The growth of basketball in Australia has been nothing short of staggering over the last few years. That’s not exactly a revelation, considering the number of Aussies now playing at the highest levels of competition, but the stamp left by our athletes has been so indelible, it can sometimes be hard to frame just how much of a role our local leagues have been playing.
For New York Liberty stars Rebecca Allen and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, who are now plying their trade at the highest level in the WNBA, the experience they garnered with the WNBL has proven invaluable.
“I had a great experience with Bendigo,” said Raincock-Ekunwe, originally from Toronto, who spent the 2016/17 season with the Bendigo Spirit. “It was always a dream to play in Australia. I’d heard a lot of good things about the league and the country.
“My first impressions were how competitive it was, how it was an extremely athletic league — it was the best league I had played in at that time, so I was really impressed by the WNBL.”
To Allen, a local girl from Wangaratta, playing in the WNBL was like a dream come true.
“I joined it when I was 16,” she explained. “That was the first time, with the Dandenong Rangers, as a development player. And then I went into the [Australian Institute of Sport] when that was there, and then I came back and I joined the Melbourne Boomers — which was Bulleen Boomers at the time — with [coach] Tom Maher.
“I like that it’s also becoming more and more competitive. I want the season to be longer at this point. I’m obviously passionate considering it’s my country and it’s my league back home, so I wish it was a longer season. But I really like the talent that was there, and I think it’s super competitive, like Nayo said.”
During her time with the Boomers, Allen claimed honours as the WNBL Defensive Player of the Year in 2014, before joining the Liberty over in the States the following year. She was effusive in her praise for Boomers head coach, Guy Molloy.
“It was the first time I really had a starting role in the league, and he put a lot of confidence in my game and in my abilities. I think it’s probably how I came into the W and played over here, overseas, and played for the national team as well.
“He was huge in showing me that, ‘hey, you can do it’, and helping me improve my game from a skillset perspective.”
When pressed for any particularly rousing words from Molloy — we in the media love a good quote, after all — Allen laughed.
“No, Guy Molloy is very much to the point, there’s no fluff in anything that he’s saying,” Allen admitted. “He’s very direct with that. He also doesn’t waste any time with what he’s saying — he can be very short, but you know exactly what he wants from you, and I think that that was good. You knew exactly what to do, rather than having to beat around the bush a bit. That’s why I liked him.”
“I had a really good experience with coach Simon Pritchard,” added Raincock-Ekunwe. “But specifically for me, I think it was the exposure I got through the WNBL, because the WNBA really respects that league.
“I think they respect Australian players and the program you guys have. It was the exposure I got from having a relatively good year in the WNBL that kind of exposed me to the WNBA coaches.”
Relatively good might be a modest assessment. During her campaign with Bendigo, Raincock-Ekunwe was twice pegged as the Player of the Week, and named to the Team of the Week on five occasions. She was added to the Liberty roster that year, in 2017.
She went on to describe how the WNBL was unlike anything she had seen before, and the challenges she had to overcome.
“I played in Germany, and it’s a pretty small league, so coming to Australia where you have [Canberra Capitals centre Marianna] Tolo, [Bendigo Spirit forward] Gabe Richards. These big, strong women.
“That was the biggest adjustment to me was seeing these posts who were true posts. I had never really consistently played against that before.”
The opportunities for women to flourish on the basketball court are growing, thanks in no small part to the WNBL and other international leagues. Liberty point guard Kia Nurse had her WNBL experience with the Canberra Capitals squad for the 2018/19 season, and was integral in the Capitals’ ascension to WNBL champions. Now in her second season in New York, Nurse was named as a starter for the 2019 WNBA All-Star Game.
Nurse has committed to a second campaign with Canberra, saying, “I had a great experience last year so I’m looking forward to seeing all the fans again and having a great season. I truly enjoyed my first season overseas.
“I thought Canberra was a great fit and it would be an advantage to know what I was getting into next year.”
For Allen, who has now played five seasons with the Liberty, the differences in mentality and style between the WNBL and WNBA has been noticeable.
“I think it’s just a huge jump up from what I’ve played before in terms of the physicality and the athleticism,” she said. “But even just the general smarts of the game too, I think you learn a different style. It’s very one-on-one based, as well. I found it a big adjustment to be honest, coming across and playing these very different styles — the European style is another one altogether as well — but I think it’s a good challenge for everyone because it helps grow you as a player.
Said Raincock-Ekunwe, “I think there’s no league that can compare to the WNBA, but the WNBL did prepare me in a way for the competitiveness, physicality and intensity of the game in the WNBA.”
In her time abroad, Allen has seen the best that the game has to offer, but she was equally as admiring of her colleagues back home when she spoke of her time with the Australian national team.
“Obviously, I played alongside them and against them for so many years, all of the girls within the team. I think the culture is very similar [to the WNBL]. It’s nice — that whole Aussie, the whole mateship vibe — it’s just a really good atmosphere to be around.
“I know going back to the national team, I really noticed it more. I think that being out of the WNBL and then coming back and joining the national team, I think that’s where you maybe took those sort of qualities for granted a little bit when you have actually gone outside as well.
“I think that it’s a good team to be with.”
“It’s a sisterhood,” Raincock-Ekunwe observed.
All of this doesn’t simply come with talent alone, of course, and both players stressed the importance of putting in the work.
“I say this consistently, because I really do believe in it,” said Allen. “I think you’ve just got to take every opportunity as it comes.
“You don’t know when the door will open again, so you’ve really just got to grab hold of it. Whether that’s getting minutes on the court, whether that’s going to a training camp to try and be seen and be noticed, or making a team, all those sort of things.
“But then it even just goes into general life, as well. When any opportunity presents itself, you want to make sure you take it with two hands. I’m a big believer in that, for sure.”
“Use every opportunity that you can,” Raincock-Ekunwe agreed. “Practice, practice, practice. You can’t be confident in your craft, until you’ve earned that confidence. The only way to earn confidence is to practice.”
Suffice to say, Allen and Raincock-Ekunwe have been following that advice. Any aspiring Aussie basketball players would do well to make sure they do the same.