'Why not try?' How Lauren Jackson was welcomed back into Opals squad

"I'm thinking of making a comeback, what do you think?"

That was the first time Australian Opals head coach Sandy Brondello caught wind of Lauren Jackson's unprecedented return to the hardwood.

"I didn't know if it was possible," Brondello conceded to ESPN. "I thought, 'you've been out a long time, can your body handle it?'. "If you think you can do it, why not try?

"At that stage I was just trying to give her support and confidence. She had nothing to lose. I didn't know if it was really possible to be honest."

Fast forward to today and Jackson is with the Opals on the Gold Coast preparing for the FIBA Women's World Cup in Sydney, with the remarkable return to be solidified with the squad's first game against France on September 22.

Brondello and Jackson's basketball connection extends beyond two decades, with the pair playing as teammates for the Opals across multiple tournaments, while also playing a season together with the Seattle Storm in 2003.

"Lauren is my friend," Brondello said. "I kind of took her under my wing when she was a 16-year-old at her first World Cup back in 1998 and to think so many years later now I'm her coach. We have a lot of mutual respect but it's not actually weird for me, this is what I do and what I've been doing for the last eighteen plus years since I retired.

"Lauren is just another player who I'm trying to help be the best within the system that we have. I don't know if Lauren thinks it's weird. If I get mad at her I call her Lauren, not 'Loz' if I need to get my point across," she said with a laugh.

Despite the fairy tale nature of Jackson's green and gold return, the 41-year-old was handed no favours in the selection process, undergoing extensive fitness screening to assess her current ability to withstand what is a gruelling tournament schedule.

"We had to make sure we were doing it the right way; we couldn't just hand it to Lauren Jackson because of her name," Brondello said. "The performance staff built a fitness component she had to meet, and Lauren met them and blew it out of the water.

"She's modified in her training, we don't go more than three days consecutive, but she's responded quite well and performed quite well. She's not going to be the Lauren from 10 years ago, but the Lauren she is now is still going to be very beneficial for our overall game. I think people are going to be pretty surprised with how well Lauren is able to play after being out for so long."

With eyes on a podium appearance in Sydney, the Opals could be tasked with eight games in 10 days. Jackson herself has tempered expectation on minutes load and role within the squad, though Brondello remains confident she is in a strong position to fill an important role in a deep rotation.

"We don't have a plan at the moment," she said. "I think it's about how she goes and how she feels to be honest. We have trust in the performance staff and Lauren knows her body. Even if she's playing 15-20 minutes, I think that's very doable, even if it's three days in a row.

"Sometimes practice can be harder than those games when you go two hours, but we'll see where she's at. In a tournament where there's eight games in 10 days, you need all 12 players."

Brondello is pleased with the lead up to the tournament, with a timely training camp in New York in late July allowing the New York Liberty head coach to spend time with the squad in the middle of a busy WNBA schedule.

Along with Jackson, the Opals were also surprised with a visit from Boomers star Patty Mills, with the Brooklyn Nets guard spending some time with the team.

"I just reached out to Patty, I've known Patty for a little while, I don't know him totally well, but I admire what he's done," she said. "I just asked if he could come along and talk about his experiences with what the Boomers did and the development that they have and the culture and winning their first medal and the journey.

"The players didn't know he was coming, I wanted to keep it as a surprise. It's someone we all admire and we listened to his story which really was inspirational for me as well. For Patty to spend 90 minutes with us, it was really special to the players, a lot of them hadn't met Patty before and he spent the time, he spent more than I had asked him to.

"We were very grateful for that and it shows a lot about Patty, not just as a basketball player but as a human being."

With just days until tournament tip-off, a return to the podium is the goal for Brondello, Jackson and the Opals. Aside from box score statistics, it could be the mere presence of the legendary Jackson that gives the squad an added boost.

"I think Lauren walks into the room, and she gives players confidence," Brondello said. "People won't know what to expect but she's obviously respected being the 'G.O.A.T.' Someone like Ezi (Magbegor) who is up and coming and still learning and growing, I think it will be a great mentorship to be honest, and that's what Lauren really is.

"She's been uplifting to all the players; she uses her voice when we need to be better, but she gives them so much confidence."