Aussie pride & unathletic couch potatoes
I was so nervous that I felt sick during the last two or three minutes of our quarter-final at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
I was on the bench, our Opals team was neck and neck with Serbia and I was so tense that I couldn’t cheer, couldn’t speak, could hardly breathe. It was too close for physical comfort. I still thought we’d win but I felt fear.
Then, the final buzzer. We lost by two. We were out of the Games and we’d ended a streak of five consecutive Olympic medals for Australian women’s basketball.
It felt like someone had died. It was a grieving process. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, even my family. It was tough.
It was my first Olympics. I’d virtually been forced to withdraw from the WNBA for a chance at making the team and been through a seven-month selection process, which made me incredibly anxious right up until I was told that I’d made it.
There’s a pressure that comes with being an Opal. There’s a history of excellence, a legacy left by those great players of the past. An expectation. It’s a healthy pressure, one we embraced at Rio, but it made losing hurt even more. We simply didn’t get it done. That happens – we’re only human.
It just made our recent World Cup result in Tenerife that much sweeter. A silver medal, our first in a major tournament since Beijing 2008, and second only to a strong USA team.
The Opals are back where they belong.
It was a little bittersweet directly after the game against the Americans – it’s hard to celebrate a loss. But having reflected over the past few days, it was a huge achievement.
Our coach, Sandy Brondello, put together such a good crew on and off the court. We believed in each other, were selfless for each other, it was really fun basketball with an incredible group of women. I actually miss them! We spent every day together for a month, and now it’s back to reality.
We left Spain knowing that we have something amazing to build upon heading into Tokyo 2020.
We’ve had a changing of the guard over the past few years, losing legends like Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor and Erin Phillips from the team. I’m proud to say that I was named in our leadership group for the World Cup, along with our captain, Jenna O’Hea, Katie-Rae Ebzery and Liz Cambage.
I’m almost 30 now, I’ve been around the Opals for a decade and I absolutely loved taking on that role. Especially taking our younger players, Ezi Magbegor and Alanna Smith, under my wing.
I really felt a responsibility to help them play without fear, no nerves about making mistakes, just going out there to have fun. Ezi and Alanna came in and played their role perfectly, they gave us energy when we needed it and ran the floor hard. I was so happy for them that they performed that way in their first major tournament.
And then, there was Liz.
LIZ: ABSOLUTE BEAST
It’s half-time in our semi-final against Spain, the home crowd is booing Liz – and I’m yelling at her.
‘You enjoy this, right!?!’
I could see that she certainly did.
The booing was disappointing, but Liz thrives off that negative energy from the crowd. She’s a strong human being who’s dealt with a lot at a young age and now, she’s just living her best life.
On the court, she is an absolute beast. She had 33 points against Spain.
I’ve been fortunate to become quite close with Liz, particularly over the last couple of years in the Opals program. When she’s in a good headspace, which she definitely has been the past year, she’s phenomenal. There is no limit to what she can do.
The Opals are back where they belong. We left Spain knowing that we have something amazing to build upon heading into Tokyo 2020.
I got to play alongside Liz in Dallas in the WNBA; we were teammates last season. She dominated, in record-breaking fashion, including that historic 53-point game.
She can shoot the three-ball, take it off the dribble either way, pull up, face up or post up to get to the basket, she can block shots. What can’t she do? She is just an incredible player.
She showed that again at worlds. To be honest, I think she should have won MVP; with due respect to Breanna Stewart, who had a great tournament. Maybe that’s me being biased but statistically, Liz was on another level. She topped the scoring by miles, was first in offensive efficiency and blocks, and second for rebounds.
And she does it all under huge duress. Opposition teams try to throw a lot at Liz. She can get frustrated at times and I understand why. I see people fouling her, hitting her, hanging off her, doing everything and anything to get in her head so that she’s off her game. They can try, but most games she’s unstoppable.
Liz is only a young springbok, still just 27. She’s blessed with great talent. She can do what she wants in this game.
MATTER OF RESPECT
I wouldn’t have a clue if I’ll still have Liz as a Dallas Wings teammate next WNBA season. I’m not positive she’ll play in the WNBA at all, because as Liz herself pointed out, there are much better financial opportunities elsewhere in women’s basketball.
It’s so disappointing that the world’s best league is the worst paid among the elite women’s leagues. It’s astonishing, actually. You still want it on your resume, that you’ve played against the best of the best in the WNBA. Money-wise, it would just be nice to see something fairer. We’ve never asked to be paid the same as NBA players.
There are a lot of keyboard warriors out there when it comes to the WNBA. It’s good that a lot of women, in particular the WNBA players, are clapping back now. It needs to be done. We work just as hard, if not harder, than the men, while getting paid less, travelling on commercial flights, and playing year round – all while being away from our family.
After the WNBA, we go to Europe or in my case, come back to Australia (I get the opportunity to go to Europe once our shorter Aussie season is completed in February). I think the longest I’ve had off in a year during my 11 years as a professional is one month, after the Rio Olympics, which was more mental than anything. I was exhausted.
It’s so disappointing that the world’s best league [the WNBA] is the worst paid among the elite women’s leagues. It’s astonishing, actually.
It’s draining, it’s fatiguing, and we do it because we have to if we want to play this game; the game that we love. We don’t get paid $154 million over four years.
So the disrespect for the WNBA, the ugly tone and the volume of it, is sheer absurdity. It never comes from NBA players – they come to our games. We have the same profession, they support us and they respect the talent in our league. That’s great.
It’s unfortunate that some other people, who are probably unathletic couch potatoes with nothing better to do than talk nonsense about us, are just trying to drag us down.
What’s most sad about it is, most of those critics are men – so they’ve got mothers, and what if they have wives and daughters? What if their daughter makes it to the WNBA? It just blows my mind.
LEGENDS TAKE CHARGE
I love the pressure of big games, be it the WNBA or for Australia. Winning those games on the world stage when the pressure is on is what you play basketball for. There are photos of Liz and I screaming into each other’s faces while playing for the Opals – and that’s the passion that excites me to play this game.
The semi-final win over Spain was one of those games. It was trademark Opals basketball.
When Sandy Brondello became Opals coach the year after Rio, I remember thinking, ‘So she should be.’ She’s an Opals legend who coaches in the best league in the world; she’s coached a WNBA championship. She had a lot on her plate, but the timing was finally right for her to take charge and it’s been great for the program.
Her style of play is defence-first and lots of ball movement. She was a player, so she’s a players’ coach. She respects us and treats us as adults, and we respect her.
When Sandy first took charge of the team last year, there was a refreshed vibe, but the expectations were set out; ‘We’re the Opals and this is what we’re about.’ We had themes we wanted to stick by, ones that have remained pretty constant in the Opals program.
Relentless. Handle adversity. Passion. United. Unselfish.
Those things are what the Opals are renowned for, and they have brought great success over the past two decades.
Sandy is super intelligent, with an amazing basketball IQ, yet makes people very comfortable; she’s super approachable. We’ve also got Trish Fallon, another Opals legend, as our team manager.
It’s amazing to be surrounded by Opals icons while this new crop of Aussie players build a loving team bond and strive for success together.
SCHOOL BOOK HEROES
I started playing basketball when I was nine, in Mount Barker, Adelaide. I started in netball, but one day a coach from the local basketball competition asked if I wanted to play for a team called the Zodiacs, because I was long and lanky. My mum, Andrea, said, ‘Sure.’
But I had to choose one sport; mum was a single parent and my sister, Ebony, also played netball and basketball, so mum couldn’t be everywhere. I chose basketball, thankfully. I quickly knew that it was what I wanted to do with my life.
I had a school book, it would have been early high school. I stuck an Opals photo from the Athens 2004 Olympics on it as my book cover.
Suzy Batkovic was on there, who was my teammate at Townsville Fire. Sandy and Trish were on there. Michelle Timms and Rachael Sporn, my idol. As an Adelaide girl who grew up watching the Lightning (and eventually got to play for them), I loved Sporny. All these amazing Opals, who I’m now fortunate to call my teammates, friends and coach.
I’m so conscious of being a role model. What I felt when I put that picture on my school book is what I hope young girls can feel about me, that they may see a photo of our team and think, ‘I’d love to play with Cayla and the Opals one day.’
I still look up to Lauren Jackson, who I’ll be working with at the Melbourne Boomers next WNBL season; which I’m super excited about. She’s been the epitome of Aussie success in basketball. That’s what it’s about: leaving a legacy for future Opals. Inspiring girls – and boys – to play and love our game. And it’s bigger than basketball, too. It’s about inspiring kids to have a healthy and happy life.
It’s humbling. A responsibility I hold close to my heart. I’m a Christian, too, so if I can incorporate my faith into the message as well, great.
This year’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games felt really important from that role model perspective. I’m so glad that I stayed to play in that tournament rather than going to Europe.
I’ve got a little sister Anni, who’s 11 and looks up to me, plus a niece and nephew. We had games in North Queensland; I’m sure that will never happen again in my lifetime as an Opal. Most of my immediate family live in Cairns and I met my husband, Kailou, there too.
The whole experience was phenomenal. The final against England was on the Gold Coast and to play for your country on home soil and win gold, there’s no better feeling.
I’m super passionate about playing for Australia. It’s a rare thing that not many people get to do. Singing the national anthem in Spain at the World Cup, I was so humbled to be in the line with my warrior sisters, singing loud and proud before every game.
But at the Comm Games, where the crowd’s singing it too? Incredible. I’m blessed to be an Australian, I love this country.