Every so often, an athlete emerges from seemingly nowhere, plays the game like no one ever has before, while breaking old barriers, erecting new standards and blazing a path for future generations.
And when done, the sport is irrevocably changed, and a legacy is remembered and relived upon induction in the Hall of Fame.
Twenty years ago, that athlete was Lauren Jackson, a 20-year-old, tall, lanky and blond-haired Australian, who made her WNBA debut May 31, 2001, for the Storm, which selected her No. 1 overall in that year’s draft.
Over the next 15 years, before an assortment of injuries forced her to prematurely retire in 2016, Jackson, a 6-foot-5, 187-pound forward/center, redefined the role of post player.
Jackson’s impact goes beyond her 6,005 points and 2,444 rebounds in the WNBA, which rank 10th and 15th all-time in league history.
And her greatness can’t truly be measured by her three WNBA regular-season MVPs (2003, ’07 and ’10), two WNBA championships (2004 and ’10), WNBA Finals MVP award (2010) and Defensive Player of the Year honor (2007).
Jackson, or “LJ,” was a basketball unicorn during the 2000s because of her ability to score and rebound in the post like traditional bigs, while being able to step behind the three-point arc like a guard and routinely launch perimeter shots with uncanny ease and efficiency.
“I was so lucky that my parents both played basketball at a (national) level,” Jackson said during a phone interview this week. “My mom (Maree) was a traditional big. She played at LSU and still holds records there. She has that inside game and that real toughness about her. Later I developed that, too. She also had a beautiful shot. At a really young age, I remember my mom saying, ‘If you can shoot a three-pointer, darling, you’ll go anywhere.'”
In the WNBA, Jackson ranks 19th with 436 career three-pointers. The only post players with more threes are former Houston Rockets star Tina Thompson (748) and former Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings (606).
“Of all the superlatives I could give about her game and being one of the first stretch-5s that we’ve ever seen, the fact that she drew double teams every single night doesn’t get enough attention,” said Storm guard Sue Bird, who played 10 years with Jackson. “You just didn’t see that a whole lot in our league back then. Heck, there’s only a couple players right now who draw constant double teams.
“But Lauren did it every single night because she was just that good. … I remember in 2004, 90% of our practice, all we did was work on moving the ball after Lauren gets double teamed. That was our offense. What are we going to do after Lauren draws a double? And how are we going to get it back to her so she can score?”
Jackson, a seven-time All-Star who led the league in scoring three times (2003, ’04 and ’07) and was the rebounding champion in 2007, averaged 18.9 points and 7.7 rebounds in 317 games (all starts) with the Storm from 2001 to 2012.
When the WNBA announced its All-Decade team in 2006 and its “W25” this week, Jackson was among the league’s 25 greatest players on the team.
Apart from the WNBA, Jackson is a legend in Australia where she won three straight Olympic silver medals (2000, ’04 and ’08) and a bronze in the 2012 Summer Games. She also claimed two consecutive World Championships bronze medals (1998 and ’02) before guiding Australia to its first gold medal in 2006 at the World Championships in Brazil.
Before her rise to stardom with the Storm, Jackson began her professional career in 1997 in Australia’s Women’s National Basketball League where she won six WNBL championships and was a four-time WNBL MVP. She was also MVP of the Women’s Korea Basketball League in 2007.
On Saturday, Jackson becomes the first Australian athlete to enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, joining coach Lindsay Gaze, who was inducted six years ago.
The other members of the 2021 Hall of Fame class include Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh, Ben Wallace, Chris Webber, Yolanda Griffith, Bill Russell, Jay Wright, Marianne Stanley and Leta Andrews.
“I’ve always known what the Basketball Hall of Fame was, always,” Jackson said. “I guess because there was no other Australians athletes in it, I always wanted to be in it, but it wasn’t ever a sure thing. So for me to get the call and be told that I’m going in, it was a dream come true. I’m not lying. It was so special.”
Bird added: “I’m just really happy to see her get her flowers. I’m really happy to see her get this honor because she deserves it. She’s a player who dominated for so long and sadly had her career cut short because of injuries. As an athlete they say you die two deaths. Obviously, there’s the real death and then there’s the death when your career ends, and that can be hard for an athlete when it’s taken from you. This is a great opportunity for Lauren to maybe enjoy what a great career she had.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Australian government has shut down nonessential travel, which will prevent Jackson from attending the ceremony, which begins at 2:30 p.m. PT in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Jackson, who will be presented by Houston Comets legend Sheryl Swoopes, plans to watch the ceremony (broadcast on ESPN) at home with her parents and her two kids.
And there will be Champagne.
“Even though I’m not there this weekend, I’m going to celebrate,” Jackson said. “I’m absolutely going to celebrate with my parents and with my kids. I’m going to reflect on my time over there in America. I think there will be more Australian athletes to go in the future, but to be the first is so special.”
And the speech?
“It’s not special and nothing to write home about,” Jackson said, laughing. “I didn’t thank anyone specifically except my parents. The people who are part of my career and who I cherish, they know who they are.
“I just thanked the people along the way, Basketball Australia, Seattle and Sue definitely. She’s a huge part of my career over there and what I was able to achieve. All of my other teammates, and my coaches and the people who made the journey so special. It was such a great time. I wish (my career) could have lasted longer. In the same breath I wouldn’t change my life now for anything. It’s been an amazing ride.”
Jackson admitted she struggled with depression following her 2016 retirement — four years after her final Storm game. After winning a WNBA title in 2010, Jackson played 13 games in 2011 and nine in 2012.
She jokes that she’s had “over a million surgeries” on her right knee, left Achilles tendon and hip.
It took time, but Jackson said she’s healthy and happy. She’s let go of any regrets and doesn’t ask those pesky “what if” questions about a WNBA career that ended when she was 31. These days, she draws constant enjoyment from her young family and a new job as Head of Women’s Basketball for Basketball Australia.
“I did battle with a lot of injuries throughout my career,” Jackson said “There were ups and downs and just things that weren’t fun. But looking back, would I change any of it? No. I think where I am today is because of all of those experiences. I had a lot of work to do internally and on myself when I retired from basketball. I got to a point where I’m happy. I’ve never been really able to say that.
“Life now is brilliant. I don’t have any complaints. I have two healthy beautiful children. I love my job. I’m learning more each day. So many opportunities have come because of basketball. I just feel so incredibly lucky.”