Hey Now, You're an Oz-Star
By Barry Rubinstein


The tall 20-year-old Australian sat wide-eyed on a scorer's table, her eyes drawn to the distinctive drop ceiling and the banners hanging from the rafters of Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night. She could have been any tourist taking in the sights of New York, swallowing up the experience of her first walk onto the floor of the World's Most Famous Arena.

"It's pretty awesome, pretty big," said Lauren Jackson of the Seattle Storm, who admitted to not having heard much about the building while growing up in Albury, Queensland, Australia. "I have a couple of musician friends back home, and they're like, 'Wow, it's huge, Madison Square Garden,' and my best friend in the world said to me a couple of weeks ago, 'You have to go to Madison Square Garden.'

"And I was like, 'Yeah, whatever.'"

Jackson isn't so blasT any longer. The No.1 overall pick of the 2001 WNBA Draft has enjoyed traveling around the United States playing basketball. And next week, she will make an unscheduled stop to Orlando as a Western Conference All-Star, an honor rarely bestowed upon rookies. But Jackson still admits to a hankering for Down Under.

"I get a little homesick every now and then," she said. "Everyone's been really cool and nice here, really, but it's not the same as being at home when you've got your own fans and your own family. It's kind of tough, but it's nice to know that people actually know who I am."

It would be difficult for them not to, since Jackson leads the Storm in scoring, averaging 15.2 points. She is the second-leading rookie scorer in the WNBA, behind only Jackie Stiles of Portland, and leads all rookies in rebounds (6.6 per game), steals (1.61), blocks (2.06) and minutes played (33.8). In the entire league, she ranks third in blocks, and eighth in scoring and minutes played.

The numbers point to All-Star, but the call to play in Orlando still came as a delightful surprise.

"I didn't expect to make it," she said, "just because I don't think I've played that well this season, so it was sort of a surprise. It actually hasn't hit home yet.

"I'd like to be further developed in the league, and I'm not yet. But I'm trying, and each game I'm getting better."

In her first 18 games in the WNBA, Jackson has reached double figures in scoring 16 times with a pair of double-doubles, including the first in Storm history. Her best outing was a season-high 24 points and season-high-tying 12 rebounds in a 72-69 loss to Washington on July 3.

Clearly, this soft-spoken Australian has a much different demeanor on the court, as she plays aggressively in the post, hits the boards hard and isn't afraid to fire away from the outside or drive to the basket. Still, Storm coach and General Manager Lin Dunn insists the kid gloves have yet to be shed completely where bringing along her prized rookie is concerned.

"We don't talk about expectations," Dunn said. "It's certainly not going to come from me, her teammates or the Seattle Storm franchise. All we've done is try to be very positive with her, very patient with her, and more than anything else, I would use the word 'nurturing,' because of what she's got to go through being so young.

"We wanted to just let her kind of grow on the job and learn on the job. We didn't hesitate. We just threw her in there. She's our starting four-player, she can play the five, you want to go out on the perimeter, go ahead. There wasn't any of this, 'Well, let's bring her off the bench' or 'Let's take this slowly.' She's too good. She's too gifted. She's too talented.

"I think the All-Star Game is going to be a wonderful, wonderful experience for her. I'm very pleased for her and our team."

Jackson entered the WNBA with a unique perspective on the game, since her mother, Maree, and father, Gary, both played basketball for Australian national teams. Maree also played at LSU in the late 1970s. Lauren wears No. 15, the same number her mother did. In fact, mother and daughter will make the trip to the All-Star Game together, as Maree will stay in the States with Lauren for the next month.

"We talk on the phone, like, every day," she said. "But we don't even talk about the game much anymore. She's my mother; she's not my coach. That's why we get along so well, I guess, because we don't talk about basketball."

As to her expected bright WNBA future, Jackson will "take it as it comes." She'd prefer to continue drawing notches on her growth chart, seeing the sights in America and blabbing with mom on the phone.

Just like your typical 20-year-old All-Star.


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