By Jeff Griesch
Kelsey Griffin likes to set big goals and accomplish big things, and she isn't afraid to take a risk. But when the Nebraska legend from Alaska became an Australian citizen in 2015, making a national team wasn't on her to-do list.
The 6-foot-2 forward out of Chugiak High School in Eagle River, Alaska, who put Nebraska women's basketball on the national map with the greatest season in school history in 2010, was a first-team All-American, Nebraska's first Senior CLASS Award winner across all sports, a National Player-of-the-Year finalist and the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 WNBA Draft.
Although she earned a spot on the WNBA All-Rookie Team with the Connecticut Sun in 2010, Griffin found it hard to gain traction in the loaded USA Basketball program. She did serve a brief stint as a U.S. National Select Team member in 2010, before spending five seasons in the WNBA with the Sun. She also played professionally overseas in Hungary (2010-11) and Israel (2011-12) before finding a home in Australia's WNBL with the Bendigo Spirit (2012-present).
After being named the WNBL Championship Series MVP in both 2013 and 2014, Griffin decided to end her WNBA career and stay in Australia on a full-time basis. She earned permanent citizenship in Australia in 2015 and recently completed her fifth season with the Spirit in 2016-17.
While her college and professional careers have been loaded with individual and team success, Griffin recently realized she has one dream on the basketball court that she could work to fulfill - competing in the Olympics.
While the 2020 Olympics still seem a lifetime away, Griffin is making strides toward realizing that dream as an Australian. Griffin celebrated America's birthday by spending the Fourth of July in Phoenix at the Australian National Team's Training Camp for the upcoming 2017 Asia Cup.
Wait - I know what you are asking yourself - why was the Australian National Team Training Camp for the Asia Cup held in Arizona, USA, from June 24 through July 5?
Funny you should ask. Australian National Team Coach Sandy Brondello happens to be the head coach of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. Brondello was also a four-time Olympian for Australia as a player, capturing a pair of silver medals and a bronze.
Brondello made her WNBA head coaching debut with San Antonio in 2010, before being named the WNBA Coach of the Year after leading Phoenix to the 2014 WNBA title. In April, Brondello was named the head coach of the Australian National Team. Another Australian basketball legend, Penny Taylor, was a leader on the court for that Mercury team, and is now helping the Opals as an assistant. Taylor is also on Brondello's Mercury staff.
OK, now that we're all on the same page, back to Kelsey Griffin. At the end of training camp in Phoenix, Griffin was invited by Brondello to become an Opal, earning a spot on the Australian National Team for the first time.
“Kelsey is a very versatile player and has a high basketball IQ," Brondello said in the official release from the Australian National Team upon adding Griffin to the squad.
Griffin will make her National Team debut in Bangalore, India, joining the Opals for games July 23-29. The tournament serves as a qualifying tournament for the 2018 FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup in Spain.
"I feel incredibly honored and humbled to make the National Team," Griffin said. "It was never one of my goals when I became an Australian citizen, but upon being given the opportunity I am taking it with both hands. I am very excited for the upcoming Asia Cup in India and the team that has been put together. It reminds me a lot of the team my senior year (at Nebraska) where the chemistry was fantastic, which made for fun and exciting basketball."
While many of the Australians in training camp traveled roughly 8,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean to compete for a spot, Griffin's journey to Phoenix was more like a homecoming.
"The whole gang was reunited when I got to Phoenix," Griffin said. "My mom, dad and Megan (Volk) (life-long friend) all made the trip down to see me, which was so great. They even mentioned how it was reminiscent of road trips at Nebraska watching practice or waiting for me to be the last out of the locker room. Some things never change. It was a great experience."
Family and friends from Alaska weren't the only ones involved in reunions. Griffin's fellow 2010 Husker senior Yvonne Turner is currently the WNBA's oldest rookie and contributing big minutes for the Phoenix Mercury.
"I did get a chance to catch up with VT after practice a couple times, which was great," Griffin said. "I am so excited for her and getting to watch her play against Minnesota was great. She was a difference-maker defensively and aggressive offensively and just looked in her element. I am so happy for her."
The lasting connection that Griffin has with Turner, now a seven-year international pro who started her professional career in Australia with Bundaburg, and other members of the 2010 Husker team continues to fuel her fire to play professionally and with the Opals.
"The team culture in the Opals is amazing," Griffin said. "For a highly competitive environment it amazes me how supportive and encouraging everyone is. I give a lot of credit to the coaching staff and the previous Opals who have created such a great culture. I didn't know that was possible at the highest level of play in the country. It makes me very excited to be a part of this campaign and even more humbled to put on the Green and Gold."
Griffin remembers well the family atmosphere she felt throughout her Husker career. After four seasons of helping to build the Husker program from the ground up, Griffin (Big 12 Player of the Year) and five other 2010 seniors, including Turner (2010 first-team All-Big 12), Cory Montgomery (2010 first-team All-Big 12), Nikki Bober, Kala Kuhlmann and Nicole Neals formed an inseparable nucleus that was strengthened by juniors Dominique Kelley, Catheryn Redmon and Kaitlyn Burke and freshman point guard Lindsey Moore.
Nebraska's magical 2009-10 campaign followed a grueling 2008-09 season when Griffin sat out the entire year with an injury. Griffin came back with an unrelenting determination coupled with her legendary work ethic and the mental toughness to allow her talent to rise to the top. She averaged 20.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game as a senior, while leading the Huskers to the Big 12 regular-season title with a perfect 16-0 record. Nebraska went 29-0 during the regular season and finished the year with a 32-2 mark after making the school's first-ever NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance. The Big Red climbed as high as No. 3 in the national rankings and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Individually, Griffin was a finalist for the Wade, Naismith, Wooden and Honda National Player-of-the-Year awards after being named a first-team All-American by the Associated Press, the WBCA, the USBWA and the Wooden Award. She also became Nebraska's first Senior CLASS Award winner and was named Nebraska's Female Student-Athlete of the Year across all sports.
All of the lessons learned from her five years in Nebraska continue to benefit Griffin as a professional. The 3,382 miles she traveled from her home in Alaska to Nebraska pales in comparison to the 7,712 miles away from Alaska she now lives in Bendigo, Australia. In case you were wondering, Bangalore, India is 6,694 miles from Eagle River.
Home is truly where the heart is, and for Griffin, she has a heart big enough to be in several places at the same time. She loves Alaska. She loves Nebraska, and now she loves Australia.
"I think staying true to what has gotten me this far will be key, while continuing to improve my versatility," Griffin said of her future with the Australian National Team. "I think my work ethic and how hard I play along with valuing being a great teammate fits in well with the identity of what it means to be an Opal."
Those same values echo what it means to be a Husker.
Australian National Team
2017 Asia Cup
Bangalore, India, July 23-29
July 23: Australia vs. Korea - 12:30 a.m. (CST)
July 24: Australia vs. Philippines - 2:45 a.m. (CST)
July 25: Australia vs. Japan - 2:45 a.m. (CST)
July 27: Quarterfinals
July 28: Semifinals
July 29: Bronze and Gold medal games