Bunton casts off her L-plates to prove the doubters wrong
I would like to be recognised for helping the team win. Anyone can be a star - but you have to be able to help others around you to really shine.
LADY Braves recruit Alex Bunton admits she still makes rookie mistakes on the basketball court - getting caught out of position, misreading the play, or fouling up her footwork.
But it wasn’t until her Canberra Capitals WNBL coach Carrie Graf asked her last year how many games she’d actually played throughout her career that the 20-year-old realised she’s still wearing L-plates compared to most team-mates and opponents.
“I added them all up and I’d only played around 140 matches, including juniors, nationals and club games,” says Bunton, who didn’t start shooting hoops until she was 14 then spent great swathes of time sidelined with injuries, including full reconstructions on both knees.
“It was like a slap in the face, saying to me ‘wake up, this is how many games you’ve played, don’t be so hard on yourself’.”
Bunton is her own harshest critic even when she’s playing well, so it riles her when onlookers unfamiliar with her background focus on an error and demand she should know better.
“Most people think I have been playing forever,” she says. “But when you take out the amount of time I’ve missed from being injured, it’s probably only about three years.
“I don’t want to use it as an excuse, but sometimes I think, ‘I really haven’t done that before’.
“When I was starting, I’d already missed out on all those years where you learn to dribble the ball properly at training. And I was out for so long that I now just have to do all these other thing, instead of getting to practise them a lot first.
“I’m still a little behind but my development is bringing me closer. I’m always watching people and trying to learn, even though it’s sometimes expected of me to already know things. I’ll get there.”
Bunton joins Bendigo after a break-out season at the Capitals, where she played 21 matches and was a solid contributor.
The 196cm centre has made an immediate impact for the Lady Braves, averaging 13.4 points and 11.6 rebounds for her SEABL side.
Her recent form was good enough to earn a late call-up to an Opals training camp in April and she is now touring the US with the Australian squad.
Bunton initially worried that she wasn’t ready to take that step, but tried to make the most of the unexpected opening.
“After the camp, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t know if I had gone good or bad.
“(Coach) Brendan Joyce asked me how I felt I went and I said I’d been really nervous every time I went out on the court but it had been such a great experience.
“He told me he’d like to invite me back to the next camp because I had proven that I deserved to be there. I know I still have a long way to go to show I am one of them, but this is a good way to get a foot in the door and I’ll accept any opportunities put in front of me.”
Bunton was born in England, where her dad was stationed with the air force, and lived abroad on and off before settling in Canberra with parents Virginia and Robert and brother Kierain.
She had little interest in sports other than swimming as a child, preferring “artsy” activities like playing the flute (which she can still do fluently).
At 14, and already well over 183cm tall, she was asked to play basketball and immediately loved the game and being part of a team.
High-performance coach Brendan Parnell noticed her potential, took the lanky teenager under his wing and gave her a glimpse of what could be if she put in the hard yards.
“At the time, I couldn’t have even told you who was in the Opals team, or the names of what basketball teams there were around the world,” she says.
“I had no knowledge of anything and he really made the pathway sound exciting. He is tall as well and he understood what it was like to be 14 and like a little giraffe.”
Bunton began training before and after school and was soon selected in ACT state teams to play at national championships.
But her progression was hampered by a frustrating spate of injuries, starting when she dislocated her left knee and needed minor surgery.
She was out for eight weeks initially, but the troublesome knee gave way again several times.
The fact she was still growing meant surgeons were reluctant to do any major work unless she was prepared to take a whole year off to recover. She wasn’t keen on the idea and, being so young, still viewed her injuries as annoying setbacks rather than a serious threat to her future career.
“In November 2008, I was playing in the Pacific School Games in Canberra and someone fell on my leg and dislocated my knee again.
“I decided then if I wanted to be serious about basketball, I had to have something done.
“I was only 15, but I had a full knee reconstruction.”
After a year of rehabilitation, Bunton was surprised to be offered a three-month trial at the Australian Institute of Sport that led to a two-year scholarship.
“I was so unfit, hadn’t touched a basketball in 12 months and it was the scariest moment of my life walking into the AIS and having no idea about any of it,” she says.
The experience - and overcoming the early self-doubts - helped shape Bunton into the ever-smiling, happy-go-lucky girl she seems today.
“I like to hide that I’m scared or nervous, because if I show it I might waste an opportunity.
“That all started at the AIS - I couldn’t show those girls I was scared and that helped me to mature very quickly.”
Bunton went on to represent Australia at the under-17 world titles in France and the under-19 championships in Chile, then toured Japan with an AIS squad in 2012.
She had just starred for the ACT at the under-20 national titles, averaging 20-plus points a game, and felt she had turned a corner and was finally playing to her potential.
“I took that positivity to Japan and scored about 28 points in my first game.
“But all of a sudden, I got hit from behind and my right knee was dislocated. I just cried because this time I was old enough to realise how long it was going to take to recover.
“I was carried off the court in shock. I couldn’t feel the pain, but I just hurt inside.”
The end result was another full reconstruction - and another long stint on the sidelines.
Bunton considered quitting basketball for good, but felt she still had a point to prove.
“All those people who doubted me because I have been injured so much and been behind in my basketball, it just made me want to come back even more,” she says defiantly.
The Canberran signed with the Capitals on her return and spent last winter with her home-town Gunners in the SEABL.
Now she is ready to show Bendigo basketball fans what she’s capable of.
“Coach Jonathan Goodman spoke to me the previous season, but I wanted to be somewhere I could play without the pressure and expectation on me.
“Now I am ready to be at a team where they want me to perform. Bendigo needed a big, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m your person’.”
Bunton this week signed with WNBL club Adelaide Lightning for one season.
“I need to go where I can get on court and keep developing,'' she says.
Her plan for the Lady Braves is simple.
“I want to win,” she says.
“I am not used to winning and that would be a great accomplishment for us and for Jono as coach.
“On a personal level, I would like to be recognised for being able to help the team win - anyone can be a star, but you have to be able to help others around you to really shine.
“And I just want to keep playing injury-free.”