Chantella finds Bendigo the perfect fit, on and off the court
CHANTELLA Perera is quick. Whether she's driving through the key or racing down the court towards an unguarded Bendigo Spirit basket, she seems to move with lightning speed.
That may have something to do with the fact her parents were accomplished athletes in their native Sri Lanka, with dad Prasada at one time holding a national 800m record.
Their younger daughter also excelled on the track, making Australian schools championships in the 400m sprint and long jump, but her heart was never really in it.
"I played basketball all my life," the 27-year-old Wantirna-born guard says of her main game.
As long as Bernie is happy to have me around, I will be happy to be here. I'd love to finish my career here
"It started with my next-door neighbour, who I played with as a little kid. We did everything together and when he went and played basketball, I followed. I was only about four or five."
Perera is now approaching 150 WNBL games, having won two championships with the Canberra Capitals and a third with Spirit earlier this year.
Her CV includes a silver medal at the 2007 under-21 world championships, gold and bronze at world university games, and a decorated college career at Fresno State in the US.
But if it wasn't for Bendigo Spirit and coach Bernie Harrower, Perera might have hung up her basketball boots early.
Her 2010 return to Melbourne from the Capitals - to be closer to her family and partner Adrian Campbell - was meant to mark the beginning of a bright new chapter of her life. But she struggled to find her feet, first at the Dandenong Rangers and then Bulleen.
"Those two years were not the best and I didn't have great experiences," Perera says. "I was pretty much ready to give up after my season with Bulleen because I couldn't find the right fit. I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep playing.
"I'd just landed a job in Melbourne and was starting to look at where my career could take me, and began edging the other way. Then Bernie called me and was really keen for me to come here. I felt like I hadn't accomplished everything I wanted out of basketball, so decided to give it one more go."
Things couldn't have turned out any better, as Spirit claimed the competition crown.
"It was an amazing year. The group was unbelievable and winning a championship with them was, words can't really describe how great it was. Seeing how the community got behind us was really cool and it's something I don't think I will ever forget."
Perera says there is something special about Bendigo - the community and its WNBL team.
"When I think of that country work ethic, everyone at Spirit has that team and community feel - we are hard working and we play like that," she says.
"With Bernie and Kristi being from Bendigo, everyone on the team invests in being here.
"It shows in the way we play that we love where we play and we reflect what our community does - we are determined and it may not always be pretty, but we find a way to make it work.
"Our biggest strength is our team - we will do anything for each other. Even not being a star player and being on the bench, all of us girls are willing to sacrifice for the good of the team and our depth reflects that."
Perera credits her parents with passing on to her not only their athletic ability, but the determination to succeed and motivation to always try her hardest.
"They always kept me level headed and they encouraged me to continue my education," she says. At the time, I don't think I really liked that because all I wanted to do was play sport, but I am so thankful for that now.
"They also encouraged me to be the best I can and to be a hard worker. I may not have been the most talented or the most skilled person out there but if I worked hard I could at least achieve what I wanted to, or know I had done everything possible."
Perera is inspired by her mum, Indrani, who came from humble beginnings and is now a successful businesswoman managing a bank in Melbourne's outer suburbs.
"She was not from a very well off family in Sri Lanka. She learnt English off her brother and my dad helped her learn how to write. She learnt everything off her own back.
"Mum was one of 10 kids and the only girl in the family to go to university. I admire that she came from a Third World country to a Westernised place and take a lot of motivation from her experience."
Perera's parents were university athletes together and first moved to England, where eldest daughter Veronica was born, before migrating Down Under.
The youngster's first basketball club was the Vermont Eagles, and she played with the Knox Raiders squad early on before moving to Nunawading in her early teens.
"I don't remember my first game, but one thing I remember from those days was doing a lay- up down the wrong end, shooting a goal at the opposition end..."
Perera enjoyed incredible success as a junior, making Victorian under-16 and under-18 teams and earning selection in All-Australian training squads from her form at national titles.
"I was lucky - I think we won every championship I went to with Victoria. We were a bit of a powerhouse in my age group (with the likes of future Opals Kathleen McLeod and Jenna O'Hea)."
After finishing VCE at Caulfied Grammar, she took up a basketball scholarship at Fresno State in California and found herself playing in front of packed auditoriums when she wasn't busy with her books completing a business management degree.
Perera says college life was an eye-opener that taught her many valuable lessons.
"I probably thought I was just going to play basketball, but looking back now it was such an amazing experience. The things you learn living by yourself, you don't think about those things when you are 17 and have just finished year 12.
"You appreciate your family a lot more being away from home. I probably took for granted that mum and dad did everything for me until then.
"Then there is the whole hype of it all. College basketball is huge in America and the crowd support was amazing. Here in Bendigo you get a little sense of that because the community gets right behind the Spirit but playing in Melbourne you are a pretty small fish in a big sea.
"Over there, you get a lot of sponsors and support and we used to have 6000-7000 people at our games, every single game."
Despite her skills and experience, Perera is averaging just six minutes on court for Spirit this season and could probably get more time at another team. But she's not going anywhere.
She believes Bendigo is the perfect fit for her, both in a sporting sense and professionally.
Not only has she moved here recently after finding the regular commute from Melbourne didn't help her chronic back injury, she has also started a new business development job at the Bendigo Advertiser, in digital advertising.
"I feel I have a lot to give in this community," she says. "I'd like to play a few more years, depending on how my body holds out. And as long as Bernie is happy to have me around, I will be happy to be here. I'd love to finish my career here.
"It is the right fit - maybe I could play more elsewhere, but being happy in your team, getting along with your team-mates and having a joke with them off the court is really important.
"From an overall perspective, my career is also very important to me and the Advertiser has given me huge opportunities, so I feel really lucky."
In the long term, Perera hopes to adopt several children and wants to be involved in a charity helping less-fortunate youngsters as a way of "giving back".
"I have a great family and went to a good school and there are a lot of kids who aren't lucky enough to have that. So I'd love to start something to give kids those kinds of opportunities or join someone who already does that sort of work.
"As an athlete, you receive a lot and you are open to a lot of opportunities that the regular person doesn't get. There are many kids out there who could do so much, even if it's not sport, and I'd eventually like to be able to help them."