US import embraces the sporting spirit of Bendigo 

SHE’S a dynamic playmaker who drives powerfully through the key, sinks hoops from anywhere, rebounds strongly and has an uncanny knack of forcing turnovers and drawing fouls.

US import Kelsey Griffin has taken the WNBL by storm since she first pulled on her Bendigo Spirit uniform last month, immediately winning over the fans and with her tough, physical style of game.

An undisputed college star, number three WNBA draftee and member of professional league teams in America, Israel and Hungary, Griffin has more than lived up to the hype that surrounded her signing with the Spirit several weeks into the 2012-13 season. 

But by her own admission, there’s so much more to this 25-year-old Alaskan than just basketball.

For starters, she’s a keen fisherman. Halibut fishing, dip-netting, whatever. It reminds her of fun times spent back home in the small town of Eagle River, 25km north of Anchorage, with the family she doesn’t see enough of. She can’t wait to try and hook some of Australia’s marine specimens.

Griffin has a scientific mind, studying a pre-medical course at the University of Nebraska, and a charitable heart, raising breast cancer awareness after both her grandmothers battled the disease.

And despite a lifestyle that takes her to all corners of the globe, Griffin says she is far from the tough, independent person many people expect her to be.    

Now settled into her new town and new basketball team, Griffin tells Women in Sport about the journey that has brought her Down Under – and about the person behind the player.  

Basketball wasn’t Griffin’s first sporting choice...

I actually thought growing up I was going to be the next Mia Hamm (US soccer legend). Basketball was more something to do when soccer wasn’t going on. But around seventh grade, my soccer coach told me I was kind of too slow to play and that’s when I started to switch. 

At the same time, I had a really influential basketball coach who took me under his wing and told me I had some potential. So I gave up soccer and started playing more competitive basketball in Anchorage. I really didn’t expect to play in college or anything – I didn’t think I was good enough.

After joining the Alaska Blue Angels travelling team before her final year of high school, she caught the eye of talent scouts...

We played in three tournaments – the Oregon City End of Trails, the Nike Cup in Chicago and then a tournament in Washington DC. That summer I had a lot of exposure and got a lot of letters (from various colleges offering possible scholarships).

My parents didn’t know much about college basketball and I certainly didn’t either, so the head coach of the University of Anchorage Alaska helped me narrow it down to my top three picks: Arizona State, Michigan State and Nebraska. 

In the end, Michigan State didn’t offer me a scholarship and Arizona State gave away my scholarship so my decision was made for me. But I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.

Playing at the University of Neb- raska was not all smooth sailing...

I was really homesick in my freshman year and my sophomore year was the same. Then, in my junior year, my dad got cancer of the tongue and throat and it was hard being so far away from him.

At the same time, I got a cracked ribbed in a game and there was all this struggle going on and I didn’t know if that was what I wanted to do with my life.

An ankle injury requiring surgery and a season on the sidelines was a blessing in disguise...

That’s when everything changed. I was really able to step back and see basketball for what it was and where my basketball coach was coming from and I ended up falling back in love with the game. 

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to go out than my senior year, not just with my team-mates but a great group of friends playing basketball together. 

(Griffin led Nebraska undefeated through the Big 12 conference regular season in 2009-10 before they lost their championship semi-final. She was named Big 12 Player of the Year and collected a host of other personal accolades).

She was chosen by Minnesota with pick three in the 2010 WNBA draft, but was quickly traded to the Connecticut Sun...

My first three years in the WNBA, I have really been just trying to get my footing again. 

It has really been a different type and style of basketball than what I was used to – it feels a lot more one-on-one and more competitive almost amongst the team and statistic-wise. You are competing for time and stats for the right to play, yet you are supposed to be a team and have good chemistry. 

It was really difficult for me to grasp that and understand how it’s supposed to work.

It was a similar story playing in Europe...

With the language barrier and being the import expected to put up big numbers, and all that stuff that goes on with basketball being a business, it was so different to what I had experienced in college. 

Really, the last three years have been trying to figure out what kind of pro I am – I had really gotten away from what makes me happy with basketball, which is being around people I enjoy.

There’s so much more to me than basketball.

Then she received a Skype call from Spirit’s Chelsea Aubry, her former Nebraska team-mate,  sussing out her interest in playing for Bendigo as a replacement for injured US import Kathleen Scheer....   

I really feel like God was telling me I needed to come here because I didn’t have any other (off-season) offers and I think He knew that if I had offers for bigger money elsewhere, the business side of me would have said I should go and do that. 

But the fact I didn’t have an opportunity to go elsewhere, it was like this is what I am supposed to be doing right now.

Griffin couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out...

There was all this time when I was debating whether or not I was a good pro. I thought, maybe I’m just meant to be one of those great college players and the professional lifestyle and game isn’t for her. 

But coming here and playing with this team and feeling like I’m playing some of the best basketball I have played against good competition, it’s really been a breath of fresh air.

Bendigo is a long way from Eagle River, but she loves the city...

I Wikipedia’d Bendigo after Chelsea told me where it was. I knew it was a mining town that had a lot of art and history based here with the gold rush and the Chinese influence. 

I’d never really thought about Asia having such a big influence on Australia before, but now realising how close they are, it makes sense. That was the little I knew coming in. 

I didn’t want to have high expectations because I think just about every American wants to visit Australia and I was excited about the opportunity, but I didn’t want to get disappointed. 

Coming here, it has blown away my expectations and I love it and I love the people. I have been lost a couple of times and everyone has been more than happy to help me out!

Her Spirit team-mates have also been keen to show her around...

The other day they took me out to White Hills to see some kangaroos – I couldn’t believe all the kangaroos that were just hanging out in the neighbourhood. 

Another time Renae (Camino) had a physio appointment in Melbourne so I went along and Rach (Herrick) and Maddie (Garrick) took me out and showed me the bathing boxes along the beach.

In Sydney... they drove me around and showed me the Opera House and the bridge. They have just been awesome. 

Captain Kristi Harrower has had a big influence...

I showed up and couldn’t believe at first how well I was practising. I didn’t want to say or think too much  about it in case I jinxed it. Then all of a sudden I wasn’t on funk and I didn’t know what happened. One day I couldn’t miss a shot and then I couldn’t get one to drop in. 

Kristi just walks up to me after practice and says, ‘Kelsey, you’re putting too much pressure on yourself’. She said, ‘we’re not like normal clubs, you don’t need to come in and score 30 points and get 20 rebounds every game. We just want you to play. You’re good enough, don’t worry about signing next year or what we’re thinking – you’re a great player, so just play’. 

I didn’t even know I was doing that to myself, but she recognised it and helped nip it in the bud right away. I came here to enjoy the experience and that’s my new philosophy as far as professional basketball: to enjoy the ride and not have such an outcome-based perspective of myself. Ever since then, I know it’s not all on me whether we win or lose and that is so refreshing. 

I was so thankful in that moment – and ever since – that Kristi is our team captain and I am playing for her team. 

But it’s not just her, everyone in their own way has let me know to just play, we are here to do it together, and that is so cool.

For most of her career, Griffin has been trying to work out where she fits in, but now she’s found her niche... 

My biggest challenge was that I was a huge people-pleaser. And as a basketballer, it is counter-intuitive to be a people-pleaser and at the same time be competing for a spot. 

I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out: this is the kind of player I am and I’m willing to work on my craft and get better, but don’t try to be somebody else to make this team or this coach happy.

This is who I am and if it works for you, that’s awesome and I’m excited, but if it doesn’t I probably need to move on. 

That’s been a hard thing for me because I am not into confrontation and I like people to like me. Unfortunately in this job, it can’t always be like that because a lot of people think about themselves. 

I don’t want to change who I am, but I have to look out for me because a lot of times no one else will. That’s been a huge difficult lesson, but I finally think I have found the balance and can be who I am, which is a giving person, and at the same time make sure I am not being taken advantage of.

Growing up, Griffin was an active kid who loved being outdoors...

I basically wanted to be my brother when I was little. 

As much as he probably got irritated by me following him around all the time, he was really good and as long as he couldn’t see or hear me, I could be in the room with him. 

Geoff is eight years older than me so once he was out of the house, I really got into mountain biking and snow boarding. Life was a lot about building jumps and building forts – I was a pretty big tomboy. 

I always tried to get my sister Jayme, who’s three years younger, to play with me but she was more into books and theatre and movies and wouldn’t come outside. 

I’d do whatever I could get people to do with me, tossing the football around or playing baseball.

And then there’s fishing...  

That’s something a lot of people don’t know – I love to fish. Any kind of fishing, but my absolute favourite is halibut fishing or dip-netting, we do that up north in Alaska. 

I think the reason I am so fond of fishing is the memories around it – the family time, coming home after you’ve fished all day and sitting around the fire eating hotdogs, camping out in the VW van.

A couple of my team-mates say they have rods, so we might end up going and doing some here if we can ever figure out the right time.

Griffin excelled at chemistry and anatomy at school and contemplated a career in medicine...

I really thought i was going to be a doctor and contemplated becoming an orthopaedic surgeon, especially with all of my injuries (including a cracked rib and troublesome ankle).

I find the human body so fascinating, what it can put up with and how it heals itself. 

But I have realised through my injuries and my sport that medicine isn’t really an exact science, it’s a lot of trial and error. I feel that would be really difficult for me because I just want to help people... 

So I’m now realising that maybe what I want to do is to help someone be the best person they can be and rather than looking at a western medicine approach, look at a more holisitc healing approach. I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up but right now that seems to be what I am most excited about.

She has been an ambassador for breast cancer awareness, speaking out on her personal link to the disease and promoting “pink” games in the US...

Both my grandmothers have had breast cancer so its something near and dear to my heart. 

The fact they do so much promotion through pink games in college and the WNBA, I really appreciate it and any time I can help out or do a promotion for it, I am more than happy to. It is something that is preventable through testing and knowledge and the fact it has a genetic link, it is so important for people to be well aware of it.

Her dad is also back to full health, although he still has six-monthly check-ups...

You still never know what is going to happen with cancer, it is such a crazy disease, but he is doing really well. He has turned a whole new leaf and is into the gym and eating healthy and really appreciating life. 

It was a scary situation, but he learnt a lot from it and it has brought me and him closer together.

Griffin says the best basketballer she’s played against is Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings... 

You couldn’t ask for a better all-round person/basketballer combination than her – she is what anyone should try to achieve, male or female, in becoming a basketball player because she does all the right things and she treats people the right way and she wins and she has gold medals. 

She doesn’t cut corners or cut other people down in overcoming her own struggles. She’s also a freak on the court.

The highlight of her career so far has been winning the Big 12 regular season title with Nebraska...

But my best memories are silly things, like dumping ice on people in the shower after a game, or funny things that happened on bus or plane rides. 

When you look back on your career, there are always awards and things that teams accomplish, and yes, they are great. But the next year someone else gets that award. 

For me, it’s just another thing on a resume which is nice and does help business wise in my career, but when I think of the highlights its more the memories I have shared with team-mates.

She rates her parents, Jim and Jan, as having the biggest influence on her career, alongside a long list of coaches and sporting mentors...

I didn’t appreciate it at the time but I can’t imagine now how they did it – both of them worked full time but they always made sure I had rides to practice and tried to be at my games. Now I’m older, I realise how incredible it is and I couldn’t have done it without them.

Family will always be her number one priority...

I don’t know if the kind of lifestyle I have chosen to lead might make you think that I am an independent person, but I’m actually super family-oriented.

They are so important to me and being so far away from them is a huge sacrifice. At the same time, I hope I’m getting to broaden their horizons and show them more of the world.

That may soon include a trip from Alaska to central Victoria... 

Coming to Australia was on both of their bucket lists, so now that I’m here they are very excited. 

It looks like my dad might be coming around the end of January, early February and I’m trying to talk my mum into missing my games and coming down after the season so we can go exploring together. 

I have told them that if I have it my way, this won’t be my last basketball season in Australia, so we don’t need to force it all into one trip. 

Hopefully, we will be making a couple of trips down here!

cross-cultures: Bendigo Spirit forward Kelsey Griffin meets Sun Loong at the Golden Dragon Museum. The local Chinese influence was one of the features the US import had heard about the city before she arrived here. Picture: PETER WEAVING

cross-cultures: Bendigo Spirit forward Kelsey Griffin meets Sun Loong at the Golden Dragon Museum. The local Chinese influence was one of the features the US import had heard about the city before she arrived here. Picture: PETER WEAVING


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