Australians discover physical basketball, large food portions when transitioning to WNBA

Penny Taylor (right) talks to assistant coach Todd Trowel (left) during practice on May 25, 2017. Taylor is the Director of Player Development and Performance for the Phoenix Mercury. (Photo by Reinert Toft/Cronkite News)

Sandy Brondello (right) talks to guard Leilani Mitchell (left) during practice on May 25, 2017. Australia has contributed a lot during the WNBA’s history with 33 past and present players currently in the league. (Photo by Reinert Toft/Cronkite News)

Phoenix Mercury guard Stephanie Talbot takes a shot during practice on May 25, 2017. Talbot is one of the four Australians in the on Mercury’s roster and coaching staff. (Photo by Reinert Toft/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — What was the first thing Phoenix Mercury forward Cayla George noticed when she arrived in the United States?

“How much sugar is in the food,” George mused.

The Mercury have their own version of additives: Australian players. Four on the roster and staff come from there, including rookie guard Stephanie Talbot, coach Sandy Brondello and Director of Player Development and Performance Penny Taylor.

Australia has contributed significantly to the WNBA, with 33 past or present players taking part, included former Mercury standout Michele Timms, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Relocating to a new country can be challenging but the present Mercury group has made the most of the opportunity.

Brondello has been in the United States the longest of the four, coming here after she was drafted 34th overall by the WNBA’s Detroit Shock in 1998.

“I had been playing in Germany professionally, so it was just that I loved basketball, I loved competing against the best players,” Brondello said.

Talbot is a rookie who came over three years after being drafted by the Mercury. She believes the Australian presence on the team helped her adapt to her new stomping grounds.

“We’ve got a lot of Aussies around so they’re all helpful,” Talbot said. “Still learning things here and there, and at the end of the day, with the help of my teammates, it was easy.”

Although adapting to the lifestyle and culture is important, it is not the main reason these players relocated. They came to play basketball, and just as the cultures are different, so are the styles in play.

“The WNBA, it’s the best league in the world, so all the best players are here,” Brondello said. “They’re way more athletic. I’m not saying they’re not more skilled, I just think they’re more athletic. They’re bigger, they’re stronger.”

Guard Leilani Mitchell is Australian, but took a different route to the WNBA than others. Mitchell was born in Washington to an Australian mother and American father. While she lived and attended college in the United States, she ultimately chose to represent Australia on the national stage.

Mitchell did not play the 2014 WNBA season because she wanted to stay in Australia to train for the FIBA World Championships, as well as spend more time with her mother’s side of the family.

When Mitchell first started playing in Australia, one difference in the game stood out.

“It just a tougher game,” Mitchell said. “Everyone is tough-minded, gritty.”

“The refs even make you play tough.”

The toughness and play-to-the-final-whistle mentality is what Taylor carried over from Australia, and she caught heat from it early in her career.

“In a game, we were up, I think, by 10, 13 points, and I had drove down the lane and made a basket,” Taylor said. “After, some of the players from the other team were aggressive and really upset about it.”

The food in the United States was an adjustment for some. Not only did they say the food has more fat and sugar, but the portions are larger than in Australia.

“There was so much food and I was eating it all,” Taylor said. “I put on a little bit of weight and I really found that difficult. I found it a huge adjustment to learning what was appropriate even though I was exercising so much.”

The Australians call the Valley home, at least during their playing careers with the Mercury. Many of them still consider Australia their first home, and will move back after their playing days are over.

“Great place. Everyone should visit it once in their lifetime,” Brondello said.

“Anyone who’s thinking about going on a vacation or holiday, definitely go to Australia,” Mitchell said. “I know it’s a long flight and that’s what keeps people away, but honestly you get over it, it’s worth it, and you’re gonna love it.”

Of course, Australia is not all fun and sunshine.

“There are really scary drop bears,” George said about the mythical carnivorous koalas. “And we ride on kangaroos.”