Rangers recruit Leilani Mitchell is embracing her Australian roots
Paulo Kennedy, Pagemasters
For a long time it didn’t seem like Leilani Mitchell would ever ply her exceptional trade on Australian shores.
“My mum always wanted me too, but I didn’t really have a desire at that point in time,” she said.
It wasn’t like the WNBA star wasn’t aware of her Aussie routes. Quite the opposite, in fact, thanks to the family home decorated by her Thursday Island-born mother Ellie.
“We had boomerangs and kangaroo skins and aboriginal paintings in my house,” Mitchell said, adding she also developed Australian taste buds.
“She would always make lamingtons and pavlova and those types of things you can’t get in the States.”
Growing up, family was a constant for Leilani, who spent her time doing whatever her five brothers did.
“They definitely didn’t take it easy on me, I got shoved around and beat up a lot,” she laughed.
Mitchell said her siblings treated her “just like one of them”, to the point where they “shoved boxing gloves” on her and a local boy of the same age and insisted on a boxing match.
“It was a good thing I won. They are still proud of me for that,” she said.
But where her brothers were really valuable was in the three-on-three games in the driveway, instilling the competitive nature and razor-sharp nose for the ball that are trademarks of her game.
Mitchell said she had been “very serious about basketball for a long time” and the results have clearly followed.
The pint-sized guard was a finalist in the Nancy Lieberman Award for college basketball’s best point guard, drafted by the Phoenix Mercury and took out the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award playing for the New York Liberty.
She experienced success overseas too, claiming Import Player of the Year award while suiting up for ASPTT Arras in the north of France, a location where she admitted she “started liking wine”.
“I drank a lot of wine. And then I really got into the boulangerie and patisseries as well,” she said.
Mitchell fell in love with the town, the lifestyle and the “great fans”, ruining the best-laid plans for her overseas career.
“Before I turned professional I heard stories of people going to different countries and I told myself I would never play at the same place two years in a row, because it’s a good opportunity to get around and see places,” she laughed.
“And then I wound up staying there for four years.”
Leilani must be the soft-hearted kind, because she said she had fallen in love with Melbourne too, even though just months ago she had no intention of playing Down Under.
“I wanted to take a break,” she said after constant back-to-back seasons in the WNBA and France.
“I told my agent at the start of summer I wasn’t really looking for a team. If there was something great let me know, but otherwise I just want to take a break.”
Now she is here though, Mitchell said the chance to play in her mother’s home country was something special.
In 2009, Ellie passed away after a battle with breast cancer. Leilani cried every day for “six to eight months” after losing her closest friend, but now has the chance to fulfil one of her mother’s longest-held wishes.
“I kind of told myself that I was coming here to play for her,” she said with an obvious tinge of sadness.
“I know she’d be happy and she’d be proud, but at the same time it would be that much better if she was here to enjoy it.”
And what about the prospect of wearing her mother’s green and gold and representing Australia at an Olympics or FIBA World Championship?
“I've thought about it, definitely,” she said.
But despite her glittering resume, the 28-year-old has no sense of entitlement to a spot in the Opals team, instead hopeful she can earn the opportunity.
“I’ll just play my game and if they want me to then of course I’ll be willing to give it a shot,” she said.
“I've always been proud of my Australian background. I think it would be a great honour to represent either country because I am both Australian and American.”