Kelly Wilson and the WNBL’s magnificent games played milestones

February 14, 2024 | WNBL news

By Will Crouch | The Pick and Roll

If it was up to Kelly Wilson, we wouldn’t be publishing this story.

We wouldn’t be commemorating her record extending 450th game, asking how do you do it? Or making a big song and dance about her in any way whatsoever.

Instead, we’d simply be letting her get on with business, the existence of her 450th game simply a footnote in a match report sitting underneath a far more important fact: whether her team won or not.

“For me it’s a team sport, and honestly it’s uncomfortable for me,” she candidly admits. “I’m obviously playing basketball now because I love it. I wouldn’t be playing at this age and be playing for this long for any other reason.”

Thankfully though, it’s not up to her, and her latest milestone can be deservedly celebrated. Over the phone, the reserved guard happily – if not somewhat reluctantly – offered some insights into her journey from the small Victorian town of Leongatha to the biggest games tally in WNBL history.

“I was a small kid from a small country town that couldn’t necessarily see that (future). We often talk about ‘if you can see it you can be it’, and I came from a really small country Victorian town, and like I said, I watched the WNBL growing up, but it actually seemed like an unachievable goal. But I was someone that worked really hard and kinda thought if I put in the work, and try really hard, then that’s something maybe I could achieve – so to be where I am, that’s the reason why, because I’ve always been known for being a hard worker.”

Wilson didn’t have any other choice. She had to be the hardest worker in any room. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy it.

“When I initially started my basketball journey there were a lot of roadblocks, and I was constantly told that I wasn’t this or wasn’t that, so I wasn’t going to make it for those reasons, right? Whether I was too small, or not skilled enough, or whatever it was. So, I kinda realised early on that there had to be something I had that set me apart from others. Maybe it was I had a really good work ethic, or I tried really hard, but maybe the key to success is enjoying yourself? Because why else would you be doing something like this that you devote so much time to.”

And as she prepares to continue smashing the WNBL’s games record by chalking up number 450 against her former club Canberra, she admits much of the now 22 year journey has become a blur.

“I can definitely remember my first game, it’s the ones in between I’ve very much blanked out on. Playing for the AIS, it was always a very exciting prospect, being that young at the AIS and coming up against the likes of Lauren Jackson, Kristen Veal, all the players that were playing in the league at that time, so I look back on that and remember pretty well my first season. It’s the ones in between I’ve kinda lost track of. Just being excited, it was something as a junior basketballer you obviously strive to achieve, to be playing in the WNBL, so just something I was happy and proud to represent my family and what I’ve achieved so far just to get to that point.”

Wilson had to be told when she broke the league’s games record. She had no idea she’d be passing Jessica Bibby (394 games), and probably wasn’t paying attention when she went past Rachael Sporn and Lucille Bailie either (377 games apiece). But between her four championships and lifelong friendships, some memories stick out more than others. She counts her first championship, alongside her sister, Andrea, in Bendigo, still amongst the most special.

“I’d been there since the inception of the club, and felt like I’d been a part of taking the club from scratch to winning championships, and that was a really proud moment for each and every single person that was part of that organisation.”

Across the world of sport, athletes are currently pushing the limits of what’s physically possible. In recent years we’ve seen Serena Williams immortalise herself as a force of nature, winning a Grand Slam while pregnant, and maintaining an elite level until she retired at 40. We’ve seen Tiger Woods not just survive a life-threatening car crash, but come back to compete at the Masters. Tom Brady wasn’t just playing at 43, but winning his seventh Super Bowl.

Brady in particular has been a proponent of pushing nutrition and sports technology to its limits. He has an almost religious dedication to TheraBands, a daily diet that’s planned out to the very last gram, and claims to consume so much fluid has body doesn’t require sunscreen. The now 39 year old LeBron James has a similar method, investing approximately one million dollars a year to employ an army of nutritionists, chefs and physical therapists. While that’s helped them maintain an unprecedented standard of success, Wilson’s method at 40 remains a little simpler.

“These days I don’t have as much time on my hands for recovery, but to be honest, at about the middle of my career I realised how important it was for strength and conditioning, and cross training… Being able to stay in shape but not put as much load through your body on a basketball court. That’s probably something that I think has helped me to be around to this day,” she shares. “But sometimes I think it’s just a bit of luck as well.”

What’s remarkable about Wilson’s games record is that it could be even bigger. Even as she approaches 450 games, it’s important to remember she sat out of the 2020 hub season to have a baby (13 games, and finals), while like any player, she’s dealt with her fair share of injuries. But irrespective of the games she’s missed in the past, consider her future for a moment.

She’s still averaging a whopping 27.9 minutes per game, to go along with 4.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 3.2 assists. All at 40 years young. Given her current form, respect within the locker room, and ability to still make a impact, there’s a genuine chance she could still break the once unthinkable 500 game threshold – although with a laugh, she promises that’s something that hasn’t crossed her mind.

Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images

While Wilson is the WNBL’s ironwoman, she’s not the only living legend celebrating a special milestone this month. Four-time champion Cayla George will tally her 350th just three days after Wilson, when Sydney hosts Southside.

A trailblazer of the league, George has transformed from a tall teenager into a WNBL MVP. She was a rookie of the year winner at the AIS, starred for her local club Adelaide, won titles in Townsville, teamed up with fellow South Australian Tess Madgen to break a championship drought in Melbourne, and is now looking to do the same in Sydney. She’s been just about everywhere, and done just about everything.

George’s longevity in the league is somewhat of an anomaly, as her game defies any real historical comparisons. She’s a skilled scorer in both the perimeter and the post, but certainly not like Suzy Batkovic. In fact, no-one really springs to mind when trying to compare George. Her herky-jerky, fadeaway is one of the league’s most identifiable – and unguardable – shots. She’s been one of the league’s most dominant rebounders for nearly two decades. And realistically, she might be the best playmaking big the league has ever seen. Is there a traditional tall that’s tallied so many assists? Or been such a lethal three-point threat? Her consistent excellence over such a long period will undoubtedly see her discussed with some of the league’s all-time greats.

Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images

At 34, and approaching game number 350, she still seems as spritely as ever. And that’s not just her outgoing personality either – she’s genuinely still at the top of her game, maintaining her status as key piece for the Opals after a title-winning season with Las Vegas in the WNBA. Should she continue on her current trajectory, there’s no reason why she can’t become just the third member of the WNBL’s 400 club.

And as George prepares to celebrate against Southside, it’s also worth noting two Flyers who have written their names into history this season.

You can’t discuss living legends without Lauren Jackson. The GOAT notched her 200th WNBL game last month, a remarkable achievement for someone who retired in 2016, before launching one of world sport’s most remarkable comebacks. The tally of 200 games might seem on the lighter side for someone of Jackson’s stature, but when you consider her contributions to the WNBA, seasons abroad in Russia, Spain and China, as well as the fact she retired in 2016 and returned in 2022, there’s a world where that tally is doubled. The fact that the one-time undisputed best player in the world notched 200 games in the WNBL speaks volumes about the competition.

“The fact there’re still here and playing in this league says a lot as well. So, the fact the WNBL has been able to retain and have these players return is really special.” Wilson reflects.

Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Jackson’s fellow Southside team mate Bec Cole notched her 250th game in January. In that game, Cole fittingly iced a win over Sydney with a pull-up jumper (that brought the house down) and found herself with ball in hand at the final siren. A special moment for a significant milestone, especially considering her journey has been one that held no guarantees – not everyone comes back from two knee reconstructions before they turn 23.

It’s not only a testament to the players, but also the league at large. The WNBL continues to be a place that can make Australian girl’s dreams come true, while remaining a world class women’s competition. It continues producing and providing a stage for some of the world’s best athletes. And these feats of the game’s modern day greats are often overlooked and under-appreciated in Australia’s rich landscape of sporting heroes. The WNBL’s most capped players hold far greater game tallies than cross-code rivals in Super Netball, AFLW, or the A-League Women. So as we celebrate the league’s biggest milestone, it’s worth asking the question: Who might one day challenge some of these records?

Jade Melbourne and Izzy Borlase immediately come to mind, given their ages, decision to choose the WNBL over college, and subsequently rapid rises to stardom. Add in their seemingly limitless potential, and the sky looks like the limit. But while both will be fixtures in the league for years to come, they still have a lot of catching up to do. It’ll come down to injuries, seasons spent overseas, and like Wilson said earlier, a little bit of luck.

For now though, let’s forget the future, and just enjoy the present. Because Wilson, George, Jackson and Cole won’t be here forever. It’s time to toast the WNBL’s living legends.


By Will Crouch | The Pick and Roll


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