Australian Opals players are excited about Basketball Australia’s new RISE UP initiative

The initiative is both a sign of progress and an indication that change is needed

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On June 17, when the Australian national team center Liz Cambage texted her teammates to say that she did not feel supported by Basketball Australia, forward Alanna Smith’s first impulse was to reach out. “I just wanted to … make sure that she was okay and [see] if there was anything that I could do to help her,” Smith recently told The Next. “I think as a team, we realized the best thing we could do for her is to stand by her and do the best that we could to support her.”

The national team, commonly known as the Opals, did just that, deciding within a few hours of Cambage’s text to boycott practice until Basketball Australia made changes to better support Black and Indigenous players. According to Opals and Washington Mystics point guard Leilani Mitchell, the players also signed a letter to Basketball Australia, written by men’s players Ben Simmons and Patty Mills, that asked for greater representation of people of color in leadership positions within the organization.

“[Basketball Australia has] been trying to do a good job of hiring women, and they've brought in past players like Lauren Jackson and others,” Mitchell said, “but there's definitely no people of color just to share that other side of what it's like.”

Smith added, “We have Black players, we have Indigenous players, and then you look on the board and you don't see any Black people or Indigenous people on the board. So it's about representation in all areas of the sport, not just on the court.”

Washington Mystics point guard Leilani Mitchell draws a foul—and makes the scoop shot—in a game against the Indiana Fever on July 25, 2020. Photo credit: NBA Content Network

Too often, when people push for changes to an established organization, the response is tepid or simply performative. Not this time, according to several Opals players. They resumed practice after just one missed session, encouraged by Basketball Australia’s response to their concerns in a meeting on June 19. Two weeks later, Basketball Australia formally announced a new initiative, RISE UP, that several players described as significant and powerful.

“Basketball Australia and the Australian women’s national team, the Opals, are asking the basketball community and community at large to RISE UP in support of Black Lives Matter,” the announcement read.

“The Opals are asking all Australians to RISE UP with them in taking positive action to eradicate racism, discrimination, and injustice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and people of color, by embracing the Opals’ team values of Respect, [combating] Injustice, Standards, Equality, Unity, [and] Peace.”

The initiative kicked off with a five-minute video in which players committed to educating themselves and working to fight racism and social injustice. It will also involve digital and social media campaigns and other programming to be announced on a rolling basis.

RISE UP is “a really special thing to be a part of,” Opals guard/forward Sami Whitcomb said at the media day for her WNBA team, the Seattle Storm. “… People are talking about, obviously, the racism and social injustices in the States right now, but … racism is a global issue, and certainly, one that's relevant to the history of Australia. So being a part of that, standing I think as a group and saying that we don't stand for this and we are here for our Indigenous, our Black, our Brown, all of our brothers and sisters of color, is really important.”

Seattle Storm guard Sami Whitcomb shoots in a game against the Washington Mystics on June 14, 2019. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

Opals and Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello did not take credit for RISE UP when she spoke with The Next earlier this month, but Smith revealed that it was Brondello’s brainchild. “We had input as well, but she was one of the big voices behind that, too,” Smith said. “So it's really cool to have a coach who you know has got your back 100%.”

While the boycott netted a positive result, Mitchell said that it ultimately stemmed from “a misunderstanding” about how much Basketball Australia is doing to support people of color. The organization has quietly been working with Indigenous communities for several months to try to increase participation and representation. Mitchell explained, “[Basketball Australia] didn't want to just do a token post on Instagram or on social media. They wanted to wait until they had … the whole plan and outline of what they were going to do.”

Ezi Magbegor, one of the youngest Opals and a teammate of Whitcomb’s in Seattle, also approved of how Basketball Australia has supported racial justice. “Speaking to Basketball Australia, they've done a great job at receiving [our feedback] and then putting changes in place. So [RISE UP is] definitely not just a one-time thing,” she said.

“I think that's super important, just to feel represented as athletes,” Magbegor added. “… It means a lot to have the support of Basketball Australia.”

Like many other players, Smith has played basketball with players of different races and learned from those experiences. But she also received a unique education on racism and the history of Indigenous Australians starting at an extremely young age. Her father Darren works for Red Dust Role Models, a charity that provides health and youth development programs to Indigenous people living in remote parts of Australia’s Northern Territory.

The goal is to try to reduce chronic disease, which is pervasive in Indigenous communities and contributes to lower life expectancies among Indigenous populations.

Alanna Smith has accompanied her father on trips to serve Indigenous communities since she was eight years old. Few outsiders are allowed into the towns she has visited, yet Smith built such strong trust and respect that the Pintupi people eventually gave her an Indigenous name, Nampitjinpa. Smith told The Next that her experiences growing up “really helped me, first and foremost, form a relationship with a lot of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people … and opened my eyes and my heart as well to wanting to do more to help and be an ally.”

Phoenix Mercury forward Alanna Smith looks to get a shot off against the Los Angeles Sparks’ Reshanda Gray in a game on July 25, 2020. Photo credit: NBA Content Network

Amid current discussions of Black Lives Matter, Smith is trying to be a good listener, particularly when someone tells her she has made a mistake. “I'm not gonna get everything right,” she said, “and … I need to be okay with people telling me that I've made a mistake and that I need to be better.” Those conversations are continuing during the WNBA season in Bradenton, Florida, where Smith is playing for Brondello on the Phoenix Mercury.

Conversations with Basketball Australia are also ongoing, despite the logistical challenges that come with a 14-hour time difference between Florida and the Basketball Australia offices in Victoria. For example, Cambage had suggested in June that the Opals add the Indigenous flag to their uniforms; it turned out that that would not be allowed under FIBA rules, but the Opals discussed adding Aboriginal artwork to their uniforms in a team call on July 9.

Mitchell, who identifies as Indigenous, called the idea “a positive thing” and was optimistic about it happening. She indicated that the next step for the team is to find someone who identifies as Aboriginal—perhaps an elder in an Indigenous community—to create the art.

Beyond the uniform design, Mitchell also expects Basketball Australia and the Opals to visit Indigenous communities. She said the Opals can not only give Indigenous Australians more opportunities to play basketball but also serve as role models.

“There's only been a couple Indigenous Australians that have ever represented Australia [on] the women's basketball team,” Mitchell said, and seeing the Opals in person can show Indigenous youth “that they can dream and work towards something bigger than where they've been raised.”

Research shows that society often doubly discriminates against Black and Indigenous women based on both race and gender. Mitchell praised the current Basketball Australia CEO, Jerril Rechter, for her support of Black Lives Matter as well as her commitment to women’s rights. But Smith reflected on gender inequities she has experienced as a female basketball player:

“As women, we have been fighting for equality for a long time in sport, and we're still not there yet,” Smith said. “But what I think BA has done a good job of is, like I said, listening to us. … I'm always hoping for improvement. I'm always hoping for something better. But I understand also that I can't just expect it right now. … It's a long road ahead of us, but I think we are improving.”

That statement seemingly applies equally well to Basketball Australia’s recent progress on racial inequities. Put simply, RISE UP is an acknowledgment that the status quo needs to change and a commitment to support racial equality. Implementing the program is both a sign of progress—signaling Basketball Australia’s openness to change—and a statement that more needs to be done.

“We really want to use our platform,” Whitcomb said. “[And] I think it's a really critical moment.”