Aussies in league share special bond
Lauren Jackson was 15 when she left her parents behind in the New South Wales town of Albury to relocate to the Australian Institute of Sport. Penny Taylor's time with her family and friends in Melbourne was the last she would see of them for 12 months. Tully Bevilaqua is from Perth, her primary address is Indianapolis and she lives, for the moment, in San Antonio.
This is what happens when the definition of "home" is stretched and reconfigured beyond recognition; when home is where you're from, rather than where you are now -- which could be anywhere, and will be for the length of a basketball career.
Jackson (Seattle Storm), Taylor (Phoenix Mercury) and Bevilaqua (San Antonia Silver Stars), along with Belinda Snell (Storm), Jenna O'Hea (Los Angeles Sparks), Liz Cambage (Tulsa Shock) and Erin Phillips (Indianapolis Fever), share a single, nearly unbreakable bond: not just that they are Australian, but the shared knowledge of what it took to get here. "Here" being the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in what they say is the world's best women's basketball league, the WNBA.
Bevilaqua is the senior member of the group, both in age -- 39 -- and by an inclination that is almost maternal. "Young Jenna," she said, with a smile in her voice, when told that O'Hea, the Sparks' point guard, was the next player I'd be interviewing. "Tell her I said hello."
There's a bond you build up when you're away from home. You have a drink or something together, and it's the same with Americans in Europe. I just feel like back here, in the States, you bond together. It's hard to explain sometimes, but you just know it.Tully Bevilaqua (right) on connecting with fellow Aussies like Penny Taylor (left)
They catch up for sushi, for guided tours of one another's new cities, for the outdoor "barbie" dinners beloved by Australians everywhere. They share a familiar accent, a singular sense of humor and a tendency to vulgar language.
They have gyrated to "Down Under" by Men at Work when the song boomed over the PA system during pregame warm-ups at Seattle's Key Arena, exchanged intelligence on which team or coach suits an individual's playing style and personality, and, most simply, have reminded one another of the place that can often feel so far away.
Bevilaqua was talking from the airport in Los Angeles, on her way back to San Antonio. Meeting a fellow WNBA Aussie, she said, is "the same as seeing the kangaroo on the tail of a Qantas jet. It's a symbol of home."
"If you see an Australian here, you always catch up with them," said Sandy Brondello, a veteran of Australian, WNBA and European teams and now an assistant coach with the Sparks. "Once you're a friend, you're always a friend and you look forward to catching up with them, regardless of how often you've seen them in the past."
The WNBA has had a trace of an Australian accent since its inception in 1997, including four members of the Mercury in 1998: assistant coach Carrie Graf and players Michelle Timms, Michelle Griffiths and Kristi Harrower.
Among their teammates was Jennifer Gillom, who was fired as Sparks coach earlier this month.
"They're very mechanical as far as their skill set," Gillom said of the Australians she has played with and coached. "They really work hard on mastering certain skills. I don't think they have an array of skills like here in the WNBA, but they master a certain skill and become very good at it. Their knowledge of the game is impeccable. They're always thinking the game."
All seven of the current WNBA players were members of the Opals, the Australian national team that finished fifth at the 2010 World Championship. The Opals have also played the U.S. in the gold-medal game at the past three Olympics.
For Snell, who plays on a nonguaranteed contract with the Storm after four seasons with the Mercury and the Silver Stars, it's the coaching that favors Australians who are trying to break into the league. In all, 21 Australians have played for WNBA teams, most of them arriving via the semiprofessional Women's National Basketball League.
"The way we're taught basketball in Australia is similar to coming over here," Snell said. "It's an easier transition for us to play here than for the Europeans."
O'Hea is 24. Like Taylor and fellow rookie Cambage, O'Hea hails from Melbourne. She said her older compatriots go out of their way to reconnect with her whenever their teams meet.
"The older players have given us a lot of tips and advice," O'Hea said. "Playing Seattle or Phoenix, they've been great with me. We've all played together on the Australian team. When we play together, they show us how they live and take us out in their towns."
Culturally, Australians in America seem like a simple fit. They grow up on a lot of the same movies, TV and music. The differences are subtle: Guests gather for a "barbie" rather than a grill, and listen to Men at Work instead of the Go-Go's, to little-known bands like Cold Chisel and to half-remembered ones like Midnight Oil and INXS, which have become cultural touchstones.
Before Jackson underwent surgery June 30 to repair the torn labrum in her left hip, her game-day routine started with her lacing up shoes with an Australian flag stenciled on, and a solo shootaround on the court 2½ hours before tipoff, with INXS blasting through the PA system.
It may be why Jackson calls Seattle her favorite city outside Australia. They do try. On day one with the Storm in 2001, Jackson was picked up by a limo in which a song by Savage Garden, a Brisbane boy band, was playing.
Such gestures are small connections with home. Others are more social.
At the end of the WNBA season, Taylor will return to play in Istanbul with the Turkish team Fenerbahce in a Euroleague competition that runs through May 2012.
"I'm pretty much constantly overseas," Taylor said. "Having a chat with someone who understands what I'm saying and laughs at my jokes is important."
"We have a smaller pool of talent than they do here," Jackson said. "We leave home early -- I left home at 15 to start my career, and I wouldn't change it for the world."
Taylor's experience mirrored Jackson's. "A lot of us went to the AIS, so from 14 or 15, we grew up together. You build really great bonds there that follow us around the world."
Bevilaqua is a self-described late bloomer, a veteran of five teams and 14 years, talkative and insightful. Even so, she struggles to characterize exactly what the Australian players mean to one another.
"There's a bond you build up when you're away from home," Bevilaqua said. "You have a drink or something together, and it's the same with Americans in Europe. I just feel like back here, in the States, you bond together. It's hard to explain sometimes, but you just know it."
For the girls who left home behind and became adults in the process, the attachment is like family.
Bevilaqua agreed. "We're there for each other," she said.