JP Pelosi found a female role model after the Seattle Sonics’ end, and his Olympic experience has never been better.
“A thundering overhead slam!” I cried, confident nobody else was around.
Standing at the foot of Key Arena on a drizzly Seattle afternoon in early 2007, I regaled my unsuspecting new wife with tales of Supersonics teams past. My memory spun through foggy highlights with the same inordinate sentiment I have for Nintendo’s Double Dribble and Reebok Pumps, minor idiosyncrasies I’ve since confessed to her.
There was Dale Ellis dropping three-point bombs; Gary Payton picking pockets; and the Rain Man throttling the rock like King Kong with a Nerf ball. They all featured heavily during this attempted rhapsody of T.S. Elliot-like escapism. Of course, supporting the Sonics had become a condemnation of their existence by 2006, not merely the poking of a giant foam finger into the air while roaring oneself hoarse in the 300-level. So any poetry was in vain.
Nonetheless, my nostalgia persisted as we strolled about the concentric space around International Fountain, my wife graciously absorbing the ridiculous Shawn Kemp re-enactment—complete with mock Kevin Calabro voice over. Upon recollection, I think she may have been laughing at, not with me, especially after a double finger point at a hallucinatory Alton Lister sprawled on the pavement.
“Into Lister’s face!” I called out. “Yeh baby! The Raaaain maaaaan!”
Yes, we’re still married.
It was damp and desolate as you might expect that time of year, with little color or shape on the horizon, save for the Sonics posters plastered on Key’s exterior, and the soft yellow glow of the Space Needle’s underbelly. In truth, the dark seamless sky was attuned to the dour atmosphere of the pre-Thunder era, and yet the prospect of the Sonics leaving the Pacific Northwest still seemed cloudy, with a chance of intervention.
It was my first visit to the Emerald City, a pilgrimage from my own green harbor of Sydney, where basketball had been stranded in its own cultural cumulonimbus. Like anyone who experienced the NBA’s Golden Age from the other side of the world, I was drawn to the obvious—Magic and Showtime, and yet eventually sought a less glamorous, perhaps more cerebral hoops philosophy. So my interest meandered up the Pacific coast like Amtrak’s Coast Starlight service, where I discovered George Karl and Gary Payton, and a championship-calibre iteration of the game I inhaled like fresh espresso. It was the kind of basketball that might have made history, if not for that one-man sonic boom, Michael Jordan.
Given this journey of the heart, I’ve since forgiven myself the gross naivety of thinking the Sonics were invincible. But in hindsight, I wish I’d reserved what was essentially a Sonics eulogy that winter day, and instead explained to my wife the prowess of our countryman, Lauren Jackson, whose prolific scoring has surely come closer to short-circuiting the Key Arena scoreboard than any player in Seattle’s history. In addition, Jackson, both a three-time Olympic silver medal winner and WNBA MVP, was of course anointed flag bearer for Australia at the London Games, and so my failure to wholly embrace her astounding talent is now resounding.
But I’m not alone.
US basketball star Diana Taurasi lamented the status of women’s hoops in America prior to the London Games, saying that despite consecutive gold medals and years of global dominance, that the national team is overlooked. It’s fair criticism at a time when female basketballers are not only rare and robust athletes, but “showmen” in their own right. In truth, Taurasi’s belief that the public takes the success of the women’s squad for granted is an accurate indictment to make of fans in most basketballing nations, and even those non-traditional ones, like Great Britain. Who among us in global basketball fandom, after all, has argued Lisa Leslie’s legacy with the same visceral passion we might for Kobe Bryant?
But now, with the Olympics here, in an era when female athletes are defining nations, and spearheading the cultural agenda, there’s no excuse for the sort of bravado that undermines male sports fans like a drool-filled Laker Girl timeout. I realize we’ll all be busy high-fiving over the likes of LeBron James, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, Luol Deng, Nene, Serge Ibaka, and the Gasols throughout this Olympic fortnight, but isn’t it only because the men’s game is relentlessly in our faces like the finale of a Shawn Kemp catapult?
Let’s be honest: as modern male consumerists with seemingly more sports media feeds than Jelly Belly flavours, basketball isn’t likely to be high on our rotation. And this is deemed acceptable because in the age of targeted content and viewer choice, any notion of extrospection or prospect of chivalry has been reduced to 140-character asides. Seriously. It’s hard enough to get people to support the Occupy movement, let alone women’s sports!
But we’re missing something. Women’s basketball—while maybe not as spectacular as the men’s game, due mostly to an overt lack of aerial play—is a much purer form of the pro game, in which the defence is engrossing because of the parity in player athleticism, and the shooting is so sharp it’s surprising when an open step-back doesn’t drop. Then there’s the inherent artistry of players who glide rather than fly: hook shots, reverse flips and scoops are commonplace, as are around-the-back passes and delicate low post lobs, all of which are impressive to genuine basketball fans.
Not to stir a storm in a teacup, but Lauren Jackson has been booting up such highlights in WNBA for 11 seasons. Her smooth offensive repertoire and menacing defence, coupled with 19-and-eight career averages were so good, in fact, she earned a place in the WNBA’s Top 15 Players in League in History. Eat your heart out Rain Main and Downtown Freddie Brown—with all due respect. Jackson swats like Tim Duncan, and lands the mid-range fade like Dirk Nowitzki. She covers the court like Kevin Durant, and locates the pass from her point as Amare Stoudemire once did Steve Nash. I’ve even seen her pull down boards as if jostling for the last donut at Pike Place Market. “LJ” is the perfect all-rounder.
Not to be out-subjugated by their US rivals, Jackson’s Australian Opals recently found themselves in the midst of their own battle for respect, when The Sydney Morning Herald noted Australia’s men’s team travelled to London in business class, while their female colleagues were jammed into coach. This didn’t impress incoming chief of Basketball Australia, Kristina Keneally, who vowed to remedy the situation via government review.
The Opals continued their Olympic preparation unfazed, brushing aside teams like Brazil and France in warm-ups, and then revelling in Jackson’s appointment as the nation’s chief flag waver for the recent opening ceremony. But a confrontation with the US team looms large. Jackson recently told ESPN in a profile of her career, “When I’m competing, I am a bitch, you know? And people know that about me. They know that I will compete and I’ll throw elbows. I’ll do anything that I can to get a basket or get a rebound.” Good luck guarding that these Games.
Jackson came to my mind later that rain-soaked day in downtown Seattle, as we sipped lattes in Zeitgeist, a cosy, red-bricked coffeehouse in Pioneer Square where it’s easy to consider life. I wondered what it was like for an Aussie to move to a place like Seattle, so different from Australia’s capital, Canberra, where Jackson earned her professional stripes. Adjusting to life with less sunshine is never easy, to be sure, but the relaxed surrounds and sophisticated and innovative culture beckons anyone wanting to succeed—as themselves. And being herself, a woman of mastery and class, and someone we can all admire, has gone a long way to exciting sports fans about not just the Olympics but the magic of basketball under the female spell.