WITH the Bendigo Spirit flying-high Bendigo Stadium has been rocking this WNBL season and tomorrow night should be no different when fan-favourite Gabe Richards plays her 150th league match against Logan.
An inaugural Spirit squad member, Richards is sure to receive a rousing reception from fans and team-mates alike, with the 28-year-old one of the most respected players within the club’s inner sanctum.
They’ve seen Richards’ battles with injury, the battering the 188cm centre’s taken from the WNBL’s giants week-in, week-out and the need for icepacks afterwards.
It’s a task she’s shouldered without complaint, always with a team-first attitude – although Monday mornings can sometimes be a struggle after a tough weekend.
“I usually judge it on the stairs at work, whether I can walk up the stairs or not. It either takes five minutes or 10 to get up,” Richards said.
Originally from Seymour, Richards’ WNBL career began a decade ago at the AIS – where she played 42 games in two seasons – before a stint in college basketball at the University of Oregon from 2004 to 2006.
It was at the AIS where a 17-year-old Richards was first thrown in the deep end against Lauren Jackson, who was already regarded as one of the world’s best female basketballers.
“That was pretty daunting. I remember we used to sit and do scouts for the teams ahead and her scout used to be two full pages,” Richards recalled.
“Obviously, playing in the national league against women that are much older than you and much more experienced you have to learn quickly.
“You don’t realise how quickly you’re developing as a basketball player as well, because you’re playing day in, day out, you’re going on tours overseas and you’re playing touring teams.”
Those years laid the foundations for an outstanding WNBL career, which Richards resumed after returning from the US as the Spirit was getting off the ground.
She began her Bendigo career in stellar fashion, averaging 14.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in that inaugural 2006-07 season.
It remains her best full season statistically – although she’s in career-best from this season – and that first year helped her feel at home.
Apart from a break in 2009-10, she’s been with the Spirit since.
“To come back and be able to play the top level in Australia only an hour from home was really a great opportunity and it fit perfectly,” Richards said.
“My family, especially my dad, loves basketball and having to sit in front of a computer watching live stats for so many years, he genuinely appreciated only being an hour from our games.
“Our first season with the Spirit was very exciting, to be able to play with a new club and watch the club develop to what it has been.
“To see all the hard work that a lot of people have put in to get it to what it is now, it’s really pleasing and it makes me proud to be a part of that.
“It really has a family-type environment, because everyone knows someone that’s either on the board, or playing or part of it as one of our volunteers. Everyone, especially this year, seems to be on board and supporting us.”
With the Spirit on top of the ladder at 12-2, the club has rebounded from a dire situation at the beginning of last season when it came close to folding.
The team is rejuvenated, interest is peaking and there’s hopes of home finals, at least one, the first since a 2010-11 triumph against Logan.
“That game was massive. I can remember the crowd was really big and we played really well, that was exciting,” Richards said.
“Then to go to Canberra and nearly win it and get to the grand final was really exciting, but obviously disappointing to miss out.
“I’ve played in finals here with the Lady Braves, grand finals, I think our crowd is different, they really get stuck into it – they’re really loud. If we can get a home final it would be huge.”
With Spirit superstar Kristi Harrower – who Richards unsurprisingly rates as the best player she’s played with – in the twilight of her career, the Spirit may never get a better chance for a championship.
It’s something the Spirit players and Bendigo community would cherish, but when Richards looks back on her career it will be the friendships through basketball which will be the most valued – not that she’s close to finishing.
Richards is averaging 16 points and 9.7 rebounds a game and was selected in the WNBL website’s All-Star Five to the half-way point of the season, along with Harrower.
“That’s obviously very humbling, I think it just goes to show how well our team in general is playing as well. It could be anyone on any night, we don’t rely on anyone to score 20 points every game,” Richards said.
“I feel really good at the moment and have been playing some good basketball. I figure we’re still quite young, when you’ve got Kristi running around on your team you’ve really got no excuse.”