Sport

She was told she was too small to be successful at basketball on the world stage. But Opals and WNBA point guard Leilani Mitchell made a point of proving her doubters wrong. By Donna Walker-Mitchell.
Credit: Barry Gossage

Small wonder: Leilani Mitchell, 32, basketballer

When I was growing up I was always playing with my six brothers. I grew up in Kennewick in Washington State. My dad, an American, met my mum when he was on a church mission in Darwin and they moved back to the States. Living in Australia was always something I wanted to do.

I have been doing sports since I can remember. I was always going along to watch all of my brothers’ games when I was growing up. Baseball, football and basketball. I actually played baseball on a boys’ team when I was young. If I wanted to hang out with my brothers I had to play sports. That’s just how it was.

My parents never made my brothers go soft on me because I’m a girl, and I love that. I remember my brothers making me put boxing gloves on and box with a neighbour who was a boy my age. I was just one of them and they all saw me that way. I was glad as I was growing up they were always there to look out for me. They always had my back.

My family have always been my biggest fans. They always thought I was going to be a professional basketball player and that I was going to be famous.

Being five foot five [165 centimetres] I was told I was too small to go on to anything major with basketball. But I never let it get into my head. I’ve never been the type of person to listen to other people who had their doubts about me. I believe in letting whatever happens, happen. I love the sport, I train for hours and hours and I know whatever happens outside of that is out of my control. Obviously being undersized and not necessarily having the physical gifts of some other people, I’ve had to work super hard and develop other areas of my game that could make up for the disadvantage that I have height-wise.

I remember watching the WNBA draft [in 2008] like it was yesterday. I was in the locker room with my teammates watching the WNBA and then my name popped up in the second round. I was so surprised and we were all cheering. I thought, “I guess I should call my parents”, because they weren’t expecting it either. It was a total shock.

There have been a lot of proud moments in my career, but winning the bronze medal in the 2014 World Championships was a standout for me. That was a big deal. Being able to move to Australia and be part of the Opals team was something I always wanted to do. When I finally did it, I fell in love with Australia. My mum always wanted me to play for Australia and it was something I always wanted to do for her. She passed away in 2009. So to finally make the team, win the bronze medal and represent Australia was a really big deal for me.

One of the biggest keys to being successful is to have balance. I don’t let myself get too high or too low. I have family, friends and fans who tell me how great they think I am, and then you have other people who think I’m too short and I can’t do this or I can’t do that. That’s when you have to go, “Okay.” You have to have self-confidence. You have to know what you’re good at and what you’re capable of doing and just stay level-headed. Especially in this day and age with social media. If you pay too much attention to it, you can get really high or really low and all within a matter of seconds. Having self-confidence and knowing who you are is so important.

Playing basketball all over the world, I get used to living out of a suitcase. I can pack in minutes. But one thing I always pack is Tim Tams and Cherry Ripes. I love those. Living in so many places has definitely changed me. I used to be very shy when I was growing up, but now I love how many different people you’re exposed to. It gets lonely when you’re away from your family and friends, but on the other hand, like when I was living in France, you have to realise how many people would love to do that. I know how lucky I am.

One of my Australian traits is that I’m a hard worker. Especially in the basketball world, people from other countries really admire Australians, their work ethic and how tough they are. I think that’s something that has gotten me to the point where I am today. I also have a laidback personality. I don’t let too much get to me. I don’t make too much of a fuss or make too much of a drama over things, just very chill.

Eventually I want to move back to Australia permanently. I prefer the lifestyle in Australia because it’s a lot more relaxed. I think the people, overall, are a lot friendlier and it’s obviously safer. My partner and I bought a place in Newcastle and I just love being there by the beach. That’s home to me.

This week’s highlights…

• Netball: Giants Netball v Queensland Firebirds

Saturday, 3pm (AEST), Quaycentre, Sydney Olympic Park

• Rugby union: Super rugby – NSW Waratahs v Highlanders

Saturday, 7.45pm (AEST), Allianz Stadium, Sydney

• Motorsport: Winton SuperSprint – Supercars Championship, Race 14

Sunday, 1.45pm (AEST), Winton Motor Raceway, Victoria

AFL: West Coast Eagles v Richmond Tigers

Sunday, 2.40pm (AWST), Optus Stadium, Perth

• NRL: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Sunday, 4.10pm (AEST), Southern Cross Group Stadium, Woolooware, NSW

• Gymnastics: 2018 Australian Championships

Monday until June 3, Hisense Arena, Melbourne

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "Small wonder". Subscribe here.

Donna Walker-Mitchell
is an Australian journalist based in Los Angeles.

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