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Steve Christilaw: Storm star retires as top women’s player

Lauren Jackson, left, is presented with a jersey by Seattle Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel after the Storm defeated the Washington Mystics 80-51 in a WNBA basketball game  July 15, 2016, in Seattle. The team formally retired her jersey No. 15. The jersey was unveiled in the arena’s rafters, next to the two banners signifying the WNBA championships she helped win in 2004 and 2010. (Lindsey Wasson / Seattle Times)
Lauren Jackson, left, is presented with a jersey by Seattle Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel after the Storm defeated the Washington Mystics 80-51 in a WNBA basketball game July 15, 2016, in Seattle. The team formally retired her jersey No. 15. The jersey was unveiled in the arena’s rafters, next to the two banners signifying the WNBA championships she helped win in 2004 and 2010. (Lindsey Wasson / Seattle Times)

You have to look up to Lauren Jackson.

Sure, at 6-foot-6 there’s a height gap between the average basketball fan and the lanky Aussie. But it’s more than that.

The Seattle Storm star is arguably the best player the WNBA has yet produced, leading her team to a pair of championships during her stay in the Emerald City. There’s absolutely no argument she’s the finest player Australia has produced – leading her country to four medals (silver in 2000, 2004 and 2008 and a bronze in 2012) in Olympic competition.

Jackson was intent on leading her home country in the Olympics for a fifth time when the accumulated wear and tear on her knees forced her to announce her retirement at the end of March.

“It really is so surreal retiring here where it all began 19 years ago,” Jackson said at a news conference in Canberra, surrounded by Olympic teammates. “Today I’m announcing my retirement from the love of my life, basketball. It took me all over the world, gave me friendships forever, so thank you to everyone for being here.”

Friday night the Seattle Storm welcomed Jackson home for a surprise ceremony to retire her No. 15 jersey.

Jackson had just led Australia to the final game at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney when she was taken by the Storm with the first pick of the 2001 WNBA draft. Even with that Olympic exposure, most basketball fans scratched their heads at the pick. Once they saw her play, however, the love affair began.

When the Storm tabbed Sue Bird with the No. 1 pick a year later, those same fans buckled in for a wild ride that saw Seattle win two WNBA titles in the pair’s 11 seasons together.

Jackson and Bird became the Kareem-Magic of the WNBA – something the women’s game didn’t have and needed.

“I love it,” Bird said about being forever linked as players. “It’s only right because so much of what we did here was together. We really complemented each other. We have been together since day one. The attributes that we both possess as basketball players, it just fits. I love that my career is tied to hers. I have no other way to describe it. It’s only right that it would happen like that.”

Jackson was a force on the basketball court. She was powerful in the low block and deadly from the outside. She was a fierce rebounder and even tougher at the offensive end.

“I mean, she’s a badass,” Bird said. “That’s going to be her legacy. She is. Everyone talks about ‘the look.’ That’s going to be the cover of the book. The title will be ‘Badass.’ That look was her every day and every game. That’s what (the) identity of our team was all of the years that she played here. We kind of followed that.

“The impact that she had on her teammates was tremendous and could have only been done the way she did it, because that’s who she is. You look at what she did on the court – the play speaks for itself as well. But a badass. You could bring up a player and argue this, argue that, but you can’t argue this. There’s no arguing it. She proved it every time she stepped on the court. You’re real. Numbers don’t lie.”

You can easily make the case that Lauren Jackson was more dominant in her sport than any other Seattle legend – more than Ken Griffey Jr. More than Gary Payton. More than Steve Largent.

She was named the WNBA Most Valuable Player three times during her stay in Seattle and earned the same award four times playing professionally in Australia.

Statistically, you could easily argue that Jackson should have won three more WNBA MVP awards, Seattle Times columnist Matt Calkins wrote last week. She was the world’s best women’s basketball player for a solid decade.

She led the WNBA in scoring three times and finished among the top four nine times. She ranks among the top 10 all-time in rebounding and top five in blocked shots.

It’s sad that such a great career got cut short by injury.

But oh, how good and how sweet are the memories.

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