Kelsey Griffin takes the long way home

FOR most of us we find home very easily.

It’s where you start life; where you first flourish.

Usually that’s not too far flung from your childhood house – whether it’s the point of Victoria down at Phillip Island, or throughout the countless basketball-driven country towns along Victoria’s freeways and highways.

But there is a bigger force at play – we seem to gravitate to place that best suits us and for Bendigo Bank Spirit’s star forward Kelsey Griffin, she had to search the world to find it.

It wasn’t where she started. It wasn’t found on the WNBA circuit or in her collegiate life.

And whether she meant to come looking for it in Australia, she eventually found it some 12,500 kilometres away from Anchorage, Alaska – in the picturesque country town of Bendigo.

Griffin talked about her unusual, but highly-rewarding, pathway to Bendigo at the Basketball Victoria Country (BVC) Jamboree dinner recently.

Her life has revolved around a series of big decisions she’s taken to reach this point.

A point where she became an Australian citizen.

A point where she is Bendigo through-and-through and doesn’t want to leave.

Most importantly, a point where country Victoria is woven into her identity and always will be.

The country lifestyle has become a natural fit for Griffin, who said she had her arm twisted in 2012 by former team mate Chelsea Aubry to hop on a flight and give a summer in Australia a go.

“Whenever I’m asked to speak about my journey, there are so many parts that are influential and finding Australia was probably one of the most influential things for me,” Griffin said. “I was coming into a point of my career where being a pro was really hard – it was a very individual thing in a team sport and I wasn’t sure how to make that work.

“I was really ready to quit basketball by the time I got to Australia, and Chelsea (Aubry), who brought me here cause I couldn’t find a job, said to come and it’s basically like a paid vacation.

“She sold it really well – winter in Europe or summer in Australia – and I said what the heck, I’ll give it one last go in Australia.”

For Griffin, it was all or nothing.

She was on the verge of leaving basketball behind and focusing on a future off the court.

But that was a fleeting thought, as she took to life in the Spirit roster, and in Bendigo as a whole, instantly.

“I came and instantly fell in love,” Griffin said. “I fell in love with the place, the people and fell in love with the style of basketball.

“It was amazing how much easier it was to play basketball here – it was getting it through hands, sharing it and also the community behind it.

“I really bought into that really quickly and didn’t know where it was going to take me – looking back it’s pretty clear – but at the time I didn’t know the path that I was on.”

Despite the immediate success she found in Australia – winning back-to-back WNBL Championships and back-to-back MVP accolades – she still believed in the obligations that talent so often brings.

You have to do this, you have to play there.

"I came and instantly fell in love. I fell in love with the place, the people and fell in love with the style of basketball."

Kelsey Griffin

You’re good enough to play in the WNBA – so when are you packing your bags?

But for Griffin, that had to change.

Summer in Australia was only just the start – she wanted to keep the Spirit alive through winter and pursued a bold idea with the club.

“I continued to go back and play in the WNBA… as that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Griffin said. “As a professional athlete you’re meant to go and play in these great leagues, even though I really didn’t enjoy it.

“Didn’t enjoy the people and didn’t enjoy the basketball… but that’s what you’re supposed to do.

“So finally this year, when I naturalised in November, I decided I was going to do what I wanted to do and I want to stay in Bendigo.

“Bendigo has been incredible to me and I want to give back.

“I could’ve went, could’ve played for Connecticut again and done that thing I’ve done so much, but instead I went to the Spirit and said ‘there’s really this off-season and we can really take advantage of it – if you guys can give me enough to live on, I would love to stay and be your community ambassador’.

“Amazingly the Spirit found a way to help me stay, so that I could basically go into the community and give back.”

So instead of grinding it out on the Mohegan Sun Arena and travelling the states chasing the next win, Griffin packed her bag – but for a different reason – as she started her Victoria-wide travels with the Spirit’s blessing.

“What’s been unreal has been the amount of support and feedback we’ve received – historically when March ended and WNBL ended, talk of the Spirit stopped,” Griffin said. “But what we decided as a club to do, was that I would go out at club level and coach kids. “Not only coach them, but talk to the kids about my journey, talk about the different things I’ve been through and the different things of what we want Bendigo to be.

“I’ve had the opportunity to go to Riddell’s Creek, Kerang, Echuca and I get to go to these amazing country towns I otherwise wouldn’t have gone to had I not been given this opportunity… and get to work with country kids.

“And I’ve fallen in love with it – with Australia and with the kids even more as the country kids are just fantastic.

“The enthusiasm, the excitement, the willingness to listen and they just want to work hard – the work ethic is something I really love as well.”

Now that she’s planted herself on the great southern land, she’s got her eyes on bigger prizes.

Going through the Australian Opals Rio Olympic Games tryouts gave her a taste for the green-and-gold and it’s something she wants to work towards in the future.

But most importantly, the country’s calling for another WNBL title and she hopes to deliver alongside her Spirit team mates.

And it’s not just a title for the 100,000-strong city; but one for everyone in Victoria outside the big smoke.

“We’re going through a rebranding phase and want to make a new identity for what we want to be,” Griffin said. “What we decided as a club was that we don’t just want to be Bendigo basketball… but we want to be country Victoria’s basketball team.

Griffin and the Bendigo Bank Spirit start their 2016/17 WNBL campaign on Saturday 8 October at home against Adelaide.


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