Injuries Change Jackson’s Outlook

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Kevin Pelton, | May 11, 2006
It was a harrowing week for Seattle Storm forward Lauren Jackson. After experiencing pain in her left shin - well, more pain than usual, given that shin problems have been a fact of life for Jackson for years - she underwent precautionary X-rays last October in her native Australia. It didn't take a doctor to see from the resulting X-rays that something was very wrong.

"I actually got the X-rays before the doctors had seen them, and I saw the fractures in the X-ray," Jackson recalls. "I've never seen stress fractures in X-rays before, and it actually looked like I'd broken my leg in two parts. It scared the jeepers out of me."

"I've never seen stress fractures in X-rays before, and it actually looked like I'd broken my leg in two parts."
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty
What the doctors had to say, at least initially, was no comfort. The prognosis was that Jackson would be sidelined for nine months, meaning a return to the court in July 2006 at earliest. Jackson would miss another WNBL season, the Commonwealth Games and at least half the Storm's season - possibly all of it. Naturally, the news shook Jackson.

"In that week, you don't even know," she says. "I was frantic. A lot of things changed. It was a wake-up call."

A week later, everything changed again when Jackson underwent a CT scan on her left shin. It revealed that the stress fractures were not as serious as initially thought.

"I was happy," Jackson says. "I thought, 'Someone loves me.'"

Ultimately, she would be sidelined for slightly less than three months, returning in time for the end of the WNBL regular season. But just because Jackson's injury was not as serious as she first feared doesn't mean it did not change the way she views her body and her career.

The first step in that process, put in motion when Jackson believed she would be sidelined for the better part of the year, involved going back to school. Always precocious on the court, Jackson began playing in the WNBL at the age of 16. The focus on basketball made school a secondary priority, and Jackson says she's envious of American athletes who have no choice but to find other talents and passions while at college.

"I started studying again," says Jackson. "I've actually finished my first course, which is a diploma, in business management. I'm just trying to figure out what I'm good at."

Jackson's more immediate concern is taking better care of her body to try to avoid being out for extended periods down the road. While some damage has been done already - "The reality now for Lauren is she's never going to be healthy from the knee to the ankle," says Storm Coach Anne Donovan - better management of her time in practice and games can keep Jackson healthier.

"I've just got to focus on being smarter, doing things differently," Jackson says.

"I've found out, too, the last few years, I've been getting injured and going home and forsaking my team back at home. That's something I've got to be careful of now that I've signed that deal in Korea [Jackson signed a lucrative deal in late February with a team in Korea, leaving the Canberra Capitals of the WNBL]. I need to really look after myself. They know it. I know it."

During training camp, Jackson was asked, point blank, if years of playing through pain and enduring dodgy shins and ankles would have been worth it had her injury been as serious as originally believed, if she was forced to miss nearly an entire year.

Storm guard Sue Bird and forward Lauren Jackson are nominated for the WNBA's All-Decade Team. Click here to vote!
"It wasn't worth it. To see an injury like that ..." she said, trailing off. "If my body was to get that bad again, it isn't worth it."

Jackson still pushed herself in Australia after returning the court. In March, follow-up X-rays showed that Jackson's shin had yet to heal completely, but she went from helping Canberra to the WNBL title to leading Australia to a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games to keying the National Team's victory over Donovan and the U.S. in the Opals World Challenge. It was an exciting run for Jackson, but her minutes were still limited in games while she scarcely practiced with the teams.

A new Jackson mindset has been more clearly evident since she returned to Seattle for training camp. Jackson started camp working an hour every three days, and has since progressed to an hour every other day. Donovan has altered her practice schedule to make every minute with Jackson count, scrimmaging during her hour and spending other time working on putting in offensive and defensive sets. Jackson has also worked on her conditioning on the elliptical bike and in pool sessions.

"Everything's working out to plan," Jackson said last week. "I don't have anything niggling. I've been doing my cardio and stuff like that."

"I feel really good. I think this program's going to be great for me."

"Everything's working out to plan. I feel really good. I think this program's going to be great for me."
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
Still, there is some concern about how Jackson's body will react when the regular season begins a week from Sunday. She played 15 minutes in the Storm's preseason opener, and is expected to play around 20 minutes in one of the team's two games this weekend that wrap up the exhibition season, sitting out the other because they will be played back-to-back.

How much more Jackson will be able to ramp up her minutes when the games count remains to be seen.

"I hope when we're playing games, she's able to play more than 20, 25 minutes, which she did with the National Team," Donovan said earlier during training camp. "That's the goal. I don't think we're going to see her play 36 minutes per game."

Jackson averaged 34.6 minutes per game last season, 34.5 in 2004. A more reasonable goal this season will probably be closer to 32 minutes per game, though it remains too early to guess an exact number. Jackson will be helped by the fact that the Storm plays just three back-to-back sets, none until June 14-15.

If there is one area where there are no question marks, it is Jackson's performance when she is on the court. Jackson has been brilliant throughout training camp, showing no signs of rust from her sporadic participation. She had eight points and five rebounds last Sunday against New York, shooting 4-for-7 from the field.

"I've been playing, so it's not as hard to get in the flow as it has been before," Jackson said last week.

"She's not completely in the groove," added Donovan at the time, "which is not going to happen as long as she's not able to practice and work through learning new teammates and learning the tweaks in our offense and our defense. She's not playing at the level she wants to play at, but the level she's playing at is pretty good."

The key is to make sure that Jackson plays at that level for many years to come. While she is entering her sixth WNBA season and her 10th year of professional basketball, Jackson turns 25 years old today. Already, she has achieved most everything a women's basketball player can hope to do in her career (the notable exception being winning a gold medal in the Olympics with the Opals, which Jackson said would have made her injuries worth it), but there remain many milestones ahead of Jackson.

"I want to be around for a long time yet," she says, and she and the Storm are taking steps toward that goal.