Australian players helped raise WNBA to a higher level

Lauren Jackson is not just the best Australian to ever play in the WNBA. She's on the short list of best women's players in the history of basketball. D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

In her early days in the United States, Australian basketball player Erin Phillips recalls feeling like maybe she was inadvertently getting away with something. The portions of food served here seemed ... well, out of proportion. At first she would wonder, "Shouldn't I have to pay more for this?"

For the most part, though, Phillips acclimated well to the United States, which has been the case for a lot of the Aussies who have come here to play in the WNBA. And as the league celebrates its 20th anniversary season, we should take time to celebrate the many players who contributed to the success of the league-- even though the United States wasn't their home.

The Australians, in particular, have had a significant impact on the WNBA. From the most decorated of the Aussies -- three-time MVP Lauren Jackson -- to even those who spent only a brief time in the league, the contributions from Down Under have made a difference.

Twenty-seven native-born Australians have played in the WNBA, along with five others who were born elsewhere but have Aussie citizenship. This season, there are five active Australians in the league: Phillips (Dallas), Penny Taylor (Phoenix), Rebecca Allen (New York), Jenna O'Hea (Seattle) and Abby Bishop (Seattle). It's an Olympic year, meaning other Aussies are sitting out the WNBA season to train with their national team, the Opals. But some of them will be back in the WNBA next year.

"Maybe culturally we adapt because it's similar," Phillips said of how successfully many of the Australians have adjusted to life in the United States. "Having played in Europe, that was harder for me. I think there's probably almost a taste of home in America, a home away from home. I think it's a key component of why we feel so comfortable here."

There have been some exceptions, including center Liz Cambage, who was drafted No. 2 by Tulsa in 2011 but has played in only 53 WNBA games.

The Tulsa Shock are now the Dallas Wings, and Phillips is in her first season with that organization. She already had a home in McKinney, Texas, so it was pretty much a perfect fit for her.

But Phillips has been a good fit on all five WNBA teams that she has played on, starting with Connecticut, where she was drafted in 2005 and debuted 2006.

Phillips has been on two WNBA championship teams -- Indiana in 2012 and Phoenix in 2014 -- and she'll be on this year's Australian Olympic team.

She recalls that when the Sun first picked her, Phillips -- who is from the Melbourne suburb of Carlton -- went to the atlas to make sure exactly where Connecticut was.

"I didn't think I would get that kind of opportunity," Phillips said. "I just thought America was too far."

But like so many of her compatriots, Phillips got used to that. The Aussies in the league's early years helped pave the way.

Phoenix Mercury coach Sandy Brondello was raised on a sugarcane farm outside the coastal town of McKay in Queensland. She learned to play basketball on a grass and dirt court in her yard.

"Someone taught me a jump shot at the age of 14, and that's what I practiced all the time," Brondello said. "I grew up living in the country, but the basketball was good in our area. We had some really talented players and coaches, and they mentored me."

She made the Australian national team at 16, and went to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra when she was 17. She's been a frequent traveler ever since.

Brondello came to play in the WNBA in 1998 as part of the first real wave of Aussies. Six of them arrived in the league that year, all following the first Aussie pioneer, Michele Timms, who started with Phoenix when the WNBA launched in 1997.

Brondello had been a professional basketball player for well over a decade before joining the then-Detroit Shock in 1998, including a long stay in Germany where she met her husband, fellow coach Olaf Lange.

Competing in the WNBA was a new test that Timms, Brondello, and fellow Aussies like Tully Bevilaqua and Kristi Harrower were eager to face. Even if the WNBA was just getting off the ground, the Aussies still believed in it.

"I felt like I'd proven myself over in Europe," said Brondello, who in total would play 18 years professionally. "I had visited Michele in Phoenix and was amazed at the support that they had and the level of play. I wanted to challenge myself against the best."

In 2001, three Australians were picked in the first round of the WNBA draft, two of whom became major stars in the league: No. 1 overall selection Jackson, and No. 11 pick Taylor.

The only thing that ever stopped Jackson was injuries; the accumulation of them finally ended her career this year at age 35. Jackson had not played a full season in the WNBA since 2010, when she led Seattle to its second league championship.

This week, Storm fans will get to say a proper "thank you" to Jackson, who is not just the best Aussie, but on the short list of best women's players in the history of basketball. Seattle will retire Jackson's No. 15 jersey on Friday as the Storm face the Mystics at KeyArena.

Jackson, from Albury, Australia, is the daughter of two basketball players and was a standout almost as soon as she first picked up a ball. The 6-foot-5 Jackson played 10 full seasons and parts of two others in the WNBA, averaging 18.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots for her career.

"She raised the bar," Phillips said. "And just the way she played, with so much aggression and passion. I don't think I've ever seen anybody who just wanted to win so badly every time they stepped on the court. What she's done for basketball in Australia is unmeasurable."

Taylor, though, is actually the Aussie who has the most WNBA titles, with three in her 13-season career. A Melbourne native, Taylor started in Cleveland, but is now in her 10th year in Phoenix, where she is beloved by the "X-Factor," the Mercury's fan base.

"She raised the bar. And just the way she played, with so much aggression and passion. I don't think I've ever seen anybody who just wanted to win so badly every time they stepped on the court." Erin Phillips on Lauren Jackson

In some ways, Taylor best exemplifies the more difficult personal sacrifices that the Aussie players have faced in their global basketball pursuits. During her years playing in the WNBA, both of her parents have passed away. She's had to make the most of family time back in her home country in relatively short periods.

You won't hear the Australians complain about this, because they tend not to complain about much. They brought their national team spirit to the WNBA, a get-it-done-for-each-other sense of purpose that has defined Australian basketball.

The Ausies take a certain satisfaction in knowing that the WNBA's 20th anniversary would not be the same story without their contributions. They all will say, as Brondello did, that they wanted to play at the highest level. But the reality is, they've helped make the WNBA the highest level.

"That's ingrained in us right from the beginning," Phillips said. "If you look at the first ones in the league, those players set the standard of, 'This is what you're going to get from Australians in the WNBA.'

"We have a lot of pride in that. Our reputation is something that we want to keep strong. That competitive spirit leads us to leave home, and come over here and sort of fly the Australian flag."