Growing up in Seymour, Gabrielle Richards [Gabe], like most kids, loved playing sports and participated in many, such as swimming, athletics, netball and tennis to name a few, but had no idea that one day she would become a professional Basketball player.
“My family was a big tennis family and I was like the black sheep I guess, as I was really bad at tennis,” Gabe laughs.
“I was a good physical specimen for sports, I was taller and stronger but I just never really enjoyed the individual sports.”At the age of 14 the local basketball coach told Gabe’s mum she should start to take things seriously with basketball because he knew she was going to be tall. So for this young, tall girl who just loved playing sports, this was when the basketball journey really began.
“I came to Bendigo to try out for the Under 14 Academy and I was terrible,” Gabe laughs.
“I was pretty bad as a young kid, I couldn’t catch or run well and whilst I played a heap of sports, I really wasn’t great.
“I wasn’t like this phenomenon kid that they were saying she is going to be a superstar, I was just tall.”
Making the academy meant training once a week. Gabe would train in Seymour and then travel over to Bendigo for academy to train with the Bendigo kids.
“That’s where it all started and it was when I was taught to play basketball properly,” she said.
There were very few girls back then who played basketball seriously in Seymour and Gabe recalls the girls who did play just grew up playing and training with the boys.
“We played as part of the boys’ league when it all became serious, and there was a heap of training and travel involved as well,” she said.
When Gabe reached the Under 16 level she tried out for the ITC, which was an intensive training program, and was again successful in being selected, which also added another night of training to her schedule.
“I know kids these days do a lot training and travel at a young age, but back then it was sort of unheard of,” Gabe said.
Gabe was training at least three times a week, playing in the local Seymour competition, playing in Bendigo and on Friday nights would travel to Melbourne for more games.
“From Under 16 onwards is when it became really serious, my mum and dad invested a lot of time trekking me around the State and my basketball career really just snowballed from there,” Gabe said.
The ‘snowball effect’ was the ITC program, then selection for state teams, from there it was selection for Australian teams and camps, which was then followed by a scholarship with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).
Finishing year 11 at Assumption College in Kilmore, Gabe then moved to the AIS in Year 12 on a scholarship.
“I moved to the AIS for two years and finished Year 12 living, training, playing and trying out for Australian teams,” she said.
“One thing just sort of led to the next, it was never ‘I’m going to be a professional basketball player’, it was just what I did.”
Having always wanted to play College basketball, Gabe was scouted playing at the Under 21 World Championships in Croatia, where she was recruited and was able to choose from a selection of schools in America to attend university.
“I went to the University of Oregon and I was there for two and half years until I tore my Achilles. Usually university is four years but I came home after I had surgery, obviously injuries are disappointing and are a low point for any sporting career,” Gabe said.
“I decided to stay in Australia and had a number of offers to play the Women’s National Basketball League from across the country,” Gabe said. “It was the same year the Bendigo Spirit started up so I made the decision to stay and play in the WNBL for the Spirit, which was really cool to be able to play close to home having been so far away for such a long time.”
A big dream Gabe always had on her radar was to play for the Opals, however it wasn’t until Gabe was turning 30 years old that she was selected as part of the women’s Australian basketball team.
“I was turning 30 at the time and I actually thought it was passed me. Back in the day I would try out for all the Australian teams but there was a specific body type that those type of players were,” Gabe said.
“I certainly didn’t fit the “Opals” type mould of a tall, skinny, athletic player that can just run, run, run. I am more a power player, I am strong and can offer a big target…that’s where my strengths are.”
“The teams that went through whilst I was trying out for the Australian teams didn’t have that sort of player [power player] and I had accepted that being part of an Australian team wasn’t going to be part of my journey, I honestly thought it was passed me, especially when I was 30.”
Having come to terms with the fact that she thought she would never play at that level [Opals] and being happy in herself playing at the highest Australian national level in Bendigo for the Spirit, dynamics changed when Brendan Joyce was appointed as the Opals coach in 2013.
Brendan Joyce had never coached the Australian team before, which opened up the selection and provided a new opportunity for so many players who had never been picked before.
“He [Brendan Joyce] was of the idea that the wider we cast the net the better we all are, so yes at the age of 30 I got the call up to trial for the Australian team.”
“When he initially called to let me know I had made the squad I remember saying, thanks but no thanks, im too old and busy with work…ha ha.”
“But he persisted in getting me to try out and train with the squad for a year and a half….and low and behold, I ended up getting a call up into the team,” Gabe said.
“We [Opals] played in the World Championships in Turkey in 2014 and were successful in bringing home a bronze medal.”
“Playing for Australia and getting a bronze medal was an amazing experience…but even better to know that it’s also shared and earnt by all those, family, friends, coaches, who invested so much time and effort into making it possible for a little girl who grew up in Seymour.”
Gabe has been with the Spirit from the beginning and its now entering into its tenth year of operation, which over time has worked hard to build and grow a successful club. Early on people struggled to differentiate between the Lady Braves and the Spirit, but now Bendigo has embraced the Spirit being the city’s only National league team.
“Growing up, if someone had of told me I was going to live in Bendigo and play National League Basketball, I would have thought that’s just not a possibility as I have lots of big dreams, but as it turns out, I was able to do it here,” Gabe said.
“It’s been a great journey to watch. We struggled in the early years, but really worked hard to establish ourselves as a powerhouse in the league. We won back to back championships, here in Bendigo on our own court, and pushed for a third. We are playing against clubs with incredible budgets and big players whose jobs are to just play basketball. We [Spirit] had to fight tooth and nail just to get on the court, so the build-up has been from doing the hard yards.”
Playing in three grand finals at the WNBL level is no small feat and hosting two out of those three finals has been a huge bonus for Bendigo as a regional city.
“I remember our first year we played in the grand final here in Bendigo. It was just so surreal to think that we were getting ready to host the National League Grand Final here, in Bendigo. Extra stands were being trucked into the stadium, and everyone was after tickets. It was just so exciting.” Gabe recalls.
“The great thing is most of the girls who have come to play for Bendigo have stayed because it’s such a cool city and we have so much incredible support.”
Her decision to stay in Bendigo and play Basketball 10 years ago also came with some ground rules from mum, who told Gabe she needed to work on a career as well as play professional basketball. Having studied marketing and communications at university in America, this opened her up opportunities locally and Gabe found herself working as a journalist for Southern Cross Austereo for seven years before taking on her current role as Bendigo Toyota’s Marketing Manager.
“Working and playing basketball is something I have done forever, I don’t know any different as I am a go, go, go type of person,” Gabe shares.
“I also really appreciate being able to switch off from sport. If we lose on the weekend I just switch off and not think about it until I’m back at training. I do think if I wasn’t working and playing basketball as my only career I would stew on stuff like losing and churn it over and over, whereas I’m lucky I can focus on work.”
Equal opportunity for women in sport has been an issue of contention at times, even in basketball at the highest level. The example such as the women traveling in economy class while the men would travel business class, even when the women have been top two in the world and the men have never been in the top five shows the discrepancy.
“Men’s and women’s basketball are two different sports and two completely different styles. Men are naturally athletically talented, their faster, can jump higher and play the game differently,” she said. “Whereas women’s basketball is often played at an intellectual level and at a more team-orientated level, not like men’s basketball where you can pass it off to one player and watch them slam dunk it!”
“Women’s sports are getting amazing new opportunities now with Australian cricketers getting a pay increase. National TV exposure certainly helps…just look at the incredible path Netball Australia is carving for the profile of women in sport.
“I think we are all helping each other out, even now the women’s AFL is taking great leaps and bounds. It has to start at the top of each sport and they really have to push for equal opportunity between their sports. I call on Basketball Australia to do that for us as well,” she said.
Gabe’s advice is honest and valuable for any aspiring athlete to take on board.
“It all starts early and kids these days have so much more opportunity than we did but I think you need to keep things into perspective,” she said. “My mum was always good at that for me and would ask me what happens if you get injured, or sick or simply don’t enjoy basketball anymore?’”
“You need to have a back-up plan, and plan for that with as much enthusiasm and passion as you do for your sport. Once you do that it teaches you all the skills you need to be successful in life. It helps form a better rounded person rather than just focusing on sport; a thing where someone has to win and someone has to lose, can often be cruel at times.”
“The biggest thing I learnt on my journey, and it took me a long time to learn it and get it, is that along the way there are going to be set backs, and there are going to be coaches who don’t pick you, you’re going to sit on the bench and you’re not going to play as much as you want to in someone’s system, but if one coach doesn’t pick you…. that’s their decision…and it certainly doesn’t define you or your abilities as a player and certainly not as a person, its only their opinion.
“I know it’s hard as junior and even as an adult to not be defined by it but that’s all it is, it’s their opinion only. It doesn’t change you, or your abilities, or your worth.”
“I think I am a good role model for that because I didn’t fit into a certain box or category, but I just kept plugging away at it and doing my thing, and it’s still turned out to be a successful journey.”