PATHWAYS are what you make of them.
Some are well worn through tradition while others require new ideas and perspectives to pave the way.
Natalie Porter liked the latter as it let her strive for a big dream – playing for Australia – in her own style.
Her elevation to the Basketball Victoria Wall of Fame showcases her talents, her impact on and off the court and the recognition she justly deserves for going about an exceptional career in a manner of her choosing.
It’s a résumé well worth recognition in such a manner. Reaching the pinnacle of the sport internationally was something Porter was destined to achieve and she ticked a lot of boxes in that regard.
She became one of our WNBA draftees – when she was drafted to the New York Liberty in 2000 – and followed it up as Porter was a perennial presence in the Opals before featuring in the almighty Athens Olympic Games campaign where we won silver. She also turned out year-in, year-out in the WNBL as one of the league’s greatest.
For Porter, her elevation was the continuation of an amazing month of celebrations. Uniting her family for the occasion – including her proud wife Kristen, whom Porter had married only the weekend before – there was plenty to take in as she took the stage to be honoured as our 39th inductee.
“As I said on the night to a lot of people afterwards, it was very emotional,” Porter said. “My retirement was a long time ago, so you park that and life moves on, but sometimes you see a photo or some footage of when you played but it’s never quite there in the forefront of your mind.
“That was a really nice thing on the night to somewhat have that feeling again – of being an athlete again and being at your best.
“Not the attention of it all but the reward of it all as it’s bloody hard work – it looks glamorous to a lot of spectators and think these athletes have such wonderful lives, but they don’t see all the work that goes in to it.
“So it was really nice to relive it for me and also to relive it for my family, my mum lives in Italy and for her to be out at that time and have my brothers there – they really guided me.
“I wouldn’t have had a career if it wasn’t for mum and my brothers – punishing me on the backyard.
“It was especially nice to share it with my wife Kirsten and it was very nice to have the celebration with her.
“One week apart – my wedding on the 24th and the Wall of Fame on the 3rd… it’s been a ripper of a month.
“It was a massive, massive week and the first event when I was filling out the tickets that I sent through with Kirsten Porter on it – so that was pretty special.
“It’s very new and we’re getting used to it, obviously our relationship isn’t new, but it’s been a great year already and I don’t know how I’m going to top it.
“That was beautiful, it was a really beautiful moment and one of the most beautiful moments I’ve had in my life and especially my sporting career.”
A cavalcade of elite Victorians line the Wall of Fame. Michele Timms, Karin Maar, Jan Smithwick, Sam Thornton… the list of Victorian superstars is there for everyone to behold in the entrance to our offices.
There’s no easy ticket in; the only way to earn your spot on the wall is to earn it.
“It’s incredible – it really is very cool,” Porter said. “You hear of Hall of Fames especially when you’ve played, but you never go in search of Hall of Fames and don’t really do Hall of Fame tours of basketball stars as you’ve played against them and they’re just to you – that’s what they are as team mates or competitors.
“So when I found out about the award I did a bit of research and had a lot and saw there weren’t many people on there and such a high regard for who is on there.
“Everyone who is on there, with the exception of a few who are a little bit older than me, I look at them and think of being surrounded by such talent is amazing.
“To think that I’ve been put in that same light as well is amazing.
“The youngest as well – acknowledged while I’m in my 30s – Hall of Fames and those type of things you expect to come down later but it was a beautiful thing to receive so early in my life.”
— Basketball Victoria (@Basketball_Vic) March 3, 2018
Her journey started, as many of us do, in the backyard squaring off against siblings. There was plenty of blood and tear on that old brick-paved court but it ignited the passion for the game throughout the Porter kids.
From there it was off to Wattle Park Saints as Porter navigated through the domestic ranks – picking up memories as she went.
“My first club was the Wattle Park Saints – which is in the MEBA – and I played with the Saints throughout all of my junior career in domestic before I went to the AIS,” Porter said. “Best domestic memory – I scored 54 points, and the reason I know is because dad made a bet with me that if I scored 50 I got 50 bucks and every goal after that I’d get 20 so I made 90 bucks – I was in under-12s or under-14s which was really cool.
“The other one was under-14s on court four in Nunawading Stadium, few seconds left and I caught the ball on the foul line at the opposite end, turfed it and it went in… those are my fondest memories in domestic.”
Fiery, even then in her younger years, Porter featured prominently in a future Olympic champions article which didn’t win her any mates, but cemented her dreams and what she’d do to get there.
“In Year 7/Year 8 there was an article in The Age and it was about future Olympic stars and people they predicted that would go on,” Porter said. “I did this interview and said some things that came out and they quoted me saying something along the lines of ‘I don’t like the girls at school – they’re not tough enough’ and I think it was Year 7 and went to school the next Monday morning and no girls talked to me.”
From there the natural pathways were her’s for the taking as she rose through the ranks at Nunawading Spectres en route to the Australian Institute of Sport as a 15-year-old.
But it wasn’t a natural fit. While she believes it cost her some opportunities in the short term with the national team, in the long term Porter found herself better off exiting when she did as WNBL opened up the world of senior basketball.
“I always really loved my mum and didn’t like spending time away from mum…. I was really homesick,” Porter said. “At the All Australian Camp I hurt my knee and I wasn’t really sure what was wrong with it and was homesick and ended up coming home and having surgery.
“They wanted me to go up and I said no – which was controversial in of itself as nobody said no to the AIS and if you don’t go to the AIS you don’t get picked – but I went from attending Wesley College to Canberra High School.
“Even though I was never a super academic nerd… I still had some inclination towards education and bettering myself so there was something within me that the AIS didn’t tick.
“So I guess I took the risk being a mighty old 15-year-old and seeing the world say if they weren’t going to pick me I would have to show them that they had to pick me and it worked out fantastically.
“I got picked up away from Dandenong and started my WNBL career as a 16-year-old and got to play with Lucille Hamilton, Baillie as she was then, Sally Phillips and obviously going on to Bulleen with Timmsy (Michele Timms) and Debbie Slimmon and had I stayed at the AIS for three-to-four years as they did in the 90s, although I may have won a championship with LJ and the like which would have been pretty memorable for them, I had my own path and it certainly matured me.
“Upon reflection, it really set me up for life and set me up to deal with different personalities and not just kept in a bubble of a little 15-year-old who had some talent.
“I was being pushed and challenged by a lot of people and they had a different way of the world and I was lucky enough to be pulled along by them and I was able to show my mental capacity and capabilities much earlier than I would have at the AIS.
“No regrets about not going back – I didn’t make the junior Australian team, probably political decision but that happens.”
Looking back there’s only one thing that grates on her storied career… Beijing.
“The thing that pisses me off is that I’m not a two-time Olympian,” Porter said. “That’s the biggest stickler of my career when I didn’t make Beijing and I should’ve made Beijing.
“It’s not a bitter thing it’s just that the world works in different ways and some people miss out.
“I got to captain the Opals in the lead-up to Beijing – which is why the decision was probably even harder – but the year before, 2007, I came off the best season I ever had and I got to captain the pre-Olympic tournament in Beijing, so that to me was really, really cool.
“I’ve always liked to lead and be the captain, get to pull the little balls out for the roundings.”
Where to from here for Porter? It’s always an interesting question to asked a retired athlete. She runs a successful travel company NPIRE and keeps in contact with the sport through her work at Wesley College, Toorak College and down with Frankston’s under-12s.
Higher ambitions and bigger aspirations never quite leave the driven and talented amongst us but for Porter, at least at this stage of her life, the development of fantastic young people through basketball inspires her.
“I’ve coached pretty much throughout my whole life anyway – I’ve thought about coaching senior women but I don’t know,” Porter said. “I guess where I get most of my sense of satisfaction is through working with younger kids as you see the greatest levels of growth, but not only in their basketball skillset but also within their everyday lives as well.
“That’s why I love what I do with NPIRE, it’s about seeing the kids and the experiences I get to have on the tour.
“I remember that as a kid and I want to give that to other kids, so coaching for me, if I was coaching a team just for wins I don’t know if I’m motivated enough to do that.
“I love coaching – I coach under-12 girls and I love that I can have an influence over their minds.
“In this phase of my life absolutely – I coach the Wesley first girls, year 10, 11, 12 – it’s still an influencing phase for them.
“They’re at a different point of their lives than my nine and 10-year-old girls, but they’re still sponges and still need good role models. I love participating in individuals – I’ve got a few kids I work with individually – but I just love working with people.”
She hopes that coaching will always be for the next generation and to have those elite mentors and role models
“I think about some of the coaches I’ve had – I was lucky enough to be born in Melbourne and put through the BV program,” Porter said. “I was watching an Ian Stacker video last night – and I think back to when I went to the camps in Albert Park and Stacks ran them and then Timmsy coming for a visit or Shelley Gorman.
“For the elite kids I think they’re still getting access to great coaching in this state, the exposure I had with great coaches is still what the elite kids are getting in Victoria.
“I owe a lot to being born in Victoria as I got to have that upper class coach – I just hope there’s enough education and good coaching for the kids who are sitting in the middle. “They may not have found their groove yet but I hope that they are not lost to the system and are recognised by one of the many established pathways.
“It will be interesting to see when the Stackers, Mike Bainbridge – who was one of my favourite coaches – when they grow out and get their 50 years of service and it will be interesting to see what the next wave and how basketball changes in Australia.
“With Ben Simmons and the style of play, Alanna Smith – the style is different but they’ve still got old school coaches. Brett Brown – he’s another guy I used to train with in St Leo’s – and he’s coaching the NBA now and it will be interesting when that generation of coaches moves on and we have the next wave.
“How is basketball going to change in the country? Having lived in three states – Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria – I feel Victoria is never going to fade in terms of basketball. It’s strong, it’s super, the competitions are great through domestic and VJBL Friday night comps and I think that’s the key to success.”
From someone who has ticked off so many elite achievements and carved out a career path of her choosing, Porter said it was important for the next generation to commit to themselves first and figure out which opportunities to pursue from that point on.
“I guess my biggest piece of advice is to stay true to yourself – don’t think that you need to conform to the ways that have come before you or what’s expected of you.
“Dealing with parents as a coach, they try to have such influence over what their kids do as there are so many different opportunities that we don’t want our kids to miss out on any of them, but not everybody wants to go to college, not everybody wants to play WNBL and some might want to play SEABL, so I think it’s important to make a commitment and work out what that commitment is and stick to the cause.
Be the best you can and naturally other opportunities will arise you might go tick, tack, toe all the way up.
“I didn’t really goal set as much; my one big dream was to play for Australia and it didn’t really matter how I got there, just that I knew that was what I wanted to do. I think it’s important to have an end goal or some sort of vision, particularly for young people with the different things available in life, whilst also having something to fall back on.
“I think it’s good to be fluid; try something and if it isn’t for you then re-evaluate – not at the cost or deficit of someone else financially or emotionally – but I think it’s ok to say that’s not what you want to do. A lot of kids go to college and people talk to me about college and there’s not one right fit for every person.
“You have to consider everything.”