She lost a brother to suicide, and a dad to cancer. Tragedy almost knocked her off her game, writes DAN DONAHOO, but for Australian female basketballer Katrina Hibbert, nothing will stand in the way of her
Diamond Creek is the outer northern suburb of Melbourne where Katrina Hibbert grew up. Back then it was still considered ‘the bush’; there wasn’t a McDonald’s for miles and everyone had a paddock to play in. Life in Diamond Creek was about primary school, sport and the annual town fair – full of first kisses and fairy floss. Katrina’s folks owned the local milk bar and she remembers walking the streets with all her friends when parents worried less about things like that.
It was an idyllic childhood, but everyone grows up and things change. Diamond Creek isn’t a semi-rural backwater anymore. Now, Katrina Hibbert is probably the best Australian female basketballer never to play for her country.
Katrina loves sport. As a kid she didn’t care who was playing or what game it was. She was there – centre court. She still is.
I remember her in the long red sleeves of our footy jumpers. She’d play full forward or forward pocket changing first ruck. She was our secret weapon. The other teams never saw her coming; she was the best player on our primary school team.
All of Katrina’s sporting life she has been under-estimated. But not for much longer.
This year, Katrina was named the Australian Women’s National Basketball League Most Valuable Player.
‘Maybe nobody looked outside the borders’, she says in reference to being completely ignored by national selectors until a couple of months ago.
There was no invitation to the Australian Institute of Sport. So, Katrina went abroad and had a great American College basketball career at Louisiana State. She scored the first two points for American WNBA team Seattle Storm where she was in the starting five.
After one season in the US, life called a few fouls and Katrina didn’t go back to the US.
Small town gossip travels long distances, and even though we’ve both moved far from home, she knows I know about the tragedy in her life. But I don’t ask straight away. Instead we talk about who is married and how the February rain in Melbourne flooded the Diamond Creek. Katrina informs me that ‘the footy ground became
We are in a café near the townhouse that Katrina shares with a team-mate. It is modest and daggy. Katrina digs into a high protein breakfast. I order a coffee.
She is tanned, fit and beautiful, no longer the tomboy who was always picked first for sports teams.
‘Yeah tomboy, I guess so because I love sport.’ She agrees. ‘But I kicked all you guys in the butt at football.’
She is right. She could command the forward line like Wayne Carey or James Hird.
‘My biggest concern was that I didn’t have earrings and I had short hair in a bowl cut. I always feared being mistaken for a boy and that has probably traumatised me my whole life – hence the long hair.’ She wraps her hands around her ponytail.
Katrina recalls the transition from primary school to high school was hard.
She was so good at sport suddenly a lot of boys felt threatened.
‘I got hassled a lot. There was one guy who called me “Balls” because I beat him all the time. And because you are young it is quite hurtful.’
She looks up to the roof and recalls that her brother Adam ‘took care of him’.
I confess that I don’t know that much about Australian women’s basketball. Katrina laughs and says that I’m not alone. She is acutely aware of the lack of attention women’s basketball receives compared to the men’s.
I did watch a game once, on the ABC; I’d heard her name mentioned and wanted to see her play. Familiarity usually draws out the Australian predisposition to sport. It is like the way country towns with a population of less than one hundred claim gold medallists. They put up signs at the town entrance: ‘The birth place of Jo Bloggs – 1972 gold medallist in the Men’s Freestyle Relay’.
Diamond Creek could put up a sign for Katrina. ‘The birthplace of Katrina Hibbert. Scored the first two points for the Seattle Storm.’
Diamond Creek adores its sporting heroes, Katrina included: ‘Everyone comes to the game every now and again’. Katrina says. ‘People who you wouldn’t think to see at one of your basketball games come to support.’
Support is something Katrina and her family are familiar with. It is something they’ve needed a lot of.
I grit my teeth and ask about how it felt when her brother Adam committed suicide.
Katrina’s eyes water, but she insists it is OK. She says she can talk about it now without falling apart. I feel like I should reach out and offer my hand – just to make sure.
‘A complete shock. And because it is suicide you don’t stop thinking. You think back to his behaviour and what you’ve done and what you have said. I don’t remember much of that period of my life. Not long after that dad went into hospital – he was in and out of hospital.’
In the space of a few years Katrina lost her brother, and then her father, to cancer. Events that would cause many to throw their basketball career.
Female basketballers barely get paid in Australia and the struggle of coping emotionally while playing overseas would test anyone. Katrina actually lives off what she earns in the US and Eurpoe.
Despite the aching, the hours visiting her dad in hospital and allowing the grief to flow through her and the family, basketball was her lifeline.
‘It took my mind off it’, she says.
As the conversation shifts slightly away from the topic, the room loses some of its tension.
‘My best friend asked me this, and I don‘t know if you should write it, but I told her that when I was drunk or when I was exercising was the only time I wasn’t thinking about it. So basically she’d be taking me to the court or the pub a lot during that time.’
Amid it all Katrina says she has learnt great things from her mother, who she respects and adores. ‘My mum is a damn strong women. There were no excuses or feeling sorry. It was like life goes on. Somehow you have to keep going.’
Katrina has grown in strength during those years when just surviving was the ultimate priority.
‘You learn a lot about yourself during that time of your life and I was a bit insecure about myself and I learnt to not give a shit about what people thought.’
Since she has stopped caring about other peoples’ opinions, people have started to sit up and take notice, but it isn’t like Katrina isn’t part of the basketball pack.
‘You all grow up playing against or with each other so you are all good friends. Then, when you play overseas and there are only a couple of Australians.’
Stuck for company in foreign countries helps bind many of our international sports stars. Katrina is especially close to on-court rival and Australian women’s basketball superstar Lauren Jackson.
‘It is a weird connection. Her mum played at Louisiana State 20 years before I got there. She was like the first Australian to go over and play college and do all that.
Lauren ended up playing at Seattle and we hung out together. When Adam died, she came back to Australia and really helped me through that time. It is hard to maintain relationships, but when we are in the same country we catch up and hang out.’
The season just gone would have to be Katrina’s best. The Most Valuable Player Award, a call up to the Australia squad and an offer to go and play in the US again – where a female basketballer can make some money. Still, Katrina isn’t completely satisfied. She was gutted when her team, the Bulleen Boomers, missed out on playing in the grand final.
‘We had a wake at Cheryl’s (Bulleen’s coach) on the Sunday after our semi-final. Everyone was just sitting there in disbelief. I went blonde on Monday.’
Some women get dumped by their boyfriends and change their hair colour. Katrina misses the grand final and changed hers, ‘so I couldn’t be recognised.’
Katrina reflects that you are never far from criticism. ‘Everyone keeps saying, “Congratulations on your MVP, but what happened in the second half of the semi?”’
It is obvious, by the way she laughs about it, that it doesn’t really matter what happened in the second half. What matters is what happens outside basketball and how you deal with it.
She is a strong and confident sportswoman. One Australians should keep on eye on when the next Olympics roll around.