Lauren Jackson was the best basketball player this country has produced, regardless of gender. Unfortunately her career was cut short, teaching us we need to look after our players better.

Lauren Jackson is a once in a generation basketball talent and as a nation we are blessed to have had her play for us. Right now, all professional basketball leagues are looking for unicorn’s, the mythical player who can defend the rim, rebound and space the floor with their perimeter shooting.

Well, the prototype for this position came into the WNBL in 1997 in the form of Jackson when she started playing for the now defunct AIS franchise.

Such was her talent, Jackson was taken with the first pick of the 2001 WNBA draft by the Seattle Storm. It is safe to say Jackson felt like Seattle was a good place for her and Seattle really liked Jackson. In her 12 seasons there, Jackson carved out a little piece of history for herself.

Jackson and the Storm won Championships in 2004 and 2010. She was a three time MVP, a finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year. She was named to the All-WNBA First Team seven times and the Second Team once.

Jackson was named to All-Defensive First Team twice, the Second Team three times. Add to this being named in the WNBA All-Decade Team and the Top 15 Team and you can see how good Jackson truly was.

Her individual numbers in the WNBA are astonishing as well. To go with the defense, Jackson was a three time scoring champion and a rebounding champion once.

Jackson is eighth all-time in field goals and thirteenth in three point field goals. Yes, a center in the early 2000’s with the ability to hit the three with regularity. Jackson also still sits seventh all-time for total points, 12th all-time for rebounds and third all time for blocks.

So, why do I bring up all Jackson’s numbers and highlights? Any NBA player who was this good would be in possession of a massive contract and a nice four month off-season. Instead, Jackson had to finish up the WNBA season, pack her bags and play in Australia, Russia, Spain, Korea and China.

She also was involved in every Opals campaign she could be. She helped Australia achieve one bronze and three silver medals at the Olympics. Jackson was also a massive part of the two bronze and the one gold medal Australia has won at the world championships.

Despite the fact she was successful everywhere she went, Jackson was not able to stop. In order for a female athlete to earn the money required to help set her up for life, they have to travel and play almost all year round. Jackson had a six year stretch where she had almost no off-season.

Jackson was one of the better paid basketball players in the female leagues. As a franchise player felt she had a duty to honor her contracts. As much as this attitude is commendable, it ended up costing Jackson in the long run.

This constant playing time meant Jackson was extremely susceptible to injury, especially late in her career. As any athlete will tell you, rest is as important as training. Without it, the body just does not get time to heal. The injury which caused Jackson the most trouble was her knee. This was the injury that ended her career a few years earlier than it should have it must be said.

It also cost the basketball public the chance to farewell this Australian champion and hero in the manner she deserved. Instead, we stared at the television screen or read the newspaper article in disbelief, with a sadness in our heart. We knew we would never see this champion on a competitive basketball court again.

This narrative needs to change. As parents, we encourage our kids to play sport, to be active in the sporting arena. We hope for great things for our children. If their dream is to represent their country or to just play in a team, we drive them to practice and games at all times of the day or night.

Then, with the exception of a few sports we do not pay them well enough to have a professional career. There are still a portion of basketball players in the WNBL who have to juggle full time jobs while playing basketball in the nation’s top league.

It is a testament to the sporting nature of the country that we are able to compete with nations with much greater populations and budgets than us. However, as a nation, we need to support our professional leagues.

The WNBL has been around for 35 years and in this time player payments have never been at the level to support a career for every player. Australia has produced some of the best players the world has seen, Jackson, Penny Taylor, Liz Cambage and Michelle Timms just to name a few.

Without the support of sponsorship by corporate Australia, the accessibility of TV networks broadcasting live action and the general public turning out to games, we risk losing our greatest players overseas, or worse, to other sports.

Let’s get behind our women in basketball and pay them like the professional athletes they are We are now into our fourth or fifth generation of players within the league. Some, like Jackson, are utilizing their basketball knowledge and acumen to go into basketball administration. Others just disappear into hopefully better paid careers.

This is the lesson we need to learn from the career of Lauren Jackson. If we want to see our greatest players play to the full extent of their career, we need to pay them like we mean it. Just imagine if Jackson had of been available for the 2016 Olympics. We would be talking about another medal for this proud sporting nation.

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