General Manager of the Melbourne Boomers, Christy Collier-Hill talks WNBL preparations amidst the pandemic and Ezi Magbegor’s WNBA journey.
When I call General Manager of the Melbourne Boomers, Christy Collier-Hill for a chat about Aussie women’s hoops, she’s just watched Australian Ezi Magbegor play for the Seattle Storm in their win over the Connecticut Sun. Ezi played 13.27 minutes and shot 5, continuing her early WNBA rookie season consistency.
When I comment how proud she must be of what Ezi has been able to achieve and the impact she’s quickly made in the WNBA, Collier-Hill sounds not only like a proud GM, but a proud mum and a proud and passionate fan of Australian women’s basketball.
“To be honest, when she went over there, it’s her first year, rookie year and you just don’t really know. We didn’t know if she’d really get court time or how it would look and she went on in the first game and I think had 7 points and 3 rebounds and has played pretty—you know for a rookie—pretty good minutes ever since.
“She has performed every time she’s got on the floor. We know she’s amazing, but still, it’s very exciting to watch her. My husband who sits here in the office with me [at home] often says ‘stop yelling!’ and ‘stop being so loud!’ when I’m watching her because I’m kind of cheering and clapping and all that sort of stuff because it’s exciting!”
The WNBA kicked off on July 25 in the league’s specially designed bubble—the #wubble as it has come to be referred to—environment in Florida. For a self-confessed sports nut like Collier-Hill, it’s helping with the severe lockdown restrictions in place in Melbourne to have live sport to watch. And being able to watch one of her Boomers in Magbegor be part of it all is the icing on the cake.
“They do talk about [Magbegor] now. I don’t know how much you’ve been listening but on the commentary, they’re kind of saying that whenever she comes on she does something good— which has been every game so far—they talk about how old she is and how she’s come through and how much potential she’s got. And comparing her to Lauren Jackson and all that sort of stuff. So it’s pretty awesome. It’s pretty exciting. I love it. And then we get to have her back here to play with the Boomers!”
And Boomers basketball, while out-of-season, is Collier-Hill’s focus now as the WNBL looks as forward as they can in such exceptional circumstances. Taking things one day at a time is a sports cliché that has never rang more true.
“It’s crazy. If I would have spoken to you maybe ten days ago, I would have said, ‘yeah, I think a regular home and away season is probably on the cards.’ It just changes so often, and you know, who knows what’s going to happen?”
Collier-Hill is in the unenviable position of working through scenarios in preparation for the 2020-21 WNBL Season as she, the league, and governing body, Basketball Australia, watch the developing and ever-changing situation COVID-19 is creating and learn from other leagues’ responses to the crisis.
“It’s a very different scenario to what a traditional year would look like in the offseason. We, like all of the clubs, are working very closely with Basketball Australia at the moment to nut out what the season looks like.
“The season will definitely go ahead, which is a big thing. Basketball Australia announced that it would start on the 20th of November, and that is, at the moment still the intent. But like we’ve seen [with] all the other codes, there’s now a range of scenarios being worked out.
“A standard home and away season is obviously the number one priority, and number one option for everybody involved. But then they’re also looking at a number of other options. And they could include [playing] a couple of tournament rounds in the season, where everyone comes together and plays three or four games, and then we go back and do some regular home and away, and then maybe come back and do that again. And then as of pretty much last week, there’s a lot of work going into researching a hub scenario.”
With a State of Disaster in effect in Victoria and observing other in-season sporting codes rapidly adapting to the on-going impacts of the pandemic, Australian basketball is in a unique position to watch and learn as they prepare for a return to the game in the spring.
“Whilst [being in hubs] is not the preference, to be honest, if you were a betting person, that’s probably where you put your money right now. I think the reality of where we’re at, and certainly in Victoria, which is kind of a bit crazy, because everywhere else seems to be doing okay. And unfortunately, well, fortunately really, there’s three Victorian teams in the WNBL, so it kind of throws a big spanner in the works.
“They’re looking at lots of options at the moment. The season will go ahead. It’s just how it will look, where it will be played and the kind of structure around it. It’s normally a 21-game season where you play each team three times, and then a best of three semi-final series and grand final series. Again, the ideal scenario is that we would play that level of game regardless. But that’s also being looked at, whether it might be better to have a shorter season this season. We’re not entirely sure. I think the intent of the league is to make a call by mid-September and move forward with whatever that decision is.”
It’s reassuring to learn of the commitment of Basketball Australia to get a WNBL season up and running, particularly for Opals squad players who require as much preparation and match fitness as possible as they work towards the postponed Tokyo Olympics in 2021. However, while we don’t know for certain what the league might look like, we do know there will be fundamental changes necessary to allow for the competition to go ahead in the current state of the world. The biggest confirmed change to the 2020-21 WNBL season will be the restrictions to imports.
“The season will go ahead this year without imports so it’ll just be an Oceania based league where players are essentially just from Australia, New Zealand and there will be some players from Asia. It just means we don’t have the American imports that we normally would have in our team, and any of the other teams, which I think is a bit of a shame.
“Certainly with us, the couple of imports we had last year—Lindsay Allen and Sophie Cunningham—were just incredible. And I think most teams would say the same. The quality of imports last year was absolutely, insanely good. So we’ll miss them this season. But in saying that the quality of the Australian athletes that we have here, like we can see with Ezi over there [in the WNBA], we can match up with the best in the world. So yeah, we’re not going to lose too much. And I think [it] will be a real opportunity for our Aussie based players to get some more court time and show what they can do, especially leading into the Olympics next year as well.”
Australian women’s basketball has been experiencing a talent resurgence in the last few years reminiscent of the days when Michele Timms, Rachael Sporn, Sandy Brondello and Lauren Jackson, to name a few, took the WNBA by storm. Names like Liz Cambage, Bec Allen, Leilani Mitchell, Jenna O’Hea and Ezi Magbegor are helping to again show the world what Aussie women can do on the court.
“We had a look over players in the WNBA over there at the moment, I think there’s 10 players over there that have played over here in the WNBL [the] last couple years, something like that. It’s a really high number, and a couple of them, like Lindsey and Sophie who were our imports last year, are starting for their WNBA teams this season.
“So just the quality of what we’re getting in the WNBL is so high and I think that speaks to the level of the WNBL in itself. These women that are, you know, starting for Las Vegas Aces, they are coming over here and wanting to play over here because it’s such a good quality league.
“There’s no doubt we’ll miss it a bit, not having those kinds of American imports, but the quality of what we’ve got here in Australia is amazing. So Ezi’s over there playing, Alana Smith is playing with the Phoenix Mercury, and she’ll come back and play for Adelaide Lightning this WNBL season. And then there’s a host of other players that are playing in the WNBL that have played WNBA in the past so it’s a pretty good standard.”
The opportunity of also building a relationship with the WNBA is a plus for Collier-Hill who is also passionate about the broader promotion of women’s sports and working collectively to help each other achieve the same goals.
“We’ve been really fortunate this season to be able to start to form a relationship with the Seattle Storm. They have been nothing but accommodating for us and it has just been, it’s been absolutely fantastic. We’ve spoken to them on a range of matters and [they’re] helping us feed through media pieces, and behind the scenes stuff and all that kind of good content about Ezi’s journey.”
Looking forward to what the WNBL could look like as it plans to return in November, hopefully beyond the worst of the impacts of COVID-19 in Australia, Collier-Hill sees the timing for basketball as a huge advantage for the sport. Particularly for the WNBL which will return before the NBL, allowing for a focus on the women’s game.
“I think the WNBL could be in a really fortunate position where we could end up being the most fortunate professional sporting league in the country. We were able to finish our grand final series in March, literally just before the pandemic broke out. Unlike the NBL, who got three games into a seven-game series and had to call it quits, they didn’t get to finish. We got to finish, then we’ve had an extended off-season where we would normally start in October, so we’ve pushed it back for a bit of safety. In an ideal world, we’ll get to start in November, we could just be very fortunate that we might miss just what is the absolute worst of the pandemic.
“I’m not going to say the impact hasn’t been significant. It still has, but it’s not as significant as those codes that have had to play through this. The AFL, the NRL and Super Netball have had to be incredibly flexible with their seasons and how they’ve managed it. We’ve been, (I won’t say a bit of a Steven Bradbury!) but we’ve kind of skated around the outside and hopefully we’ll come in at the end and be able to have a season and have it shown and broadcast and it’s a good result.”
We all hope to see a strong return for women’s basketball through the WNBL as we build towards Tokyo 2021 and recover from this devastating time. And we’ll of course look forward to the FIBA World Cup in 2022 that will be hosted in Australia when hopefully we can all pack stadiums once again and cheer on these incredible athletes outside of our home offices while shouting at our screens.