Finals feature Aussie influence

Penny Taylor, middle, and Phoenix won in 2007; Tully Bevilaqua, right, won a title in Seattle in 2004. AP Photo/Paul Connors

INDIANAPOLIS -- As stereotypes go, this is a particularly nice one: Australian athletes are the ultimate "team players."

Of course, such a blanket statement can't be true for every Aussie … or can it? Suffice it to say, you'd be hard-pressed to find a contrary example who has played in the WNBA -- including the two who are currently competing for a league championship: Phoenix's Penny Taylor and Indiana's Tully Bevilaqua.

"I've thought a lot about it, actually," Taylor said. "Australia is an outdoorsy country, and so everything is centered about being outside, enjoying the great climate we have. And a lot of our activities are based outside -- being at the beach, the park, barbecues. The way to celebrate any holiday is often outside, even Christmas is at the beach.

"Because of that, there is a lot of sport involved. The sport part of it is about doing your best; it's not always about winning and having that attitude of being the best. It's about being involved and a part of a team. It's a competitive culture we have, but it's about the team -- not the individual goal that you're reaching."

There were seven Australian players on WNBA rosters this season, and six of them were involved in the playoffs. Four Aussie players have won WNBA titles before: Taylor and Belinda Snell with Phoenix in 2007, and Lauren Jackson and Bevilaqua with Seattle in 2004.

The Australian influence, if you will, was in the WNBA from the very start, thanks to the popular Michele Timms in Phoenix. Current Australian national team coach Carrie Graf spent time at the Mercury helm in 2004-05. Former Aussie national team coach Tom Maher was one of many who've been through the coaching turnstiles for the Washington Mystics.

And Sandy Brondello, a former WNBA player, is currently an assistant coach for Dan Hughes in San Antonio.

The Australian players are particular appreciated -- or they should be -- by American WNBA fans because of what they have to accept to be part of the league here in the United States.

"They spend pretty much the whole year away from home," Phoenix's Diana Taurasi said. "We're in Europe, then we get to come back not necessarily to our hometowns, but to our country where we're familiar with everything -- food, people, why they do certain things, our culture.

"They come here, and it's another culture change for them. And a lot of them have done it for many years."

As you might expect, the Aussies don't make much fuss about that, even if they do get homesick and miss friends and family.

"I guess after time you adjust," Bevilaqua said. "It's very easy, I think, for an Australian to adapt to America. I love it over here now, and I have a house in Indiana. I have made Indiana my permanent base.

"We're very fortunate that the fans have made such a connection to us; it makes you feel like home away from home. You still miss some things."

Such as?

"Meat pies," Bevilaqua said. (Yuck.)

In recent years, it has become more common for Australian players to come to the United States to play college ball. In fact, look for one of the top players in the Big 12 this season to be Iowa State senior Alison Lacey, who is from the Australian capital of Canberra.

There are some potential dangers to recruiting Aussies, though, because colleges must be aware of any professional experience they have. Many good teenage players do play professionally in Australia because it doesn't have the kind of college system the United States does.

Typically, a player who has competed as a pro has to sit out some kind of suspension determined by the NCAA if she wants to play for a U.S. college. The NCAA is a stickler -- you might say to an absurd degree -- about such things. For instance, in August the NCAA stripped Fresno State's women's basketball program of its 2007-08 regular-season and tournament championships in the Western Athletic Conference. Why? Because one of the Bulldogs players that season, Emma Andrews, had played in seven games for a total of 32 minutes for an Australian pro team when she was 16.

(One might guess she earned enough money to perhaps buy an iPod or something -- maybe -- but you know the NCAA.)

Bevilaqua, 37, and Taylor, 28, had no idea of what the American collegiate athletic system was like when they were teens, nor did they think about playing for a U.S. school.

"I did get sent a few information packages from colleges, but it was never something that interested me," Taylor said. "I wanted to get started and was ready to play professionally.

"It's totally different over here, isn't it? Your next step here is to go to college and have those four years of development. For us, it's more you finish high school -- I was 17 -- and then go straight into our professional league. Which isn't anywhere near the level that it is here, but it is still professional and you're facing those challenges of being a pro athlete. And at the same time I was working another job; I was a receptionist."

Taylor has joked that she was "the worst" employee and would sometimes fall asleep on the job. But she has always been alert in basketball.

"It's never been about money," Taylor said. "I remember watching Michele Timms play, and I just wanted to play at the highest level that you could get to. We didn't know about America or Europe then; we just wanted to be the best we could."

Taylor grew up in the greater Melbourne area, which is the athletic heart of an athletic country. Bevilaqua, however, is from the "other side" of Australia, the less-populated West. Her hometown of Merredin, which has around 5,000 people, is about three hours northeast of Perth.

Uh, kind of in the middle of nowhere? Bevilaqua laughed.

"When you drive out there," she said, "you do feel like that."

As for her basketball path, she said, "I didn't know a lot about the U.S. college system. I was a real homebody then, and I would have found it difficult leaving home at that age and going overseas.

"But there are a lot more Australians now who are using the college approach. There are so many colleges here, though, that you need to be choosy about where you're going. It depends on what you're going for, what career you are pursuing outside of basketball."

Bevilaqua actually got her first taste of March Madness this year. She retired from the Australian pro league, and after spending time at home, she returned to Indianapolis in the spring. That was just in time for her to see the NCAA tournament, and it made quite an impression.

"I had no idea what it was beforehand, and now I fully understand why it's a big deal," she said. "I see that college is such a huge passion here -- college sports in general, not just basketball. I guess those who've been to a college will continue to follow their team forever.

"It's amazing; I was blown away by it. I was in Indianapolis. I would venture down to the local sports bar to watch, and people would say, 'Who do you think is going to win?' And I'd say, 'Who's in it?' I didn't even know how many teams were in it. I only know teams like UConn and Rutgers and Tennessee because of some of my teammates."

Both Bevilaqua and Taylor have seen the fan following that some of the U.S. college players maintain when they go to the WNBA. They hope that will keep translating to more fans of the WNBA.

They also have taken note of other things about rookies from college: Sometimes they are rather used to being "taken care of" in some ways and that's something they have to adjust to being a little different in a business like the WNBA. (For instance, no more charter flights to get you back to class on time. It's commercial flying now.)

But from a playing perspective, they said the top rookies are more able to compete as soon as they become pros.

"I watched the championship game between UConn with [Renee] Montgomery and Louisville with [Angel] McCoughtry … it was like, 'Wow,'" Bevilaqua said. "Normally when a rookie comes in, it takes an adjusting period, but now they are coming in more ready, like Briann [January]. As a rookie, look at what she's doing now."

January is 15 years younger than Bevilaqua, who is jokingly referred to as the grandma of the Fever. The funny thing is, there was a time when Bevilaqua was a youngster among much older players … including her own mother.

"I started probably around age 7," she said. "By the age of 12, I was in a senior competition, playing with and against my mom. I was better than the kids my age, so I was allowed to play with the adults.

"My mom's 23 years older than me, so that was a pretty unique experience. I was always playing sports with people older than me then. It's in reverse now."

How much Bevilaqua and Taylor impact their WNBA teams is measured by more than just the numbers they put up.

"There's something they teach in their culture about being a good teammate, and they definitely are," Indiana's Katie Douglas said. "They put the team in front of themselves. I've had nothing but great experiences with them. And I think that's why the Australian national team is so successful as well, because they have a great team concept."

Douglas teasingly says there is only one downside to having Bevilaqua as a teammate.

"I tell Tully sometimes, 'You know, I have a Greek husband, but you're really hard to understand. Sometimes, I'm like, 'Translator!'

"Seriously, other than her accent and her expressions -- they have a whole other vocabulary -- she's just got a heart that is enormous. As a person, first and foremost, but also as a player. You can just see her grittiness, her toughness."

Taurasi and Taylor have been with the Mercury since 2004, although Taylor did take the 2008 WNBA season off as she competed with the Australian national team in the Olympics and then got some rest.

"If you spend any time in Australia, you can walk down the street and make friends in a minute with people," Taurasi said. "They are easygoing people who like to enjoy life. They're very social; you can talk to them. Then you translate that to the basketball court: how easy it is to talk to them and work out a problem.

"I've had the most experience with Penny, because we've been here in Phoenix for five years. I don't think we've ever had a problem on the court. Not once. It's always, 'Let's see how we can fix it,' without having a yell-out."

Jackson, whose mother actually did play collegiately for LSU, was the WNBA's top draft pick in 2001. A two-time WNBA MVP, Jackson is the most famous of the Aussies both abroad and back home. Taylor said the success of the Australians in the WNBA is usually well-acknowledged by the country's basketball community, if not necessarily by the nation at large.

After all, it's not Australian Rules Football, which is the national sports obsession. In Australia, swimmers get a lot of love in Olympic years, and tennis and golf success stories get their due, but "footy" reigns above all else.

"After [Phoenix] won in 2007, I went home and had about a 30-second interview on a football show," Taylor said. "And I got more texts and e-mails about that 30 seconds than any other interview I've ever done, because it's such a popular show. Australia is dominated by our AFL, more than any other sport -- not just any women's sport.

"We may not get that much of a following, even our men's basketball. But I guess our hope is it's always going to be there, that the girls have basketball to look up to. And whether it's widely acknowledged, I don't really mind. Just as long as girls who are playing basketball have something to aspire to and see they can go on and do more in a sport, just the same as any little boy can in AFL or cricket."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.