Arizona is famous for a few things.
You can expect sunny weather, luxurious resorts and breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon on any visit, and more likely than not, a bevy of talented Australian basketball players representing the Phoenix Mercury.
The WNBA team has had a long history with Aussie talent dating back to their inception in 1997, and it’s a tradition that has continued to flourish.
At the helm is Queensland native Sandy Brondello — one of the finest to ever wear the green and gold — who claimed coach of the year honours on the Phoenix sideline en route to the Mercury’s third championship in 2014.
She’s a member of the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame, a WNBA All-Star, a two-time WNBL All-Star and the proud owner of three Olympic medals from her time with the Opals.
“We obviously like Australian players,” Brondello explained. “It started back with Michele Timms being one of the foundation players for the franchise in 1997.
“Since then, there’s been an influx of players from Australia from then on.”
Timms proved to be a staple of the Mercury’s early success. A Mercury lifer, she spent her entire five-year WNBA career with the team, before transitioning to a role as an assistant coach for the 2005 season . She represented Australia in three Olympic games, netting a bronze and a silver medal, became a member of both the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and FIBA Hall of Fame, and was admitted as an Order of Australia Member.
She certainly left her mark on the sport, setting a high standard for the Aussies that looked to follow in her path.
“Penny has come in and I’ve come in as the coach, so we’re able to see these Aussie players first hand,” Brondello continued. “If we feel like they complement the players we already have on the team, we love bringing them in.”
Penny Taylor should be a name familiar to any Mercury fan. Her achievements read like a laundry list of success, as a member of all three WNBA championship squads across four stints with the team. She has three WNBA All-Star selections to her name, to go with All-WNBA First Team honours in 2007 and All-WNBA Second Team in 2011.
She also made her mark on local soil, claiming three WNBL All-Star Five selections, two WNBL Top Shooter Awards, and a WNBL championship with the Dandenong Rangers.
That’s not forgetting a FIBA World Championship MVP for her efforts in 2006, when the Opals nabbed the gold. Sensing a theme here yet?
Taylor feels as if Australians have been making their mark on the WNBA for years, and that the influx of Aussie talent doesn’t necessarily surprise her.
“I don’t think it’s changed much in the last three years [since retirement].” she said. “I think that we’re still producing great talent and players that love the game and want to play at the highest level.
“There is a great level of respect for Australian players, so I think there’s the same amount of opportunity now as there was when I was playing.”
Brondello agreed. “We had a lot of Australians playing at the start of the WNBA. A lot of the Opals, just like we have now.
“I think the league gets better and better and the skill level gets better and better. I think we have so many talented players from Australia. We’re the second-best basketball country in the world, so it’s great to see about half our Opals playing here now, and hopefully more in the future will get that opportunity.”
Steph Talbot and Cayla George were just two of the Opals who played with the Mercury, bringing the same level of professionalism their Aussie predecessors prided themselves on.
“They were great,” Brondello praised. “Australians are going to be good teammates, they’re going to work hard, they bring a good skill set, they understand their role and play it perfectly. You need those kind of players on every good team.”
On the current roster, Leilani Mitchell is now in her second run with the team. Mitchell is a two-time WNBL champion, collecting her latest title as a member of the Canberra Capitals squad that dispatched of Adelaide in this season’s Grand Final.
Fuel to the fire for her longing to bring another trophy to Phoenix?
“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily fuelled it,” she replied. “I’ve always had that desire to win a championship and that’s one of the big reasons I wanted to come back to Phoenix this season, especially since I had a very strong feeling we have a chance to win a championship this season.”
That competitive spirit has made her a threat on WNBA courts, but perhaps it’s her versatility that has proven most impressive.
“The biggest thing for me is when I’m in Australia I’m looked more at the be a scorer as opposed to here in years past,” Mitchell noted. “Playing more minutes this season in the WNBA, I’ve had to carry that scoring mentality over and be more aggressive offensively.”
“I think Australian players are fundamentally sound,” Brondello observed. “I think we understand the game and I think that’s why we have so many players playing in the WNBA.
“We work hard, we have a great reputation and we’re great teammates. Coaches are looking to Australia because of the talent level that we have, but it’s not just their skill, it’s the whole package that we all look at.”
Brondello certainly walks the walk, qualifying for the WNBA playoffs in every season since she took over as head coach. In 2017, she was named the head coach of the Opals, pulling double duty in addition to her role with Phoenix.
At the end of the day, however, she views coaching in the WNBA and the international game as largely similar.
“Different opponents,” she said. “That’s the only thing that’s different, because it’s basketball. You’re preparing the same, you’re coming up with the game plan, so we face the same challenges.
“Every team is different and every different country plays a different style. In the international game, it’s even more cutthroat because it’s a tournament and you have to win. So there’s a high stress level there.
“With the WNBA and its new playoff format, there are knockout rounds now and you feel that same kind of pressure, but it’s a good pressure because we love playing in those big games.”
Currently sitting at 5th place in the Western Conference, Phoenix will have to overcome a different kind of pressure if they want to keep their playoff streak alive. They’ve been set back by multiple injuries, including an ankle ailment that has shelved Aussie rookie Alanna Smith since the beginning of August.
If history is anything to go by, they’ve definitely got enough gumption to turn their season around. And they’ll have more than a few Aussie girls to thank for that.