Jackson’s Goal is Gold
WNBA MVP. WNBA Championship. All-Decade Team. World Championship. Another WNBA MVP. Titles and accolades galore in her native Australia and now in Russia. There remains only one thing missing from Lauren Jackson's mantle, and is the title she covets above all else: winning an Olympic gold medal.
"Achieving the gold medal is the one last thing I really, really want to get," Jackson told the Australian Herald Sun recently.
Jackson and the Aussies have been close the last two Olympics. Playing host in Sydney in 2000, the Opals reached the gold-medal game but were outmatched against the U.S. in a 76-54 loss. Four years later, Australia had significantly narrowed the gap when the teams faced each other in a gold-medal rematch. The Opals led late in the third quarter before ultimately falling 74-63.
From that 2006 squad, Australia has lost only one regular, veteran post Jennifer Whittle. Whittle's spot in the rotation goes to center Suzy Batkovic, who started at center in Athens and spent one season in the WNBA with the Storm. Batkovic was unavailable for the World Championships in the wake of sinus surgery, leaving the Opals at less than full strength.
This looks like Australia's strongest squad yet, and possibly for the foreseeable future. Jackson and Penny Taylor, the Opals' stars, are in their primes at age 27 and the core group of players has been intact for years, including a group that played together as youngsters at the Australian Institute of Sport.
"We've got a really good opportunity leading up," said Jackson. "The whole Olympics is huge."
With an eye toward the Olympics, the Australians largely withdrew from the WNBA. Most notably, forward Penny Taylor - an All-WNBA First Team pick a year ago who helped lead the Phoenix Mercury to the WNBA championship - decided to take the season off, joined by Mercury teammate Belinda Snell. Connecticut guard Erin Phillips missed the first half of the season, though she is expected to rejoin the Sun after the break. Jackson understands Taylor's thinking.
"She's married and she's building a place in Melbourne," Jackson said. "She wanted some time off, especially before the Olympics. We need her to be at her best if we're going to compete for a gold medal. She's an amazing, amazing player and a great person as well. I'm happy for her that she's doing what she wants to do. A bit of time off - it's good for the soul."
Along with former Storm guard Tully Bevilaqua, now playing in Indiana, Jackson was one of two members of the Opals who did play in the WNBA during the first half of the season, though both left their teams before the Olympic break to join their teammates in Australia. Jackson, who resisted pressure to stay in Australia in 2004, believes playing for the Storm leading up to the Olympics is right for her.
"For us to be at our best, we need everybody to have the best preparation they can have, and it's different for everyone," she explained. "For me, playing and competing against the best players is definitely what I need."
If her play for the Storm is any indication, Jackson is peaking just in time for the Olympics. It would be too strong to say she struggled early in the season, but her play was down a notch from her MVP level of a season ago. In the five games Jackson played in July before heading home - all of them Storm wins - she averaged 24.6 points per game and shot an even 50.0 percent from the field. Jackson's lowest-scoring game was a 14-point outing against the Los Angeles Sparks, matched up against U.S. counterpart Candace Parker. However, Jackson still got the best of Parker, blocking her shot twice and holding the talented rookie to 6-of-14 shooting in an easy Storm victory.
Jackson leads an Opals offense that was far and away the best of any team in the 2006 World Championships. In Jackson and Taylor, Australia has two of last year's top seven scorers in the WNBA - and the two most efficient shooters in that group. Add in post players like Batkovic who can finish in the paint and teams will pay if they aggressively double-team Jackson to try to keep the world's top player from dominating in the paint.
Where the Opals have had a more difficult time is matching the physical style of play favored by the U.S. It was that kind of defense that helped limit Jackson to 4-of-16 shooting in the 2004 gold-medal game, though she fought through the off shooting night to finish with 12 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. That's why it had to be encouraging to Australia to play right with the USA in Tuesday's finale of the FIBA Diamond Ball exhibition tournament. Despite American play they criticized as dirty after the game and which left Taylor with a black eye, the Opals were within two points in the final two minutes of an eventual 71-67 loss.
The gold won by Australia in Brazil has apparently bolstered the team's confidence that it can compete with the U.S. Before the World Championships, Jackson told reporters that the Opals would have to play a perfect game to compete with the U.S. women. While still respectful of their ability, she is no longer quite so deferential, calling this Australian group "the perfect team."
For Jackson, the Olympics have been a goal and a dream since early childhood. Both her parents, Gary and Maree, represented Australia internationally. However, neither ever had the chance to play in the Olympics, and Jackson knows just how much that means.
"I think that the Olympics are, for a lot of people, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she has said. "It's something that I personally would never take for granted. You're representing your country and the people who have supported you your whole life, so it's very important."
The past two Olympics, Jackson has represented her country by leading the Opals to unprecedented heights. This time, another silver won't suffice. Jackson has only gold in her sights.
"I'm not going to be satisfied with anything other than the gold medal,'' she told The Australian. "The gold medal is something I desperately, desperately want. That's all I want."