Sport

Seymour’s Gabe Richards ends WNBL career on a high

By Meg Saultry

Seventeen seasons in the Women’s National Basketball League?

Nailed it.

Winning the last game of your career?

Nailed it.

Landing a three-pointer as the game’s last shot in the last game of your career?

Absolutely hammered it home.

It was the fairy tale end to the truly glittering career of Gabe Richards.

Basketball has taken Richards from her hometown of Seymour to a podium finish at the world championships in Turkey and the only opponent to prove immovable was the clock.

Not the shot clock; this is the one run by Father Time – and he always wins.

Richards started in the WNBL 18 years ago as a teen too young to drive.

So when she watched two of her 2019-20 Bendigo Spirit teammates celebrate their 18th birthdays this year, she knew her time had all but run out.

But in a game where statistics rule, the 188 cm forward has finished a two-time WNBL champion, been named in the All Star Five twice and finished her career in the game’s top 10 rebounders.

As Seymour’s most successful basketball export, Richards announced earlier this year she would call time on a career spanning 17 years.

With a post-season already beyond Bendigo’s reach before the team boarded their plane for the long haul north to Townsville there was only one thing left to do.

Win.

Every one of the girls played hard; and played for Richards with the victory in the bag as the game clock ran down.

And that’s when Richards stared down the clock and her time in the game one more time as she swished the last shot of the game, Bendigo’s season and her career for three.

Not much was missing from her last season – a third championship obviously; probably a win in her last game on the Spirit’s home court – and Richards stepped from the pine with her head held high.

“I started in the WNBL as a 17-year-old and I’m 35 now. It was a long commitment to playing basketball year-round,” she said.

“I’ve played a lot of games and had plenty of surgeries along the way. My body certainly knew it was time.

“I’m just so thrilled I was able to share it with a lot of people who were part of the journey.”

Richards’ professional career began with the now-defunct Australian Institute of Sport WNBL team out of Canberra, where she played 42 games before making the switch to Bendigo, playing another 252 games – 294 in all.

“There had been heaps of build-up to that last home game, it was my last game (at Bendigo Stadium) and also my 250th WNBL game,” she said.

“And (teammate) Kelly Wilson, who I played with in juniors as well, was breaking the record for most WNBL games played (395). Everything aligned and we were able to celebrate together.

“It wasn’t the result we wanted (a 23-point loss to Perth Lynx), but it didn’t really matter.

“I had heaps of family and friends come and watch, people I hadn’t seen for a while – former coaches and the boys from Seymour. The number of people there was lovely.”

In the week before that game, Richards said she had plenty of opportunity to reflect on her time in the sport.

While playing basketball all over the world had been a blessing, she said, it was actually the friendships made throughout her career that meant the most.

“Sport is fickle, you can win one week and not the next,” she said.

“You can win championships – and I’ve been fortunate to do that - but it doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to rock up and do it all again the next year.

“It really is the lifelong friendships and mates you make and play with that is the most special.”

The fallout from Richards’ retirement impacted much closer to home. It was also the last game for her parents, Karen and Barry, who had been beside their daughter every step of the way.

“It was pretty emotional for them,” Richards said.

“Dad’s been coming to my games pretty much every week he can for the most part. Mum doesn’t come as much anymore, but she’s been so supportive.

“It was an end of an era for them after investing so much into this with me. I’m forever grateful to them.”

Starting her playing days out of Seymour as a junior – where she was coached by Seymour Blasters’ Craig Hockley – Richards said her time there gave her the start on the road to success.

“When I first played I was pretty terrible, Craig would be the first to say that,” Richards said with a laugh.

“But I was very coachable. Being able to learn and learn the right way from someone like Craig, I was able to develop my skillset.

“There weren’t enough girls playing then, so my best friend Tess and I were training with the boys.

“They were faster and more skilled, so it was a challenge to compete and be part of it. But it was also the challenge needed to get better.

“Certainly, growing up though I knew I belonged there – they were all so incredibly welcoming and didn’t bat an eyelid.

“It was a brilliant environment in which to learn and grow, and it set me on this path.”

Richards said she would now look to take time away from the game, though an active involvement in the sport would be a priority going forward.

“I imagine I will stay involved, but I’ll be taking a gap year,” she said.

“This will be my first year of not playing some form of organised sport. It will be nice not to be committed for a while.

“I can go away on holiday, go to family events, things I couldn’t do for so long because I had basketball.

“But I’ve certainly learnt far too much, been given too much, to not give back. This was a 17-year apprenticeship you could say.”

And it’s the future of basketball, both in Seymour and across the country, that has Richards excited for the future.

“I haven’t been involved with Seymour for a while, but certainly you can see the level of talent in the country program,” she said.

“We had the Bendigo tournament here recently, and you could see the sheer number of kids playing and enjoying the game. The opportunities now are endless.

“It’s pleasing to know girls in Seymour are playing the game, and if they are able to look at my career, they should know they are able to do it too.”

Whatever role Richards does decide to take after her well-earned year off, it may be her ‘been there, done that’ reputation which inspires the next Gabriel Richards to take on the world.

And win.