We’re all treating being in lock-down differently. Some of us are baking bread, some of us are trawling the internet for tips to keep the kids entertained. Some of us are watching Tiger King.
But I’ve spent this period of isolation so far in Mildura in the north-west of Victoria at my parent’s house, taking frequent long walks with my mother and convincing her to reach out to an Olympian she knows.
We’re walking along the beautiful Murray River when I first ask her. It’s been on my to-do list for a long time, to ask Mum this favour, but life and live sport has always got in the way. Now is the time.
“Mum, do you think you could message Rachael Sporn for me?”
The words coming out of my mouth make me sound like a kid in grade five asking for help with a school project. I’m sheepish and a bit shy about it. I don’t know how much of a relationship mum has kept up with Rachael or if she’d want to ask her something like that and put her in an awkward position. I can only imagine the favours a three-time Olympian gets asked.
I always thought it was so cool that my mum was distant cousins with an Olympian. They’re both from the small town of Murrayville close to the South Australian border near Pinnaroo in the far north-west of the state. And it wasn’t just that mum knew someone who went to the Olympics, she knew an Olympic basketballer and, in the nineties, even though I wasn’t as into sport as I am now, I knew basketball was cool. It was the cool sport. Mum was a keen basketballer in her youth. She would lament how Rachael came through years after her and broke all her records. So I thought my mum must be pretty cool too.
Within a few days I had Rachael Sporn’s phone number. My mum is cool.
It’s hard to talk to an athlete of Rachael’s calibre. I shake as I type in the phone number of a three-time Olympian (Bronze and two Silver medals), who also played at three World Championships, is a seven-time WNBL All-Star, five-time WNBL Champion and two-time WNBL MVP.
The phone rings as I wait to be connected to the International Player of the Year for 1993, a WNBL Life Member who has also been inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame and has an Order of Australia Medal.
The athlete who has played 377 WNBL Games and 71 games in the WNBA for the Detroit Shock answers the phone quickly and cheerfully. “Hello Kasey! It’s so nice to be talking to you!”
I stutter responding about how thrilled I am to be talking to her. She stole my opening line.
We talk about what’s happening in the world of sport, or perhaps what’s not happening is more accurate.
“I’m so relieved for the WNBL that they got through the whole season before the coronavirus hit. We’re really one of the few sports that didn’t get affected. And, we don’t know how long this is going to last, these restrictions, but I’m so pleased they got that full season in there, had an amazing crowd at that last game of the year in Canberra, a nearly full house. But just seeing how it’s decimating the other sports now. It’s pretty scary.
“I was lucky enough to fly over for the last game in Canberra to be part of the commentary team and present an award. It was really great being there. Because it was such a great game. It really was. It was awesome.”
Rachael doesn’t mention that the award she presented was her award. The MVP of the WNBL Finals is awarded the Rachael Sporn Medal.
I start our conversation mentioning that I’m currently in Mildura and we begin to talk about how she wanted to be a receptionist.
“When I was at school in Murrayville l did my work experience at the Working Man’s Club in Mildura, because I wanted to be a receptionist. That was my aim in life.
“I did some typing for them and I was so nervous to answer the phone because I was such a shy kid. That was my lofty ambition in life. Be a receptionist.”
It’s bizarre hearing her say this, especially knowing everything she has achieved. But Rachael elaborates on her shyness, something that she needed to overcome to get to where she is. Sport helped her do that.
“Sport has been wonderful for me to take that shyness away. I always hated getting out the front of the class. If I had to speak to a group of people, I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. Sport has been amazing to take me out of my shell.”
And she had some incredible mentors to continue to help her grow her confidence when she made the big move to the city from her small country town.
“I was very lucky when I first moved to Adelaide, I was lucky enough to have some one-on-one training with other Olympians who took me under their wing, like Julie Nykiel. She wasn’t on my team, she played for an opposition side in Adelaide, but I got to know Julie and she was so lovely. Then Pat Mickan who grew up in the Riverland and she was a sort of a role model of mine and I got to know Pat, and I just got to meet so many lovely people.”
Rachael is humble in reminiscing those early days of her career in Adelaide, not only crediting her mentors, but the make-up of the league at the time.
“I was very lucky Kasey, because when I first moved to Adelaide, there were three national league teams, there was North Adelaide, West Adelaide and Noarlunga City, whereas now there’s only Adelaide Lightning. If I moved to the city now, there’s no way in my first year in Adelaide, I’d be playing for a WNBL team, so I made the most of that opportunity.”
The trajectory of Sporn’s career from her move to Adelaide is simply outstanding. I sit on the line listening in awe as she details her time coming up through the league to national selection to the Opals in 1989.
“Robyn Maher was the captain of the Opals. When I joined the team, and we’re all quite scared of Robyn! She was that personality of, you know, she was very much in control. And she was a great leader, a great captain and we all respected her so much.
“It was nice over the years that I got so much more comfortable with Robyn and then towards the end of her career, I got to room with her a lot because she was one of the older players and so was I. It was really nice to get to know Robyn on a more personal level.
“It was really the environment that I was put in, you know, we’d have to go out do coaching clinics and I hadn’t done any growing up in Murrayville—no one had ever taken me to a coaching clinic, no one had ever come to Murrayville to take a clinic so I had to learn pretty quickly, I just learned from others and followed their lead. I was very much a follower, initially until I sort of got enough confidence myself to take the lead. So it took a little while, took a couple of years and, and then obviously, making the Australian team from 1989 forward, that takes you to another level.”
Another level is an understatement.
I ask Rachael about her career and her highlights looking back. How could she possibly choose her favourite moments amongst so much success and being a key figure in basketball’s popularity boom? She’s got so many memories to share but she’s primarily so grateful for her time at Adelaide.
She talks me through some of the standout moments of her time as an athlete. It feels like she’s telling her story to a mate at the pub, and for someone who is so missing talking sport at the pub with her mates right now, it’s just brilliant to sit back and listen to her.
“Adelaide Lightning for me, just wonderful, wonderful years. With Jan Stirling as a coach, we had so much success. We always had such a great group of girls and our profile was amazing during that time because in the 90’s basketball was just booming. It was a fabulous time to be playing.
“So the start of the 90s, I mean, ‘92 broke my heart because we didn’t qualify for Barcelona. I can still vividly remember being in the change room crying our eyes out after we’d lost to Czechoslovakia by three.
“Then 1994 was fabulous because Sydney hosted the World Championships. And now as you would know, they’re hosting in 2022. I’m so excited because it just blew us away how much publicity we got, and it took women’s basketball to another level for us. The crowd in Sydney was incredible. I still remember, we had preliminary games in Adelaide, and we played China, Italy, and Japan. We beat Japan, we lost to China by 20, we got smacked by them and Haixia Zheng—this was back when she was playing.And then we had to beat Italy by 13 to progress to the top eight. So just a little bit of pressure! If we didn’t progress, it would have been a financial disaster, and we won by 23. It was so amazing. It was the best feeling!
“So ‘94 was amazing. And then obviously ‘96 is incredible because it was my first Olympics. I had to wait until I was 28 to go to my first games. And then to win the first medal ever, male or female at Olympics for senior basketball was incredibly special.
“Then in 1997, Michelle Timms was the only Australian to get drafted to WNBA and she played so brilliantly it gave a really good reputation up for other Australians. I was drafted Number 14 in 1998, to the Detroit Shock, a new franchise. Then thankfully Sandy Brondello and Carla Boyd also got recruited by Detroit, so I had two friends with me which made a massive difference. It was just wonderful finally getting, I guess, to be a professional athlete, because we didn’t work, we just played when we were in the WNBA. We didn’t have the private jets, unfortunately! That was only for the men’s teams! But just to play at all the NBA stadiums, I mean I played in Madison Square Garden, and the Staples Centre in LA.
“In 1999, thirteen months out from the Sydney Olympics, I was playing for Detroit in Cleveland, and I did my ACL. So that wasn’t good! But it’s the only time I’ve flown first class! They flew me first class from Detroit straight back to Melbourne and David Young was the surgeon who did my surgery, and thank God he was brilliant because it was the worst he’d seen in 2000 cases, what I’d done to my knee.
“I shredded my ACL, I did my natural meniscus and medial ligament, but I had an impaction fracture. When I landed, my kneecap went left and my tibia hit my femoral condyle—so that’s what hurt!
“I hadn’t had a baby at that point Kasey, so I had nothing to compare the pain to! But oh my God, I couldn’t move. I was just in the foetal position on the floor. But thank God it went away after about a couple minutes!
“Thankfully I had such amazing support to get back. I had thirteen months before the Sydney Olympics, so we had to fast track everything. I was back playing within nine months.”
But if she had to choose? And now I feel not so much like a journalist but that pesky drinking buddy at the pub pushing forward those annoying, repetitive questions.
“It’s really hard for me! I suppose, in the WNBL we won the 1994 Grand Final in double overtime in Adelaide in front of five-and-half thousand people, which I think was a record at time. And that for me was really special. I’d won a premiership at North, but that was our first with Lightning in our second year in the league and I just remember that so vividly.
“And I think it’s actually interesting with the Olympics, because I think Atlanta, winning the bronze probably even outweighs winning silver in Sydney and Athens because you win your last match for the bronze. And with silver, even though it’s a step up and it’s amazing, you’ve lost your last match. And you don’t celebrate a loss. So actually, you feel a bit numb. And it’s not until you go back to the change rooms, you put your medal ceremony outfits on, and you walk back out and you realize, ‘Hey, you know, we’re second in the world. We’ve won a silver medal. We have to celebrate that!’
“So I think, I think Atlanta. I love how Andrew Gaze puts it because he says he went to five Olympics and he’s been asked which is your favourite? And he says that’s like asking which one of you children is your favourite—you can’t actually say it. And I totally agree because Atlanta for me [was] so special we won the bronze. Sydney—so special, a home Olympics all with your family there and we win silver. Athens, so special—I’m a mum, we win silver, it’s my last game ever for Australia. I can’t actually separate them!
“But I still remember running onto the floor, hugging my teammates in Atlanta. I think the bronze medal in Atlanta is my highlight. It was such a journey to get there. And just to be part of history with winning the first medal and it was such a beautiful group of girls in Atlanta. We had a 20-year reunion in 2016. We met up in Melbourne at a restaurant, and I think we got there at midday and we didn’t leave till 11pm, it was just so wonderful. You develop pretty beautiful friendships from when you’re achieving things like that, because you’re so motivated, you’re working towards the same goal. It’s a bond that you have forever. So yeah, there’s many, many moments. But probably the bronze medal. Atlanta”.
It’s amazing listening to Rachael continue to circle back to that bronze medal game in ’96. It’s the first Olympics I really remember. I collected every Olympic newspaper inset and put them in a special box in case I needed them for some far-off distant school project that might pop up. The Olympics just seemed so big at that time. My first concept of a world event. I wish I still had those clippings to see if I had anything of the Opal’s historic medal in there.
I’m also curious as I listen to her, as to why I’ve never considered a bronze medal game in the way that Rachael describes. It makes perfect sense, a reward for winning as opposed to a consolation prize for losing. Despite the hierarchy and reflection later when you realise your place in the world as Rachael articulates, those raw emotions of victory in the moment obviously give the bronze such a unique sense of success.
I could talk to Rachael for hours, and hopefully one day when we’re able to frequent our favourite pubs again, she might indulge me that opportunity—maybe my mum could swing that favour for me, if she’s cool enough. But Rachael’s got another interview to do, drive radio in Adelaide.
Before we finish up, she tells me what she’s up to now in her role at ASADA.
“I became the ASADA education presenter which I absolutely love. I actually presented to all the AFLW draftees in November and AFL draftees in January at Marvel Stadium. For me that was such a highlight because, like you, I love football. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a boy so I could play footy. And I said to the girls, ‘how wonderful it is, that you don’t have to say that’. I loved presenting to those girls and it’s just wonderful being back around the elite sporting environment, and obviously talking about anti-doping, I’m very passionate about clean sport. For me, it’s sort of the dream job and then (just before bloody coronavirus!), I became employed by the Australian Olympic Committee. It’s called The Olympics Unleashed. I go into primary schools and share my Olympic journey with the kids. And it’s talking about being resilient and goal setting. I presented at three schools and then it got shut down, so I was so disappointed, those roles were sort of working hand in hand beautifully, both part-time roles and using my teaching skills! Hopefully I can get back to it soon.”
Her final tip for me, and all basketball fans, is who she’s excited about as she looks towards the future of women’s basketball and the Olympics and World Championships.
“I think the athlete to watch will be Ezi Magbegor. I love Ezi. I only met her during the Commonwealth Games and she’s just got the world at her feet. And I think she could even be the face, if it’s not Liz Cambage, she could potentially be the face of 2022 for the World Championships.
“For me, she’s a true Opal. She represents everything that an Opal should be. And you know, I think over the years there’s been players that haven’t been that, and their time with the Opals has been brief, but I think she’ll have great longevity in this sport. Because she has sort of the whole package and she seems very grounded. She’s got good people around her. So yeah, probably Ezi Magbegor is the athlete for me at the moment. Yeah, I’m pretty excited about her.”
I say goodbye to Rachael, she asks me to pass on well wishes to my mum and I wish her and her family well during this terrible time. We tell each other that we’ll see each other at the other side of all this and I hope she’s right because when the 2022 World Championships roll around, my mum will be messaging you Rachael.