Hurst and Donnelly: It's mum's court now

Once the final whistle blows and the pleasantries are exchanged, fans file down to meet their heroes, and the basketball court is filled with players, family and friends. Amongst the hugs and congratulations, commiseration and disappointment, a young boy snakes his way in and out through the forest of legs. His laughter floats above the chatter of interviews and the bouncing of stray basketballs. He’s being chased by a blur of blonde hair in a blue uniform.

One and half-year-old Nash Hurst is being pursued by Kara Tessari. Between media interviews, Nat Hurst watches and laughs as her teammate plays hide and seek with her son. She is momentarily distracted by squeals of joy as Nash tears around the court doing his best impersonation of Dash from The Incredibles film.

When the 2018-19 season began in October, the WNBL announced the Pregnancy and Parenting Policy (PPP) for players nation-wide competing in the league. A collaboration of the Australian Basketballers' Association (ABA) and the WNBL, a policy was created that would offer support and services for mothers who wanted to return and continue playing after giving birth.

ABA CEO Jacob Holmes would work alongside women’s representatives Sharin Milner and Jess Foley, who had raised the issue of a lack of pregnancy policy, in prioritising attention to the policy after the WNBL Players Association and the NBL Players Association merged to create the ABA in 2016.

“We had seen it in other sports. Take netball for example,” says Holmes.

“They had established a strong parental policy, that we thought was not only beneficial for the players but beneficial for the entire league.

“For the league it was about respecting, promoting and supporting female athletes, so that they could perform at their peak but also make decisions around themselves and for their families.”

Players and team delegates put forward a set of core conditions they wanted the ABA to ensure would be implemented by the beginning of the WNBL season. This would see the first ever minimum wage introduced, guaranteeing of contracts and importantly the implementation of the PPP.

“It was driven by the players, for the players,” Holmes further explained.

“They should be really proud of the effort they’ve made to really professionalise the competition in terms of these conditions, which is essential in professional sport here in Australia in these modern times.”

With players having numerous contracts, representing teams outside of the WNBL season, expectant mothers would have a “pause or payout” option available to them. This would allow players an option to pause their contract with the club for up to twelve months, with an allowance to negotiate for more time, before returning and playing again.

Alternatively, they can choose to take a payout of up to three months, or have the remainder of their contract honoured, allowing them time in their decision process. Up until the child turns two, the club provides accommodation and travel for a another parent or primary carer when on the road. Then between the ages of two and four there is a support framework in place, which enables the player to decide when playing away, whether they bring their offspring with them or they are cared for at home.

“We hope that it enables players to make that decision when they’re comfortable in their careers," added Holmes. "Whether it’s at the end, just after they’ve started, or in the middle, now hopefully it’s an option where it doesn’t feel they have to wait until the end to do it.

“And we start seeing players take that opportunity to start a family, when it’s the right time for them, not just when their basketball career has finished."

There are three mothers currently playing in the league; Nat Hurst, point guard for the Bendigo Spirit, seven-time WNBL Champion and Lifetime Member. Current WNBL championship player with the Townsville Fire, Mikhaela Donnelly with baby Adisyn, and Leilani Mitchell from the Canberra Capitals who’s partner Mikhaela gave birth to baby Kash this June.

“It’s okay, it’s just Nash playing with his police car,” says Hurst laughing, sirens blaring in the background when asked if it’s a good time to call.

Hurst and her partner Tara welcomed young son Nash in June 2017, when she returned to play for Canberra after competing in France and Turkey for two years. Tara fell pregnant during Hurst’s second season in Turkey, so the timing of her finishing there and returning home for Nash’s arrival couldn’t have worked better.

“I came back in the last month of pregnancy,” she says.

“Tara did everything by herself until I swooped in at the end. She’s a tough lady.

“She did doctor’s appointments, did check-ups, did ultrasounds, everything by herself. She had her mum’s support, because I wasn’t here, but as far as falling pregnant that was all her,” says Hurst.

Then in June baby Nash arrived and Hurst was back at the Canberra Capitals for the upcoming WNBL season.

Nat, Tara and Nash Hurst at home. (Photo: Tara Hurst)

At the end of the 2017-2018 season, Hurst headed to the Spirit in what she described as a “breath of fresh air” and a “new lease on life” for herself and her family.

It did have its drawbacks though, with Tara remaining in Canberra, continuing her work in Corrections, where she trains new recruits and assists them in achieving their accreditation.

“Because of her job she usually visits maximum every three weeks, but tries to catch us every fortnight," Hurst would explain.

“We try to make it work, it’s just tough with her job to get in the car every week on a Friday and drive six hours just to leave on Sunday. And I don’t want her to do that either, she’ll just wear herself out,” she says.

The juggling act of motherhood and a playing career has seen Hurst’s mother help out when Tara’s been unavailable with work.

“I’ve flown mum to Bendigo a couple of time to have Nash while I’ve been on road trips,” continues Hurst.

With the introduction of the PPP, the Hurst family now have the assistance available to alleviate the headaches that come with their current living situation.

“When Tara hasn’t been able to come and have him on the weekends or look after him during games, obviously the parental policy will make life easier, being able to either fly Tara or a carer wherever I am," she added.

“If we have another baby or if I take Nash with me, it will definitely ease the burden. To not have to have to look at the schedule each season and go – when will I have him, when do I need someone, and try to organise all that, because it does become a little stressful.”

Her teammates at the Spirit have taken to Nash as if he was their own, anointing him as an unofficial mascot as he provides levity in what can be an emotional and stressful locker-room.

“The girls are awesome here, you know I’ve got a teammate over here now that came over this afternoon to let me do some chores around the house and help with Nash.

“When we’re at basketball they always get him out of the pram and play with him and entertain him, he loves Kara.”

Has it dawned on Hurst that she unknowingly has become an inspiration for her teammates, in that they too can be a professional basketballer and a mother in tandem?

“A couple of them have made comments saying he’s so cute and I want a baby, they know obviously that it’s in their future."Hurst explained. "They’ve got basketball to focus on right now, but I think it does kind of ease your thoughts about how hard it is to have a child around the team."

And what does Hurst make of the attention that has befitted her son on being such an integral part of the family spirit at Bendigo?

“I’ve only ever got positive responses about having Nash around the team and Nadeen Payne said after the hard-fought game against Sydney when we had Nash out on the court straight away, she said a baby does just make everything better doesn’t it?

“Because you can immediately can just focus on them, they make us happy, they kind of just make everything lighter. Life’s not about me when Nash is there and it helps with basketball, it also helps my teammates see that they don’t need to focus on the bad, there’s a lot of good.

“He keeps the group light, I know leading up to game time he’s in the change rooms, before we have to focus, he keeps everything light, especially before the big games. I think that they can see it is a positive thing and that they can in the future, make it work.”

Loving life with a child, Hurst would not rule out having a second.

“We’ve discussed it, but with our living situation it makes it a little bit tougher, it’s not out of the picture,” she replied. “But right now, in the immediate future, probably of how we’re living and Tara having to be away from Nash, it’s pretty tough with her job. But we’re defiantly in talks, and we’d love more, it’s just a matter of when.

For Mikhaela Donnelly, who has represented Australia at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games before going on to win gold in New Zealand at the 2012 U18 Oceania Championship, becoming a mother to Adisyn was not planned.

“No, it was a bit of surprise,” the former Australian Institute of Sport player outlined.

“Obviously we wanted kids, we wanted to start a family, I’d had a couple of years off to deal with family stuff at home. So, I kinda just took a step back and then it just seemed like good timing."

During a three-year break where she was working at a school for troubled youths, Donnelly and her fiancée would welcome baby Adisyn in the March of 2017. She had been keeping herself fit playing in the Queensland Basketball League (QBL) during those three years before welcoming their baby girl into the world. Then during her time away, the Townsville Fire came calling, inquiring if she was prepared to come back and play at the highest level.

“It was a late choice, after I had Addy I’d just finished with maternity leave, I’d been off work for five months and then I got asked to play, so it was just the right timing," Donnelly added.

“It was good timing for us, we decided to go without now because you never know when you’ll get the opportunity again, I’m really happy we did make that decision."

Like Hurst, baby Adisyn has made her mark on the team as the team’s unofficial mascot. Assistant coach Mark Wrobel carries her like a seasoned pro, while the team warms up on the court, watching her mum intently as Wrobel strolls the sideline.

“The girls love her, and she absolutely adores the girls,” she says. So much so that Adisyn has become an integral part of the travelling party with Donnelly’s teammates requesting after her.

“Is she coming? Don’t you dare come on the road without her,” she recites, laughing of the teams demands of her.

Mikhaela Donnelly with fiancee Luke Cann celebrating daughter Adisyn's 1st birthday (Photo: Donnelly family)

“She loves it. She’s everywhere that I go, she’s just a part of the team. It’s just really nice to have the opportunity to have her with me and spend these days with her otherwise you would be working full-time and she’d be off in day care and you’d miss these years that you get to spend.

“I love it. My fiancée has come up this year, he’s with us. It’s just nice to be a family away from the stress of normal life for a while,” further added Donnelly.

It’s these types of moments that we often forget about when watching the game, during the hustle and bustle of that 40-plus minutes of game time. These competitors are also mothers, and the game is just one facet of their lives. Having Adisyn there watching on the sidelines is something that Donnelly has taken great enjoyment from, and helped in her return to the game she loves - now as a mother.

“I think it takes a lot of the after-hours thinking away, you can ponder on your game and pick at everything, but at the end of the game you see her straight away and nothing else matters. So, it’s nice to have her there to realise that life goes on and there’s other things to think about and enjoy.

“It’s really exciting for the sport just purely because we have the opportunity to come back and not have the financial pressures. It helps a lot with the decision-making to whether we play or not because at the end of the day we don’t get paid millions of dollars to play basketball, so if you can take away those costs and still have the security of your job than that’s a massive difference for us.”

With Adisyn spending so much time with her mum and the team, one would think it would only be logical that she would follow in her mum’s footsteps, so what if that's how it played out?

“I’d love it,” she says excitedly.

“We’ll encourage her to do whatever she wants, she’s already in love with the game though. She’s got basketballs of all sizes hanging around, it’d be cool and she loves the environment.”

Donnelly pauses, smiles then adds one last thing - “She’s born to be here.”