30 September 2023

Canberra’s Zara Russell is living the dream at Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence

| Tim Gavel
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woman in Australian uniform holding a basketball

Canberra’s own Zara Russell has a bright future on the court. Photo: Basketball Australia.

As she heads off to practice six days a week, 16-year-old Canberra basketballer Zara Russell doesn’t need to look beyond the Centre of Excellence training hall for inspiration.

The tunnel leading onto the courts at the AIS displays photos of alums. They represent some of the biggest names in the sport in this country.

All those represented in those photos started their careers on these courts as scholarship holders at a similar age to Zara.

There’s Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor, Patty Mills and Andrew Bogut, to name but a few.

“There’s a constant reminder with so many photos and information about them,” says Zara. “It’s so motivating to see them on the wall.”

Zara could be understandably daunted moving into such an intensive training environment at such a young age.

“At first, I was worried about how it might turn out, but once I met the other girls, it is a great place to be,” says Zara.

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She is one of 12 players from across Australia on a scholarship at the Centre of Excellence. She is also the first Canberra player since Ashlee Hannan and Isabelle Bourne in 2019 to be selected for the program.

But there have been sacrifices.

Zara has moved out of home and into the AIS and has changed schools from Stromlo High to Lake Ginninderra College.

“It’s definitely surreal. It’s a big change to go from home, to move schools into a high-intensity training environment.”

Not that she would change a single thing.

“I’ve had a dream since I was nine years old. I knew this was the place I wanted to be, and if I got the opportunity, I was going to take it with both hands. I’m very motivated to learn and develop as a player.”

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In terms of developing as a player, Zara has modelled her game on one player in particular.

“When I was growing up, my favourite player was Opals guard Bec Allen. I’ve shaped my game around her.”

Bec Allen playing for New York Liberty

Bec Allen playing for New York Liberty in 2019. Photo: Nunawading Basketball Facebook.

Bec Allen is playing with the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA, having spent time on scholarship at the AIS, so the similarities are already emerging.

Centre of Excellence coach David Herbert has been impressed with Zara’s athleticism and her competitive nature.

“She competes every second she is on the court. She will never back down,” David explains.

“Her willingness to compete, particularly at the defensive end, along with her ability to listen, to work and develop her game, are key attributes we are looking for in our Centre of Excellence athletes.

“With further refinement of her offensive game, Zara will make an impact in this sport at all levels, and we are excited to watch her growth as a player for the remainder of 2023.”

Zara is taking in her stride.

“I definitely want to explore college life in America to expand my game and see how it can evolve. A major goal is to play for the Opals.”

If she continues on her current trajectory, there is no reason why Zara can’t achieve these goals.

And one day, in years to come, other young players might also walk along that same tunnel leading onto the courts at the AIS and see a photo of Zara Russell on display. They, too, should be inspired.

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