Australia v South Africa, first ODI

Friday, 8.30pm (AEST), SuperSport Park, Centurion, Pretoria

Motorsport: Aragón MotoGP

Sunday, 10pm (AEST), MotorLand, Alcañiz, Spain

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 24, 2016 as "Rebounding".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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