Thank you, Lauren Jackson

Lauren Jackson ended speculation today by announcing her retirement.

She played for 12 years with the Seattle Storm.

Career photo gallery.

The baby face pictures really get to me, because that’s how I remember Lauren most fondly, even though she’s had a grownup face for many years now.

I was living in Seattle when the Storm first came to town. Their first season in 2000 saw more losses than wins, and they won the draft lottery because of it. There was a lot of talk about this young Australian sensation named Lauren Jackson. She was the player of the future, and the Storm wasted no time in selecting her with their first pick in 2001.

When she arrived, fans were a bit surprised. This skinny, awkward youngster is going to take this team to new heights?

But she did, slowly but surely.

Jackson wasn’t bad at all that first season. She’d sail up to the basket, scoring easily. She wasn’t fully developed as a player yet, but her explosive potential was evident. She hadn’t dyed her hair at that point; her short brownish strands would just be stuck to her head with sweat by the end of every game.

The next year, 2002, the Storm again had the first pick, and they drafted the player who would become Jackson’s running mate: Sue Bird. They both seemed to make each other better. Jackson started blossoming into a world class athlete. The Storm made the playoffs. Australians would make the trip every summer to cheer on one of the nation’s biggest sports heroes, and entertained Storm fans a lot in the process with their antics and accents. WNBA basketball life in Seattle was good.

Fast forward to great: Oct. 12, 2004. I don’t have to look up the date, as it’s in my heart. After getting to the final playoff round, and after a crazy finals series, the Storm beat the Sun for the title, at Key Arena. Jackson had a grownup face now, and a head full of bleach blonde hair. As the marquee kept flashing “WNBA CHAMPIONS”, confetti rained down and Jackson ran around the court, shoes off, sipping champagne from the bottle.

Jackson was the kind of player whom fans would be too busy watching and enjoying to notice that she’d already put up 22 points. She’d sneak up on you like that; she made it look easy. A true natural.

Her rivalry with Sparks center Lisa Leslie was legendary. It began at the Sydney Olympics when Jackson caught a piece of Leslie’s hair by accident during play; Leslie claimed it was intentional. Fans at Staples Center would boo Jackson when the Storm came to town, and Key Arena fans had a special vitriolic hatred for Leslie when she and her team showed up there. It was so much fun.

Jackson is still sixth all-time in career points, despite playing in only 317 games. Can you imagine if she’d been able to have a full career? It’s a staggering thought.

She had always played with some pain, as she seemed prone to injury. Over the years, it kept getting worse and worse. The Storm won another chip in 2010, and Jackson played her last full season the following year. She had sat out the last several with injuries or impending surgeries.

Jackson’s retirement announcement today was something we all knew was coming, but it’s no less sad. We never got to have a “goodbye” game, a farewell send off, or give her the tribute she so deserves.

Thank you, Lauren Jackson, for all you did for the sport. We love you, will never forget you, and you will be missed.