As she basked in the cheers and hugs after her Australian Opals sealed top spot in their group and passage into the quarter-finals, Lauren Jackson was hit with a surprising question.
Would she consider extending her comeback to the 2024 Paris Olympics?
Lauren Jackson poses for a picture with a young fan at the FIBA Women’s World Cup in Sydney.Credit:AP
A few days earlier she was quoted in The New York Times saying she wouldn’t be playing but “anything is possible”, and her performance as a leader and bench contributor at the FIBA Women’s World Cup in Sydney had some wondering if the 41-year-old mother of two might find a way to stick around.
Her answer made it clear how special her experience has been in Sydney, where she has received rapturous roars during introductions and whenever she has stepped on the court for her 10 or so minutes each game.
Off the court, Jackson jerseys have repeatedly sold out and the veteran superstar has posed for countless photos with fans from around the country and the world.
“No, I’m not [going to Paris] because nothing can top this,” Jackson responded.
Jackson has previously said her deal with her family is they will help with her children until the end of the upcoming WNBL season, in which she will play with the Southside Flyers, and then she will likely be heading back into retirement.
But her decision to return to the Opals was all about this event, and it has surpassed everything Jackson hoped it would be.
From past players to lifelong fans and even a group of supporters in Jackson jerseys and goat masks – GOAT is the acronym for “greatest of all time” – Jackson has taken it all in.
“I could have never imagined I would get the reception I have got in this last week,” Jackson said.
“This will last forever. The reception I have got is more than I could have imagined. It has been so special. For us to perform like we have been, in front of our home crowd, is so important for our sport. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling.”
Whether Jackson saved the World Cup is a question only the organising committee and a lengthy data analysis can answer, but she has, unquestionably, been the face of the tournament.
Organisers launched a special promotion with a Jackson code soon after she was confirmed on the Opals roster and ticket sales skyrocketed. Last-minute sales also lifted, with people coming from around Sydney and interstate to see Jackson one last time.
“The week it was revealed she was trying to play at the World Cup, we saw ticket sales rise week on week by 125 per cent,” World Cup marketing, media and communications general manager Taryn Kirby told The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
“When she was announced in the team in August, ticket sales went up 185 per cent from the week prior – that is from a ticket perspective, but from a general perspective our media monitoring showed stories on her returning reached six million people and when she made the team it reached 10 million. It’s really hard to get those numbers.”
For young basketball fans, they have had the chance to see a legend and interact with her, while those who saw her in her earlier years have been able to appreciate Jackson’s influence on the current generation of Opals.
“The thing that is giving basketball the biggest boost is that there are definitely people that have bought a ticket to go and see Lauren Jackson even though she might play less than 20 minutes,” Kirby said.
“So Lauren has brought people into the stadium, but they will see an Ezi Magbegor or Bec Allen, then all of a sudden become their fans.
“That is the most important connector – people with a connection to an old Opal will walk away knowing the current stars of the team.”
The Opals looked in serious trouble when Liz Cambage left the team on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics and the Opals crashed out in the quarter-finals.
With the rise of AFLW and teams like the Matildas and women’s cricket side drawing more fans, it felt to some like the Opals had fallen out of the public eye, but not now.
“It felt like it did, but you wouldn’t know it by the crowds and receptions we’ve had here in Sydney,” Jackson said.
“It has been remarkable and I’ve been blown away by it.”
Lauren Jackson (right) and Cayla George celebrate the Opals’ key win over Serbia.Credit:Getty Images
A year of culture building and Jackson’s return didn’t appear to be enough when the team fell to a 13-point loss to France on the opening night of the tournament, with fans, players and coaches all stunned.
But Jackson’s experience came to the fore as she gave her teammates a post-game rev up and demanded they do better for their home fans. The Opals have responded with five straight wins and a spot in the medal rounds.
“It was definitely angry mum tone,” Jackson said with a laugh.
“I had a few choice words. The girls know what it takes to win and to be playing in front of a home crowd here in Australia, we have to play with pride every time we set foot on the court and that is with toughness, passion and persistence, and they have done that.
“They responded and that is what mattered.”
The whole campaign has Jackson feeling bullish about the future of the Opals beyond this event.
“The girls have found their fire. Found their angry. They know what it takes to win now,” Jackson said.
“They are going to be fine moving forward. They’ve got it. These girls are incredible. They know what it takes now and it’s pretty awesome I get to be a part of it.”
News, results and expert analysis from the weekend of sport sent every Monday. Sign up for our Sport newsletter.
Most Viewed in Sport
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article