Among the many remarkable things about Lauren Jackson, the Australian who plays center for the WNBA's Seattle Storm, is the fact that she has been described in print as "a shrinking violet." This is a woman who collected so many technical fouls in the first half of last season (six in the first 17 games; none in the last 15) that the final few were called, she says, "only because the referees assumed it was me swearing when it really wasn't." This is the same woman who changed her hairstyle and/or color for almost every game during the 2001 Aussie pro season and who attended her own recent Rocky Horror-themed 21st birthday party as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the show's strapping transvestite star. Wearing fishnets and four-inch platform shoes, the 6'5", 185-pound Jackson took to the stage at a Canberra caf� and danced the night away. "There aren't many 6'5" women who would do that," says Carrie Graf, Jackson's coach with the Aussie league's Canberra Capitals and an assistant in Seattle, "but Lauren likes being different."
This is good news because, if Jackson's career goes as predicted, she'll someday be the premier center in the WNBA, an agile post player whose athletic gifts and small forward's perimeter skills put her in a class by herself. Tom Maher, who has coached both the Australian national team and the Washington Mystics, calls Jackson a once-in-a-lifetime player. Says Seattle coach Lin Dunn, "If she's willing to do the work, there are no limits to what she can do."
At 19 Jackson was the first pick in the 2001 WNBA draft, and she led all rookies in scoring (15.2 points per game), rebounding (6.7 per game), steals (1.86), blocks (2.21) and minutes (34.5). She also led the Storm in those categories and sank a team-best 40 three-pointers. That she finished second to Portland's Jackie Stiles in Rookie of the Year voting bothered Dunn—who calls the result "ridiculous" and clear evidence of the media's "bias against foreigners"—a lot more than it bothered Jackson. "I thought about it, but it wasn't a crushing blow," says Jackson. "Maybe it would have been if I were an American."
Or maybe it would have been had she not already been playing the international and for game for so long that the term rookie seemed misapplied. Lauren is the only daughter of Gary Jackson, a 6'6" center for the Australian national team in the mid-1970s, and his wife, Maree, a 6'2" Aussie national teamer who played at LSU for two years in the late '70s and still holds SEC records for points (1,021) and rebounds (539) in a season and for career scoring average (26.4 points per game). Their daughter grew up in gyms and joined her first team, in her hometown of Albury, New South Wales, at age four. At 15 she left home to attend the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra, and a year later she became the youngest player to be selected to the Australian women's national team. At 17 she averaged 10.9 points and four rebounds in 12 minutes to help Australia win the bronze medal in the '98 world championships. A year later, after three seasons in the Women's National Basketball League as an amateur for AIS. she joined Canberra as a pro and won her second league MVP. At 19 she had 20 points and 13 rebounds in Australia's 76-54 loss to the U.S. in the Olympic gold medal match in Sydney.
To most Americans who watched that game, Jackson is remembered best for accidentally yanking out Lisa Leslie's hair extension in the closing minutes. But the Aussie made a much deeper impression or Dunn, who'd followed Jackson's career for several years. Because Australia has never had enough size in the post to compete under the basket in international tournaments, its tactic has been to move the post player to the perimeter. As a result Jackson didn't have the repertoire of low-post moves that American players typically develop but she made up for it with weapons not usually seen in a WNBA center. "I've coached Lisa Leslie, Natalie Williams DeLisha Milton, Tari Phillips and a lot of other great post players, and I thought Lauren had better perimeter skills than any of them," says Dunn. "She can handle the ball she can pass, she can shoot the three. She's just gifted."
Dunn wasn't alone in her estimation Nine teams tried to trade for the first pick in order to draft Jackson, who's happy to have landed in Seattle. "I hope I never go anywhere else in the WNBA," says Jackson who spent the fall and winter back in Australia, helping lead Canberra to the Aussie league championship. "Coming back this year was great because I now have friends and teammates here that I love."
As those revolving hairstyles last year showed, Jackson is a free spirit who keeps the game in perspective and her teammates loose. "She'll often make a wisecrack that will lift your spirits and remind you that, hey, we're not saving any lives here," says Seattle point guard Sonja Henning. "At the same time she's feisty, a natural leader. She doesn't wait around for someone to say, 'Lauren, what do you think?' She says what's on her mind, and she doesn't hold anything back."
That explains some of last year's technicals. Others were the result of Jackson's frustration at being double-teamed every night as the Storm's one reliable offensive weapon. This year the arrival of No. 1 overall pick Sue Bird, the UConn point guard who was the national collegiate player of the year, will take some of the pressure off.
The physicality of the WNBA may have surprised Jackson last year, but now she knows what she's up against. She bulked up in the off-season, and in recent exhibition games she has already shown more inclination to post up and take a drop step toward contact inside than she did last year. "I'm still weak as water," she confesses. "I don't enjoy lifting weights, but I'm going to have to get used to loving it if I'm going to be the best player I can be."
How good is that? "I think she has the ability, down the road, to dominate the way Lisa Leslie did last year," says Graf. "Right now, Lauren is oozing potential. When she decides to invest in her body and be the best in the world, she'll do it. It's just a matter of time."