After career threatened, more mature LJ returns

Lauren Jackson's shins had hurt for so long that she couldn't remember a time when they didn't ache when she played basketball. But the fiery Australian gutted it out, rarely taking any serious time off to rest.

But seven months ago during the WNBA offseason, doctors told Jackson her remedy wasn't working. Playing through the pain was no longer an option. In fact, playing basketball at all might not be possible for the 6-foot-5 frontcourt phenom.

X-rays taken Down Under in October 2005 showed that Jackson -- a WNBA champion with the Storm in 2004, the league's MVP the previous season and a bona fide international star for the past half-dozen years -- had two stress fractures in her lower left leg. Finishing out the season with the Canberra Capitals in Australia's Women's National Basketball League was impossible. Rest -- perhaps for as long as nine months, one doctor warned -- was a must.

The ominous news quickly traveled over continents. Jackson's WNBA fans huddled on message boards fearing the worst.

Luckily for Jackson -- who had already fought back from offseason ankle surgery in 2004 -- her hoop dreams weren't derailed. Not long after Jackson announced she'd be taking an extended rest in October 2005, a bone scan revealed her body had already -- and amazingly -- begun healing itself, despite playing a game the night before. The fractures weren't exactly healed, but the beginnings of a growth on the shin over them indicated things were moving in the right direction, and that the initial diagnosis wasn't as bad as first thought.

Jackson -- the youngest player on the WNBA All-Decade Team and the only international player on the roster -- wound up sitting out 3½ months, but while her body healed, the mind matured. She enrolled at South Wales Technical University and began studying business management through home learning courses. Things she hadn't considered, or didn't think important, now took precedent.

"Basketball has given me some awesome opportunities, to travel the world, meet people, compete. … It's all I've ever done, it's who I am," Jackson said recently, during the most mature conversation I've ever had with her. "It was scary to think about not having basketball anymore. I thought, 'What am I going to do?' It made me think beyond basketball."

Though it seems like Jackson has been around forever (she joined the league in 2001), she's only 25 years old. But like a lot of people in their mid-20s -- maybe a couple years removed from college and really starting to take on life as an adult -- Jackson realized she needed to make some changes to make sure her body can hang with her competitive mind and talent for a long career.

"I'm taking better care of my body than I ever have before," Jackson said. "In the past, I never had to worry about it, I could do what I wanted. But now I'm really working hard as far as eating right, sleeping. My body is my priority."

And it shows. This season, Jackson is playing phenomenal ball. Though the Storm have almost as many losses as wins this season, Jackson ranks in the WNBA's top 10 in scoring (18.5 ppg), rebounding (7.0) and blocks, and is shooting better than 54 percent from the field and almost 48 percent on 3-pointers. On June 7, the four-time All-Star became the youngest player and fastest (162 games) to reach 3,000 career points, a milestone only 10 other players in the league's 10-year history have topped.

Is she pain-free? Of course not. Jackson's aching shins -- in an interview with ABC Goulburn Murray in October 2005, Jackson's father, Gary, said she's battled the condition since she was 15 -- "feel better," but still preclude her from participating in daily practices. At this point, she tries to train every other day and sits out many practices in lieu of sessions with Seattle's training staff.

Why go through it all when Jackson seemingly has accomplished it all -- from All-Star status to league MVP to champ -- in the WNBA?

"I have a desire and drive from wanting to be special, from wanting to be the best," said Jackson, whose vigor might prevent some fans from seeing how humble she truly is. "I'm a great competitor and want to achieve wonderful things in my career."

So far, so good. Jackson has made a good living in her pro career, and Seattle will always be a contender with Jackson and point guard Sue Bird, who give the Storm the best inside-outside combination in the WNBA. Both players are proven winners, very difficult to defend, and coach Anne Donovan has done an excellent job building around the super duo.

According to Jackson, only one thing is missing in the Emerald City: fellow countrywomen. For the first time since the 2002 season, Jackson's teammates do not include the likes of fellow Aussies such as Suzy Batkovic, Tully Bevilaqua or Sandy Brondello, whose playing days in Seattle are a thing of the past.

The gripe might sound trite, but blame it on that maturation. Jackson realizes she just wants to be closer to her family, to have her "Aussies around her."

For now, mom more than fits the bill. Jackson's mother, Maree, has been in Seattle since Jackson returned for training camp, and Lauren says having her mom -- who like Lauren's dad, played for Australia's national teams in the 1970s and '80s -- around this season was really important.

"She has always been there for me," Lauren said. "My mom understands me as an athlete."

As an athlete, a daughter, an adult. Mind, body and soul.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.