Female Aussie footballer heads for the WNBA

Tuesday, February 07 2006 @ 11:45 pm ACDT

Contributed by: Brett Northey

Erin Phillips is an up-and-coming point guard in Australia's premier women's basketball league, the WNBL. A top player with Adelaide's national league side the Adelaide Fellas (a curious title based on their major sponsor - the club was formerly known as the Adelaide Lightning), Phillips is also known in South Australia for her football prowess and heritage. Her father is Greg Phillips, a legend at Port Adelaide in the SANFL in the era before the ever strengthening VFL expanded to become the AFL. Greg was a strong player for Port, and also played several seasons with Collingwood in the VFL. In all he played over 400 games of senior footy. His daughter was also a good footballer, competing with boys through her junior years, and playing in celebrity matches. Now she is set to join the world's best women's basketball league, the WNBA. In recent years we've seen former AFL players like Darren Bennett and Ben Graham helping promote Aussie Rules in the US, so maybe Erin will be another candidate, particularly in accelerating the game in the fledgling female market. Joel Shepherd sent us this report.

Erin Phillips: From football to the WNBA

Since I've been on the topic of female athletes lately, time to post the last article I wrote for Fullcourt Press. FCP is usually a paysite, but publisher Clay Kallam tells me he only needs exclusivity for a week, and that's finished now.

Having been away from the Australian basketball scene for a few years, and living in France for the last six months, the first player I wanted to see up close when I got back was 20-year-old point guard Erin Phillips. I’d seen her play quite a few times on TV, but actually being at the game can show you so much more. Luckily, she plays for what is now my home team -- the Adelaide Fellas (formerly LIghtning).

If you know what you’re looking for, you can see immediately if a player has something special. When Adelaide began their pregame warmup, I saw it in Phillips’ first running steps up the court. She runs like a sprinter, with an effortless bounce like she’s got springs in her shoes.

Considering her genes, that’s probably not surprising. Erin’s father is Greg Phillips, a legend in South Australia for his feats as one of the state’s greatest ever Australian-Rules footballers. He played 447 senior games, including 84 for AFL club Collingwood, and won more Premierships with South Australian powerhouse Port Adelaide than seems reasonable. Up until the age of 13, Erin too played Australian Football, against the boys, and was by all accounts extremely good.

In 2002, as a 17-year-old, Erin played in a charity match between mostly-retired players representing Adelaide’s two AFL (national league) clubs -- Port Adelaide and the Adelaide Crows. For those of you unfamiliar with Australian football, its structure is somewhat like basketball in that players tend to pair-off against a direct opponent, who they will shadow for either the entire match, or until the coach decides to change the matchups. Playing for Port Adelaide (naturally), Erin was matched up on Australian tennis star and mad-keen Adelaide Crows supporter Lleyton Hewitt. I didn’t see the game, but some who did tell me that she kicked his backside.

When I interview her, Erin says she didn’t drop out of football because she worried about playing against boys post-puberty. Indeed, when asked, she says, “I think a girl can achieve pretty much anything she wants, if she works hard enough.”

Including the AFL? Against the men in one of the toughest, most physical contact sports in the world? “Sure,” she says, utterly unfazed. “If she worked hard enough. Maybe not in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” (back when players were less athletic, precision skills less important, and brute strength more decisive) “but these days football is more of a running game.” And her father, apparently, agrees with her assessment.

But at the age of 13, Erin fell in love with basketball. “I wanted to play for my country,” she says, “and that’s something you can’t do in football.” Also, one could guess, becoming Australia’s first-ever female AFL player would be an incredibly hard, politically and emotionally challenging thing for any young woman to achieve -- even before you get to the question of whether a woman could actually do it. In basketball, at least, the trail is already blazed.

It would be a remarkable achievement for a basketball forward, starting so late as 13, to acquire the ball skills necessary to make her nation’s national team by age 19, as Erin did. And Erin is a point guard, the most skill-intensive position on the court, which makes the achievement almost freakish. This season, she’s averaging 5.1 assists against 2.9 turnovers in the WNBL, and 15.4 points-per-game at 49.2 percent from the field. Obviously her football has helped her develop general skills, and Erin agrees -- Australian football is proudly known amongst those who follow it as perhaps the most skill-intensive sport in the world, particularly in the way it has developed in the last ten years. Also, however, it’s pretty clear that Erin Phillips is just one of those rare people born with a remarkable natural gift.

For example, she rebounds like a forward, averaging 7.5 per game this season -- sixth best in the entire WNBL. A vertical leap of 62 centimeters (a shade over two feet, better than most male athletes her size) doesn't hurt either. Many Australian players struggle in their first WNBA season, due to the physicality of the American game, but if there’s one player unlikely to be troubled with that aspect of the transition, it’s Erin. She’s a very strong, broad-shouldered 5-8, and she’s not scared of using her strength.

Getting drafted by the WNBA came as a shock to her. “I was at home on the Saturday,” she says, “washing my car, when I got a call from Michael Thibault. He said ‘We’re thinking of drafting you’. I couldn’t believe it.” At that point, she hadn’t even been sure the Americans knew who she was.

“And so later that night, at about 4am, I was up with my sisters following the draft on the internet. I didn’t know the internet broadcast was delayed, so right when I’m waiting for Connecticut’s second pick to come through, Michael Thibault calls again, and he says, ‘Are you following the draft?’ I say ‘Yeah, I’m just waiting for the second pick to come up.’ And he says, ‘We’ll, I’m going to spoil the suspense. We’ve picked you.’ And then my sisters are screaming and jumping up and down...”

It was very hard for her, Erin explains, to stay home during the 2005 WNBA season. But her primary goal all her sporting life had been to play for her nation, and 2005 being her first selection for the Opals, she was determined to make the most of it. She played in tournaments in New Zealand and China, and got the opportunity to show the national team staff what she could do at that level. This year, she hopes to make the team for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in February, and then she’s off to Connecticut once the WNBL season finishes, no matter what.

“What if the Opals staff say you have to stay home to prepare for the World Championships in Brazil?” I ask her, echoing the same old problem that comes up for Australian WNBA players every two years, with World Champs or Olympics.

Erin just shrugs -- which, in my opinion, is the perfect response to Australian officials and their psychological, financial and patriotic blackmail.

Erin is also unusual for a young Australian player in that she didn’t come through the Australian Institute of Sport program. “I attended for six months,” she says, “but I was leaving such a well-structured program in Adelaide under Jan Stirling. After six months in Canberra, I just decided that I was learning more and developing faster as a player in Adelaide, so I sat down with the AIS staff, and we talked about it, and they agreed.”

Perhaps that’s a good thing for another reason, too. The only thing legendary ex-AIS coach Phil Brown ever said (when I spoke to him one time) that I disagreed with was that a point guard, in his opinion, should distribute the ball amongst her teammates primarily, and only shoot as a last option. I think this is a perfectly good way of inhibiting a young player’s development, and depriving a point guard of an invaluable tool with which to break down the defence. If the PG can’t or won’t shoot, defenders will take liberties in how closely they guard her. A good shot can gain a PG some respect, and force her opponent to stand closer, thus exposing her to a good crossover-and-drive. Erin has a very good jumpshot, likes to use it, and likes to drive even more. She can draw an horrendous number of fouls, too, from exhausted defenders frustrated to see her flash past them once again. All of which, in turn, opens up her passing lanes, because the help-D is always rushing over to stop her, and leaving someone else exposed. It is, all in all, a very American style of point guard play, perhaps unseen in Australia (at this quality, at least) since Michele Timms.

I for one am very glad no one ever told Erin, as a developing player, that a good point guard should pass and not shoot. But Erin likes to play as she does for another reason too. “The way Adelaide plays under coach Chris Lucas, we like to get out and run. The way some teams play, going through their structured halfcourt plays, it’s boring for the fans to watch. The faster game is just much more exciting for everyone.”

You get the feeling from talking to Erin that she really likes where she is in her life right now, and that enthusiasm shows in the way she plays basketball too. On the court, she’s confident without being arrogant, and aggressive without being nasty. Speaking to her offcourt, I found her easygoing and smiling a lot. She needs to work on her three-pointers (although 37.5 percent is not tawdry) and defence, which she admits, but at the rate she’s shown she can improve, that shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, if she keeps improving this fast, she could follow in her father’s footsteps to become one of the hottest sporting talents ever to emerge from South Australia.

Joel Shepherd sent us his article. It can also be viewed at:

Joel Shepherd

Fullcourt Press


World Footy News
http://www.worldfootynews.com/article.php/20060204001558913