We moved to Darwin when I started high school. My parents had separated and while I didn’t completely understand what was going on, I knew it was better that way. No longer would there be confrontations that required me to remove my younger siblings. I found the move to Darwin a dramatic change. I wasn’t related to any of my classmates, there were no more bush trips, no Gija lessons, no Ngarranggarni stories and, in my mind, no freedom. I was a very shy child and I tried so hard not to stand out from the crowd. Like many Indigenous children from the Kimberley, I had a major ‘shame’ issue. I was ‘too shame’ to speak English because I had a Gija accent, I was ‘shame’ because I wasn’t very good at maths. I was ‘shame’ because I knew I didn’t fit in.
My siblings and I have always been close to each other. On returning to Darwin, I quickly realised that I had to step up and be more responsible and to show my younger siblings that we were going to be okay. I’ll always remember the day my baby brother called me ‘Mum’ because I looked after him so much, while our parents worked long hours. At smoko and lunch at school, I always made a point of checking on my younger siblings to ensure they weren’t being teased the way I was. Although I had dark features, they had light skin and hair and blue eyes, which made them look different from other Aboriginal children. It wasn’t until they spoke with their Gija accents that everyone wanted to look and ask questions.
Sports became my escape and I soon found that I was naturally talented at it. The more I played, the more I found that I fitted in. I was twelve years old when I tried out for my local state basketball team. I didn’t get into the team that time but I knew that basketball was for me and that I wanted to give it my all. I made a decision to commit my life to school and basketball. I was so bad at dribbling with my left hand that I asked my coach at the time how to improve and he jokingly told me to sleep with my basketball. So I did. The following year when tryouts came around, not only did I make the team but I was made co-captain.
Basketball became a major part of my life. I soon joined the National Intensive Training Centre Scholarship Program and either trained or played every day at the Northern Territory Institute of Sport for six years. Before long, I was selected to play for Australia.
What happened next really blew me away. When I was seventeen, I received a call at 2 a.m. from a man with a strange accent. Apparently, while I was playing for Australia in a recent tournament, an American scout had noticed me and sent my details to a number of colleges. I knew very little about America, and even less about American college basketball. But the thing I really couldn’t figure out was how he had managed to get hold of my home phone number. Over the next few weeks, I started receiving calls from a few more colleges. But in the end, I decided to turn down all of the offers so I could focus on graduating from high school. I knew the importance of school and I didn’t want to give it up.
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The challenges of balancing my schedule went on for another year. I would wake up early for a workout at the gym and then go home to help my younger brothers and sisters get ready for school: iron their uniforms, dress them, make their lunches (cream cheese and bean-sprout sandwiches) and then walk them into school. But because I was training so hard and studying even harder, it became too much for me, and I ended up telling my basketball coach that I needed a break for twelve months. I took up a job working as a meat packer at Woolworths. It helped bring in money and was a welcome distraction from all of the study I was doing. I decided to turn down all of the offers so I could concentrate on graduating from high school.
Twelve months later, I returned to basketball with renewed energy. Luckily, I began receiving offers from colleges again. I couldn’t afford to go to the USA to visit each campus that was offering me a scholarship so I decided to just make a decision and take up an offer in Kansas. I really liked the way the coach sounded on the phone and he seemed very genuine and honest. He mentioned that a girl from New Zealand had also signed, which made me feel a little more at ease. I don’t think I even gave my parents an option to stop me leaving. The Northern Territory News ran a story about me going to Kansas. It called me the ‘Wizard of Oz’ and, for some time, my cheeky friends called me Dorothy.
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Everything seemed to happen so quickly. I remember the day I left Australia; it was around 1 a.m. and my closest friends had gathered at the airport to see me off. As the plane took off, I cried incessantly and couldn’t take my eyes off the fading lights of Darwin. It felt so unnatural to leave home. I was eighteen years old and leaving for a country that I knew absolutely nothing about. When I arrived in America, I freaked out. The Customs officer asked me the address where I would be staying. I answered honestly, saying that I didn’t know the exact address. I ended up being interviewed and held in Customs for three hours, in turn missing my connecting flights. When I finally landed in Kansas City eighteen hours later, I walked into the airport toilets and just sat there, tears welling up, wondering whether I had made the biggest mistake of my life.
I eventually left the toilets and was greeted by my coach. He was really nice and helped me to feel more at ease in this strange environment (although I couldn’t stop marvelling at his accent).
The first six months passed so quickly. I was in mid-America, which is about as non-Hollywood-movie – my only reference point – as I could get. I stayed in contact with my family regularly, mostly my dad. He would call at least once every two weeks to let me know about what was going on at home: who was doing what, who hated who, who had children and everything in between. The worst times were when family members died and I couldn’t make the trip home. I would think of my family who had supported me and the friends who loved me enough to see me off at the airport and all those who dreamt of doing what I was given the chance to do. My gungai told me before I left that, if I saw two crows together, I shouldn’t be worried or scared because these are the old people checking on me, making sure I’m safe. The crow is also my mother’s dreaming; she is constantly watching over me, even when I’m too busy to notice.
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