“She’ll always be the best player this franchise has ever seen.”
Those are the words used by Sue Bird to describe former teammate Lauren Jackson, whose No. 15 will be retired by the Storm on Friday at KeyArena. Jackson is back in Seattle for the first time since 2012, and her jersey will hang from the rafters starting in a postgame ceremony at Friday’s contest. Now in her 15th season, Bird and the Storm take on the Mystics at 7 p.m.
Jackson had an unforgettable WNBA career, leading Seattle to a pair of championships and winning several awards while displaying a unique personality on and off the court. In this piece, former teammates, coaches, competitors and reporters share their memories of her.
(Positions listed are those held by the subjects during the season being discussed.)
In the 2001 WNBA Draft, a 19-year-old Jackson was selected No. 1 overall by the Storm. She had lived a few hours away from home since age 15, but now Jackson was across the globe from her family. As a rookie, the Australian was named an All-Star after leading Seattle in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks. She displayed a fiery attitude right away, recording six technical fouls in the first 17 games.
Lin Dunn, Storm head coach: “Everyone was trying to get that pick. Other teams were offering almost their whole starting fives, as they were for Sue Bird the next year. But there was no way I was going to trade that pick. Once we knew we had it – that was before the lottery, so we had the pick because we finished last – there was no doubt in my mind who I was selecting. I had gone to Australia to watch her in the 2000 Olympics. After seeing her perform in Sydney, with her toughness, competitiveness and long-term potential, there was no doubt. She was too good.”
Tamika Catchings, Indiana forward: “Coming from Australia, after all her experience with the Olympic team and being the No. 1 pick in our draft, I thought Lauren did a really good job. I don’t remember her doing anything crazy, or not being able to handle something. She was great with the media, with fans, with all the people that were tugging on her left and right. I feel like she did a really good job handling it.”
Catchings: “She hated to lose. I remember talking to her after games, when we had [fellow Australian] Tully Bevilaqua on our team, and we would just sit around and tell stories. She would cuss a lot. You could see her yelling at her teammates. Whether it was encouraging or just yelling at them, she demanded a lot. She demanded excellence from her team. Off the court she was so sweet, so nice. And then on the court, it was the same sweetness, but in a mean way. Just a competitor.”
Elise Woodward, Storm broadcaster: “Lauren didn’t talk all the time, but she had lots to say when necessary. She was intimidating. She’s my all-time favorite player to watch because if you were on her team, she had your back. Her intensity burns like nobody else. She would do anything to win or have her teammate’s back. The look in her eyes that she would get in a competitive situation – she could burn steel with that look. Every single game, she took it personally if somebody tried to beat her.”
Landing the No. 1 pick for the second straight year, the Storm chose to team Jackson up with UConn point guard Sue Bird. Seattle then improved to 17-15 after going 10-22 in Jackson’s rookie season.
Sue Bird, Storm point guard: “Entering the league at virtually the same age, virtually the same time, and going through all that we went through together, the ups and the downs on and off the court – it is very fair to say that we grew up together. The fact that she was a post player and I was a guard, it was just this natural relationship that happened. It didn’t start out that way. It took a year or two to get to that point, but by the end we knew we had each other’s backs.”
Bird: “It’s not like we had bad blood or anything, but we just didn’t really know each other. On the court, you’re obviously put together a lot and almost forced to get to know one another as players. So that part developed first.”
Woodward: “I remember that Lauren reminded me of my high-school teams, where if you were a freshman, you were treated as such. When Sue came in, Lauren was like, ‘I’ve already been here a year. This is my team.’ And Sue had to prove herself. That was certainly the case. I think she wanted to let Sue know that she wasn’t anything special until she proved it. And then Sue proved it and they became super good friends.”
Dunn: “I think it just took some time for them to get to know each other. But I thought right off the bat, once training camp started and they started playing together, they had an enormous respect for each other. And then I think they realized how well they played together and that they needed each other to be a championship team.”
Hall of Famer Anne Donovan took over as head coach in 2003, helping Jackson develop her offensive game to score in a variety of ways. Jackson won the first of her three MVP awards that season, averaging 21.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. She led the WNBA in scoring and did so again in 2004, when Seattle won the championship. It was the city’s first pro sports title in 25 years.
Anne Donovan, Storm head coach: “Lauren was one of those very gifted players that could be successful away from the basket or in the post. I had an emphasis on getting her in the post, and she established herself there and worked her way back out. Then she was completely dangerous – she could kill you from inside or the three-point line.”
Donovan: “So many players in basketball, when they get a lot of contact, get upset and back off a little bit. Lauren wouldn’t back off of anything. I’ve never coached a player that was bumped and knocked around so much, and she just played through it. She’d just play harder, play angrier. And the more angry she got, the better she was. I can’t speak enough to that aspect of her game. It’s what sets her apart.”
Kevin Pelton, Storm writer: “Anne sort of forced her in the post. Lauren definitely had a tendency to float to the perimeter in her first couple seasons. It was pretty clear she was more of a pick-and-pop player than a pick-and-roll player, and didn’t have that post-up game against smaller defenders. It was important because if they put a smaller defender on her, it neutralized the perimeter ability. So Anne put her down there and worked on it a lot with her during practices and training camp that year. It paid dividends immediately, in terms of her being a more efficient and dominant scorer.”
Pelton: “The sky was the limit at that point. It was remarkable because it happened much more quickly than any of us anticipated. We knew Lauren and Sue were going to be stars, but didn’t necessarily expect it to happen overnight. Lauren really, really took off by adding the post-up to her game. We knew it was eventually going to happen, but all of a sudden she has a 20-20 game and was scoring 20 or more almost every night. I don’t think anyone thought she would be in the MVP conversation that season.”
In 2007, Jackson had the best individual season ever recorded by a WNBA player, per advanced statistics. After leading the league in scoring, rebounding and effective field goal percentage, Jackson was named both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. She averaged career highs of 23.8 points and 9.7 rebounds while also posting two blocks and one steal per game. Jackson scored a then-WNBA record 47 points on July 24, 2007 at Washington.
Donovan: “I coached her when she was an MVP before that year. But that year, she was not to be denied. Lauren came back every year and raised her game a little bit more, and she demanded that other people match her intensity. She might not have been the verbal leader, but you followed her example.”
Cappie Pondexter, Phoenix guard: “Lauren was always a tough matchup because she had a guard’s skillset at 6-6. Now it’s common in the league, but back then it was uncommon to see a player like her. She was just a hard player to match up against because she could handle the ball, shoot the three, pass the ball, rebound and block shots and was super athletic.”
Pelton: “That was before LiveAccess, so our staff had no way to watch the 47-point game. We were all sitting in the office listening to it on the radio. We were scrambling over the course of the game, thinking about what we’re going to do with the fact that she’s breaking all these records. There was an element of her being unstoppable when she got on a roll like that, because with her combination of size and shooting ability, there was no way to completely take her out of the game without throwing three defenders at her.”
Woodward: “I remember when she got to about 35 points, I thought, ‘This is gonna be ridiculous. She could go for 50.’ And she nearly got there. There were times that she was absolutely unstoppable. There was not a player in basketball that could guard her strength and then match it with her speed and ability to go outside. Nobody. So there were games where you just thought, ‘This is gonna be hilarious to watch. She’s gonna go for 30 in the first half.’”
Jackson and the Storm won their second title in 2010, defeating the Atlanta Dream in the Finals to cap off an undefeated playoff run. Seattle finished 21-0 at home that season including the playoffs. After missing the 2008 and 2009 postseasons due to injury, Jackson earned MVP of both the regular season and Finals in 2010.
Bird: “At the end of the last game, Atlanta had a final shot to tie. They missed and the horn goes off, and immediately Lauren and I looked for each other and embraced. I think it was because we had been through so much at that point. Even though we had won in 2004, we were both super young and I think at that point, we thought we would get to the Finals every year. And then we had a lot of disappointing years. So in 2010, there was the sense that we finally got there again. So to have the horn go off and immediately embrace her is one of my favorite memories.”
Bird: “We had a ton of talent on our team, but it was the cohesiveness that made the difference. Early on that season, we knew exactly who we were, we had an identity and we stuck to it every single game. We had the right people who fit that, and the whole thing was led by Lauren.”
Jenny Boucek, Storm assistant coach: “There was a magic that you could feel at day one of training camp that year. Everybody could feel it. It was palpable that our team was hungry and talented, and everybody from one to 12 was on the same agenda. We had no drama, no issues, no controversy. It was everybody locked in on what we knew we could do.”
In what would turn out to be the final games of Jackson’s WNBA career, Seattle battled the Minnesota Lynx in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. After losing Game 1 on the road, the Storm needed a three-pointer to save its season in the final seconds of Game 2. Jackson drained it, and Seattle went on to win in overtime. Game 3 also came down to the wire, and it was Jackson again with the ball in her hands on the deciding possession. She missed a hook shot on the right baseline that would have given Seattle the win. It was the final shot of the Storm’s season and Jackson’s career.
Alysha Clark, Storm forward: “I remember going to Minnesota for Game 3, we legitimately thought we could win. We put ourselves in a really good position. I remember in that last timeout, I don’t even think [coach Brian Agler] was able to draw up a play on the board in time. You just saw Sue and Lauren do what they do best. They created something, and it ended up getting Lauren a really good shot. It just didn’t go down.”
Boucek: “What sticks out to me from that series, because I was spending a lot of time with her, was how hurt she was. Honestly, I don’t even know how she played in Game 2, much less be a factor. She was the toughest player I’ve ever been around. When she couldn’t play through something, you knew it was really, really serious. If she had been 50 or 60 percent that year, things could have been really different.”
Camille Little, Storm forward: “She had a shot that she had taken hundreds of times in her career, a turnaround baseline jumper. She just missed it. You’re not used to her missing that kind of shot, and when she did, your season’s over. Doing it over again, I would’ve had 100 percent confidence in her taking that same shot again. It’s Lauren Jackson – how are you not giving her the last shot?”