When SeattleStorm forward Lauren Jackson has some downtime, she likes to visit the Kangaroo& Kiwi, an Aussie pub in north Seattle. Sure, the window looks out on busyAurora Avenue instead of a field of cows and sheep and bouncing kangaroos, butotherwise it feels just like home to the 6'5" Aussie. There's Tooheys beerin the cooler, meat pies on the menu and Aussie sporting events on the telly.The pub's owner, Bradley Howe, grew up in Harden Murrumburrah, New South Wales,about two hours from Jackson's native Albury. "We're both countrykids," says Jackson, "and country kids are a different breed."
Perhaps thatexplains why Jackson, 26, continues to defy basketball convention. Now in herseventh year in the WNBA, the 2003 league MVP is playing the most productiveand joyful basketball of her career despite stress fractures in her left shin.At the All-Star break Jackson was leading the league in scoring (22.4 points agame, the highest average of her career), blocks (2.16) and double doubles (10)and was ranked second in rebounding (9.3). She was also 12th in three-pointshooting, hitting at a 40.5% clip. "Lauren Jackson is not a prototype,she's a freak," says Chicago Sky coach Bo Overton. "She's a post playerwith a guard's body control and skill, who can shoot the three, drive andhandle the ball. There's no one like her."
Medical expertsmight agree after learning the details of Jackson's off-season. When prudencesuggested she take time off to have surgery on stress fractures in both shinsthat limited her to 30 minutes a game and caused her to sit out every otherpractice last season, Jackson instead pounded the hardwood abroad for nearlysix months, collecting some coveted international hardware and six-figurepaychecks along the way. After stops in Brazil, South Korea and Russia, sherejoined the Storm in May--20 pounds lighter, a step quicker and feeling, shesays, "10 times better physically than I have in a long time."
She still has twofractures in her left shin. "I don't know if she got used to the pain orwhat," says Storm trainer Kyla McDaniel, "but she hasn'tcomplained."
"I still havedays," says Jackson, "but as long as the fractures aren't getting anyworse, I'm not going to let them hold me back anymore. After last season Idecided I was either going to play all out in the off-season or not at all. Alittle practice here, a little practice there was driving me crazy. I couldn'tget in a groove."
The first step ingetting her groove back came shortly after the Storm was eliminated in thefirst round of the WNBA playoffs, when she joined the Australian national teamas it prepared for the women's world championships in S√£o Paulo. Jackson ledher country to its first gold medal, defeating Russia on Sept. 23. "Thatwas amazing, and totally unexpected," says Jackson. "We've always beenthe little sister to America."
After takingthree months off, Jackson joined Samsung Bichumi in Seoul for four months asits one foreigner. "It was fantastic that no one else on my team spokeEnglish," says Jackson, who averaged a league-record 30.2 points. "Itwas very easy to just play basketball and not have any drama."
Jackson's nextstop was Moscow, where she was paid six figures for a one-month stint withSpartak Moscow Region, a team that already had three U.S. Olympians--Stormpoint guard Sue Bird, Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi and Houston Cometsforward Tina Thompson. Jackson moved in with her good friends Bird and Taurasi,sharing a luxurious manse courtesy of the Spartak owner, who also lavished hisforeign stars with diamond earrings, expensive dinners and salaries that werequadruple their WNBA take. "This house had everything you could everimagine--a pool, a spa, five bathrooms, an enormous living room," saysJackson. "Then you go to the window and it's overlooking a nuclear powerplant. It was so Russian. It was awesome."
A day afterJackson and her mates sewed up the Russian Superleague title, she was on aplane back to Seattle, far wealthier--in her five months in Korea and Russiashe made "as much as I have in my entire career in America," saysJackson--and happier than when she left in August. "When she's on the floornow, she just floats," says Storm assistant coach Shelley Patterson."There's a real lightness to her."
"I had alwaysfelt a step slow in the past," says Jackson. "Now my rebounding isbetter, my defense is better. A lot of things are better."
Curiously,Jackson is having her career season for a team that has struggled withinconsistency and strife. Though a number of players from the 2004 championshipteam remain, including Finals MVP Betty Lennox and Bird, the Storm hasunderachieved in recent years, with two straight first-round playoff exits.Through the first six weeks of this season, Seattle was a .500 team. Coach anddirector of player personnel Anne Donovan has been criticized by fans andmedia--and, according to reports in The Seattle Times, by players as well--forher personnel and bench decisions. When asked how she was handling thecriticism during a June 25 phone interview with a Seattle Post-Intelligencerreporter, Donovan briefly broke into tears.
All of this"had a huge impact on not just Anne but everyone," says Jackson."Every day we wondered, What are they going to say next? Who will theypoint the finger at next? But since then, we've regrouped really well. Werealize we can't blame others, we can't point fingers. As horrible as that was,the outcome was what a lot of people were looking for--we're playing togethernow."
The Storm wonfour of its last six entering the All-Star break and was within two games ofWest leader San Antonio. The team may be finally clicking, but one other darkcloud still looms. Because of a lack of a new arena deal, Clay Bennett, whochairs the ownership group of the Sonics-Storm organization, may move the twofranchises to his native Oklahoma City next summer.
Jackson is signedthrough the 2008 season but says she won't be heading anywhere. "I want tostay here," she says of Seattle. "The thought of not having a teamhere, or not being able to end my WNBA career here, is really sad. Itdefinitely weighs on my head because I know this could be my last year in theleague." She says there are a few other teams she would consider playingfor, "but it's hard to pick and choose where you go in thisleague."
Where Jackson,who keeps her watch set to local time in Sydney, will find her home away fromhome next summer remains to be seen. But there's one thing we now know: Thecountry kid from Albury can thrive in any time zone.
Mind over Matter
Second-year forward Candice Dupree has convincedherself--and the rest of the WNBA--that she's an unstoppable star
AS THE inaugural draft pick of the expansion ChicagoSky, 6'2" power forward Candice Dupree was expected to be more than atypical WNBA rookie last season. She didn't disappoint, averaging 13.7 points,5.5 rebounds and 0.74¬†blocks. This year, however, the 2006 Temple grad isproducing like a long-established star, averaging 19.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and1.67 blocks at the All-Star break--all in the top five in the league."She's a player with a very high ceiling," says Sky coach and G.M. BoOverton. "She's getting all this stuff done in her second year just onpure, natural ability. Just wait till she matures a bit."
Dupree is a smooth, long-armed athlete with whatOverton calls "a large repertoire of getting the ball in the basket. Shecan drive by you, she can get to the glass, she can dribble and pull up,"he says. "And her defense is better than people think. Look who she has togo up against every night--Lauren Jackson, Tamika Catchings, Plenette Pierson .. . the list goes on."
Dupree attributes her leap in production to a changein her mental approach. "The biggest thing was learning to convince myselfthat I can't be stopped, that I'm the best player on the floor," she says.To that end, Sky owner Michael Alter gave her a book by Gary Mack and DavidCasstevens called Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence, which sheconsults before most games. "People have always told me that I don't knowhow good I am, or how good I can be," she says. "I think it's finallystarting to click."
Photograph by Greg Nelson
A six-time All-Star, Jackson (15) was averaging 22.4 points and 9.3 rebounds atthe break despite stress fractures in her left shin.
MATT BOWEN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
¬†SKY'STHE LIMIT Dupree was in the top five in three stat categories.