The last time Lauren Jackson pulled on the green and gold and stepped out on court for the Australian Opals, the year was 2013. Kevin Rudd was contesting the election as prime minister, having wrested power from Julia Gillard only months prior. The youngest member of the current Opals squad, Jade Melbourne, was 11 years old. You couldn’t walk down the street without inadvertently buying a frozen yoghurt and the Harlem Shake craze was taking off. The world was a very different place.
When news of Jackson’s recall to the Opals squad for the upcoming Fiba World Cup broke this week, it sent waves of shock and delight through the Australian sporting community. But as remarkable as her comeback may be, it is not entirely surprising. Persistent injuries left the 41-year-old with a whole swathe of unfinished business. Even at her final Olympics in 2012, a hamstring injury restricted her time on court and it was not the glorious fanfare she would have imagined at a Games where she was honoured with the role of Australia’s opening ceremony flag bearer.
Her final tournament in 2013 was the Fiba Oceania Women’s Championship, in which the Opals beat New Zealand twice in the two-game series to retain their title, and was largely a means to an end, with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in her sights. However, neither of these would transpire – she was not able recover quickly enough from surgery on her heel and knee in early 2014 to reach her own lofty standards to represent Australia at the World Cup.
Undeterred, she persisted with rehabilitation, getting back on her feet with the Canberra Capitals in the 2014-15 season, despite needing synovial fluid drained from her knee on a weekly basis. But all her efforts were in vain and Jackson reluctantly retired during an Opals training camp in 2016, her dream put to bed.
Jackson is widely regarded as Australia’s greatest ever player. She was instrumental in Australia’s only World Cup win in 2006, she is a seven-time WNBA All-Star, a three-time WNBA MVP and a two-time WNBA champion, among an abundance of other honours. In the imaginations of sports fans, a player of such calibre announces their retirement through tears of joy, while clasping a gold medal or a premiership trophy. They do not quietly limp off court, the details of their final game remembered by only the most avid trivia buffs.
To retire on such a note for an athlete so celebrated is not a comfortable position. The glittering career plays on the mind, it begs for one more chance to step out in front of a crowd and find peace before gracefully slipping away.
And so, while Jackson was down, she was never out. Not in the deepest corners of her mind. The ambition burned away in the background as she pursued a career in basketball administration, was inducted into multiple halls of fame, became involved in advocacy for the prevention of domestic violence, had her two children Harry and Lenny and wrote a book about her career.
She took the first tentative steps on the comeback trail when she trialled using medicinal cannabis to ease her chronic knee pain and she could move with freedom again. A therapeutic use exemption to allow her to continue using the drug while playing competitively and a contract with the Albury-Wodonga Bandits – whose home venue is named the Lauren Jackson Sports Centre – followed. With every venture out on court, Jackson’s resolve grew as it became clear that both her passion and skill remained intact.
Jackson’s coach at the Bandits, Matt Paps, became a key figure in her return to the Opals squad, ensuring her fitness was managed in such an incremental way to allow her to reach her peak without succumbing to injury.
“It’s basically gone from 15 to 20 minutes on the court to training every day, in the gym every day with her trainers [and] now she trains all team trainings, all team sessions,” he told The Age. “Just seeing how her body has been able to hold up and how strong she’s become. She’s put in all the work and I think she’s ready to go.”
Once she proved to herself that her body could withstand the physical demands of the sport once more, the next step was proving it to the Opals coaches and selectors. While Basketball Australia set the markers she would need to reach, Jackson dutifully completed fitness tests and match play until all involved were assured this comeback was not merely a gimmick, but in fact a much-needed boost for an Opals team craving leadership and experience.
There are few who understand the determination required on Jackson’s part better than close friend and former Opals and Seattle Storm teammate Tully Bevilaqua. She is incredibly proud of the effort her friend has put in to give herself the opportunity to finish her career on her terms.
“I’m just so stoked for Loz, not just because she is a close friend but just knowing how hard she’s worked to get back into shape,” she said from New Zealand, where she is coaching Mainland Pouakai in the national league.
“Injuries really forced Loz into early retirement so this to me is like her taking care of unfinished business… they just better have that ice bath ready to go after every game – and a glass chilled right next to it.”
While her return is not yet assured, with Jackson entering Opals camp on Monday to fight for her place in the final team, the story so far is worthy of, if not a prestige television series, then at least a sequel to her book. There is a chance this final chapter might be the most memorable one of all.