Lauren Jackson proves she's a class above on historic, heartbreaking night

WNBL fans were given the opportunity to celebrate the GOAT of Australian basketball and create a little bit of WNBL history in the process. Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

A record WNBL crowd of 7,681 at John Cain Arena fell silent as Lauren Jackson was assisted from the floor just 62 seconds into the game.

Just minutes earlier, the legendary Jackson was the final player announced to a raucous ovation. Like much of the last twelve months, the gravity of watching the all-time great go to work had drawn the eyes of many to the WNBL, perhaps for the first time.

After her bronze medal heroics at the Women's World Cup in Sydney with the national team last year, Jackson has played a major role in the Flyers campaign, averaging 14 points and five rebounds in a perhaps more than expected 21 minutes per game.

As if the fairy tale story needed any more juice, Jackson's trademark determination and will once again came to the fore, with the recent news that she has been carrying a fractured left foot through a large portion of the season.

"The great news is that it's not my broken foot, it's the other one," Jackson joked of the suspected Achilles injury.

"For me, I said I was on borrowed time," Jackson said. "It's hard, the way that I feel right now, I don't know. I'm pretty tough, but when I felt it, I felt something pop. I was just standing there, I said to the referee that I can't actually walk."

"As soon as I felt it pop, I was like oh my god, that's my day over. I went to try and walk and I couldn't. The poor ref, she said she can't stop the game, I said that's fine, but I can't actually move so I don't know what to do."

Scans on Sunday morning revealed a partial Achilles tear and not a full rupture, enough to end her season, but it remains to be seen whether this is the last chapter written of the remarkable comeback of Jackson.

"I was always waiting to see how the surgery on my fractured foot in the off-season goes before making a decision on my future. That is still my plan, to wait and see how I recover from this injury and the surgery on my foot, before I look at my future," Jackson said on Sunday.

"While my season is over, I will continue to be part of the team and help where I can, to ensure we continue to work to earn the success we are capable of. I'm very, very proud to be a Flyer," Jackson added.

Jackson's absence understandably took the air out the building for the first quarter, before the Flyers and Flames put on a show that came down to the final possession with Tiana Mangakahia knocking down a free-throw with 2.7 seconds left to help lift the Flames to the 68-67 road win.

The aura of Jackson may have brought a large portion of the crowd, but in the end, it was the high-quality play on the court that captivated those in the stands. The 26-point performance of Mangakahia in particular is of note, with the star guard recently included in the Opals extended squad in preparation for the 2023 Women's Asia Cup and 2024 Paris Olympics.

"I obviously had a lot of time to take in the atmosphere and the crowd was just incredible. That was so awesome to see that at a WNBL game, just to suit up was one of the greatest privileges," Jackson said.

"What a magnificent thing for women's basketball in this country. It's a domestic league, it's the premier national league but to have that kind of support in Melbourne was just incredible.

"I've said it a million times, but I think off the back of the World Cup and the visibility that basketball has had, it's really lifted the profile of our sport. Hopefully it's just the start of many games like this. It was great to be able to prove that it can be done and I'm pretty sure every single person in that stadium enjoyed that game."

Flyers head coach Cheryl Chambers set aside her disappointment for Jackson and the Flyers, to praise the Southside organisation for what was a spectacular advertisement for the league.

"There is some real talent across the whole league, so hopefully there's some people there that don't go every week that think they are going to get on board and support women's basketball," Chambers said.

"The other thing I'm proud about our organisation is, we probably weren't ready for this game, we could have asked if we were perfectly ready for this game, was it the perfect one to have against Sydney, all that kind of stuff. Gerry (Ryan) and Ian (Coutts) took a chance on women's basketball because we weren't one hundred percent ready and I think sometimes we wait until we're one hundred percent and it's too late. It's an awesome thing for women's sport."

Postgame, Jackson took part in a presentation on court, before remarkably presenting to the media for a press conference that she could and should have been expected to skip. Shifting between crutches and a wheelchair for comfort, understandably in pain, Jackson continued to lead the discussion for the growth of the women's game in Australia.

"You've got to take risks to take that next step and evolve and grow. As a league, we're doing that," Jackson explained. "As a team in the league, I think Southside is definitely pushing those barriers and trying to set the standard.

"That's what we did tonight. Gerry and Ian and our whole team should be so proud of what our front office was able to do, to bring that crowd out here tonight. I'm very, very proud to be a Flyer."

It would be difficult and near on impossible to imagine another athlete of Jackson's status in any sport presenting in this manner given the difficult circumstances, though, in some ways it shouldn't have been a surprise. This is who LJ is. A class act.

"Nobody could have scripted this last year, it's been completely insane. Then how ironic, how ironic (is this), it is what it is," she said with a smile and a shake of the head.

Claiming another medal for the national team could have been the perfect swansong for Jackson, but her work was not yet done, with her presence in the WNBL a delight for basketball fans young and old. It would be foolish and premature to write Jackson off given what has been witnessed over the last 12 months, but in a bittersweet way, if Saturday night is ultimately the last time Jackson suits up in a professional environment, doing so in front of a record-breaking crowd would be fitting for a legendary legacy.

All Jackson has done is create history since she first burst onto the scene more than two decades ago as a teenage star. Saturday night at John Cain Arena was no different.