Dec. 5, 2007
By Lara Boyko
Special to CSTV.com
Of all the Australian imports to come to the U.S. - from Lauren Jackson, Hugh Jackman and 80's band Men at Work - the Portland women's basketball team has a stronghold on the market share of talent to come from the land of kangaroos and vegemite.
"The first time was a total accident back in 1988 or 1989, there was a kid declared ineligible on a recruiting deal at Oregon and since the Oregon coach is a friend of mine, he called me and asked me if I could take the player so I said sure," said Portland coach Jim Sollars. "It led to another player a couple of years later after the Australian Institute of Sport came touring through and saw the back-up center. I was very impressed with her and we recruited her. We were the only school that recruited her and she ended up being a three-time all conference player for us. One player kept leading to another. It's been by circumstance as much as anything else."It may have been by chance at first, but 18 years later, the women's basketball recruiting pipeline from Australia to Portland has resulted in having an Australian in every class.
"They've been solid students, brought a lot to us in terms of academic excellence and a couple of them are really funny where they do a great job of entertaining us on the bus with their Australian songs," said Sollars. "(Senior center) Rachel Warren is a spectacular student who I swear will be Prime Minister of Australia someday.
"Junior Meagan Bermingham is the emotional one of the group who I think has an enormous amount of talent and I think she enjoys this country. Sophomore Laura Thomas is a sophomore who is like an American now and doesn't even sound like an Australian. She is starting for us now after being effective as a back-up. Freshman Lauren Angel is truly an angel. She's a big soft, deep-accented Aussie and just a character. This is only her fourth year of playing basketball at all and is going to be a very good player."
While they are recruited to play basketball, these Australians see the opportunity to play in the U.S. as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"It's a really attractive situation that you have going here in the United States, particularly for men's and women's basketball players," said Warren. "There's just not the opportunity in Australia to play basketball at a high level and have it mesh well with your classes at a university. You do one or the other in Australia. There was no way that my classes would bend around practice schedule."
"I had a lot of peers older than me who I played basketball with and they talked about going overseas," said Bermingham. "Also, a lot of my idols were over here, so I thought it would be a good idea to get the experience, go traveling and meet some new people. It's just a change so I packed my bags and came on over."
As easy as it sounds to just pack one's bags and take a kangaroo hop over the Pacific Ocean, successfully recruiting players from Australia can be more complicated than recruiting players from other countries.
"We normally just recruit post players from Australia because it's difficult for mid-level schools to get quality post players," said Sollars. "They get offers from the bigger schools if they can walk and chew gum, as they hope they will develop in time. It is more difficult to get transcripts from there as they don't have a national transcript situation. For example, in southwest Australia, they have a 35-page transcript and every state is different. They have to go through more hoops - from certifying that they haven't played anywhere with a professional team - but you just have to stay on top of it. Once you get through one, it gets easier as you know the hoops."
Once here in the states, players from Australian typically only have minor adjustments to make. Some of these adjustments are typical for any freshman going away to college.
"America is just like Australia in a lot of ways," said Bermingham. "The biggest thing that I really miss are family and the food here is deep fried and not as fresh as it is in Australia. It really wasn't a culture shock, but getting used to moving away from my family, having to make new friends and not knowing anyone else here.
"Over here the game is slower than in Australia. We are more inclined in Australia to get the ball and get it down the court faster. Trying to change to that kind of game was a little bit difficult and then adjusting to a different coaching style. Every coach is different and they expect different things from you. You've been taught to do something one way and then a new coach expects you to do it a different way. It's always hard to adjust to that at first until you get to know the rules, then it's fairly easy."
The adjustments that are the most difficult for Australian players involve communicating clearly.
"When we see someone, we say `how are you going?" said Bermingham. "People will look at us and say, `I'm walking or driving' when we are actually asking how you are doing. We say `no worries' a lot, I call a comforter a `doona' and then instead of a jersey, we call it a singlet."
"On my second day of class I was sitting in class writing with a pencil when I asked the guy next to me if I could borrow his rubber," said Warren. "He looked at me wondering what planet I was from. I said that I wanted to rub out what I had written down. He then asked if I meant the eraser. I said, `Yeah, it's the same thing, right?' He told me that in future I may want to say eraser because of what a rubber usually means in this country."
While the differences in semantics can raise a few eyebrows, it is how these players are leaving a lasting impression on everyone in a team that is unforgettable.
"I've tried vegemite and we actually have a jar at home," said Sollars.