Caitlin Bassett’s lips are shredded and she can’t sleep. She’s tried to keep a smile on her face through a difficult 2020 season, but her body and soul are far from happy. She’s watched – largely from the bench – as her 16 year elite career has unravelled over just a few months. It’s been so very public.
But across one hundred games for her country, Bassett’s learned how to fight, hard. She’s never ready to admit defeat; a loss doesn’t happen till the final whistle blows. And so for the very first time in netball, an Australian captain will part ways with her club and move overseas, to extend her career.
There were few warning signs of trouble ahead when, after 12 years with the Orioles/West Coast Fever and a further two with the Sunshine Coast Lightning, Bassett signed with the Giants for the 2019 season. She said, “I was excited about helping the club and team develop, and so develop myself. I was also working on a journalism degree so wanted some more opportunities off the court than I’d previously had.
“But our training regime meant that at times we were at the club from 7.30 am until 2pm, and combined with travel and games, it made it difficult to get anything done outside of netball.”
“I went to the Giants with great intentions, but given the lack of court time I’ve had this season, it’s bewildering to think this was a team that chased me down to play for them.
Her first year at the club was complicated by a wrist fractured pre-season, but Bassett went on to be the Giants’ primary goal shooter, playing 811 of a possible 840 minutes in the regular season.
On the injury front, 2020 didn’t start out much better, with Bassett rupturing a medial collateral (knee) ligament in match play early in the year. Her rehabilitation was completed during Covid lockdown, with Bassett then joining the team for an eight week training block prior to the season’s start.
The introduction of a new rule didn’t set off major alarm bells that 2020 would be any different. Two points were to be awarded for successful attempts taken from set zones during the last five minutes of every quarter. Bassett believed that the Giants’ initial approach would be to play in the same way as usual, exploiting the extra scoring potential when they could.
That prospect didn’t faze Bassett, who said, “To be honest, I’m not bad at shooting from that range, and I practiced it a lot during the pre-season. I was looking forward to the challenge.”
The rule was sprung on the competition just weeks before starting; no one knew just how it might play out and tactics were constantly under discussion. However, it still surprised Bassett when she was given new directions just before the first match of the season.
“Before I even jumped on court, Julie (Fitzgerald, coach) told me that she was going to take me off half way through the first quarter. So I felt that no matter what I did out on court, no matter how well I played, when the five minute super shot period came around, I was going to be dragged.
“From a playing perspective I was keen to keep developing my movement and longer range shooting, but was told to stand still and hold under the post, waiting for rebounds.
“What was particularly frustrating was that some teams that were really successful this year, Vixens and Lightning in particular, were using three shooters to their advantage. I was hoping that might be the case with us.”
The Giants took their first win in round 3, a game where Bassett played a full sixty minutes, shooting 47 goals at 89%. Unfortunately, it was her only full game of the season, and her court time dwindled from there.
Bassett started to realise that she wasn’t going to be part of the Giants’ preferred shooting partnership. She said, “I had many conversations with Julie about what she wanted to see from me and what she was looking for when I was out on court.
“But conversation can only go so far. I was trying to tick every box that I could, doing extra training sessions, playing in a scratch match with girls from other teams who weren’t getting much court time either. So I believe I did everything within my power that I could, but still wasn’t having much success in getting on court.”
To a player who was used to full games, the chopping and changing began to have an impact. Bassett explained, “I started to feel that if I fumbled the ball or missed a goal, I was going to get taken off straight away, and that did knock my confidence around. We are playing against some of the best defenders in the world, so coming up against them week in, week out, you can’t go in under confident. It was a mental hurdle knowing that I could get taken off court at any point.
“That was compounded to a certain extent by hub life. While I was struggling, not being able to go home to my own bed, my partner, or see the people that I love was quite challenging.”
Facing her growing uncertainties, Bassett was touched by the people who made an effort to help her. She said, “Teammates, ex teammates, friends and family have really supported me. There were even some international messages from players like South Africa’s Bongiwe Msomi, who sent the most beautiful message saying that she was proud of me. They guessed that I was finding it difficult, and my lack of court time was so very public.
“I was proud of how I conducted myself during this time. I tried to remain professional, keep a smile on my face, and not let people know how much some of the goading on social media hurt.”
Bassett knew that she needed professional help to manage her emotions. She talked to her own performance psychologist, while the Giants and Netball Australia also gave pivotal assistance. She said, “They gave me psychological support services, because they knew I was struggling. Brigid Walsh, the National Wellbeing Manager was regularly in contact, as was Stacey West, the Executive General Manager of Performance.
“They had a lot of conversations with me, and were keeping me balanced. Knowing that I had their support made me feel a lot calmer and more confident in the situation I was in.”
While spending so much time on the bench, Bassett took to riding an exercise bike during games, for, she said, two purposes. “I got on the bike so that I was warm and ready to go if I was needed to jump on court, and also partly because I chew my nails like crazy if I’m just sitting there, so it was a great tool for distraction. I jokingly coined the term about doing my ‘Tour de Bass’. But the media really picked it up from there.”
Images of Bassett riding the bike, and looking removed from the team, were often shown during telecasts, which Bassett described as disappointing. She said, “It’s been made fairly clear that netball is now an entertainment product, and they want to attract viewers. But I found it frustrating that they never showed me in the huddles, talking to players, giving feedback in the warmup. It really painted me as being aloof.
“I remember in the final round – I was injured and had to sit on the secondary bench. I made the deliberate decision to put my phone at my feet during the game, and of course, the camera picked up the only two seconds that I used it, in a break when the girls were warming up.
“I got a message from someone sitting near me at the time, who said, ‘You were amazing, you were cheering the whole time, you gave feedback over the rail, and went into the change rooms at half time. I don’t know what more they wanted from you.’ It was nice to hear some positive feedback, but it really highlighted for me how certain stories were shown this year.”
Bassett was in such turmoil that she considered giving the game away for good. It took a chat with ex teammate, Laura Geitz, to make her realise that she wasn’t done with netball. “My dog, Chino, was staying with her, and I had the pleasure of visiting her lots. Obviously we talked about retirement, and she said to me, ‘CBass, why don’t you give it away? You don’t have to prove anything, you’ve done it all. Not everyone gets the fairytale finish!’
“After some thought, I said, ‘Because I still feel like I’ve got more to achieve, Geitzy. I can’t walk away at this point in my career and feel content.’
“Yes, I’ve been lucky enough to win championships and medals in the past, and been able to play with amazing people, but I still think there’s something left in me that I can give to the sport.
“That includes my experiences in mentoring and helping other athletes, in doing things off the court with the Players’ Association, and the work I’m currently doing in digital and virtual wellbeing.”
“So I realised I’m not ready to retire and give it all away, even though it has been tempting. While it might be easier and certainly less stressful, I don’t think I would feel fulfilled.”
Bassett credits many conversations in recent weeks with Caitlin Thwaites as shaping her opinion on retirement. The two were Diamonds’ stalwarts for many years, and their ability to push each other at trainings and for court time made the shooting end a stronger unit. Bassett said, “She’s been fantastic.
“I think a lot of people might see us as two shooters competing for the same spot on court, but at the end of the day we are really good teammates and friends. I really loved that we were able to get the best out of each other, and that’s been massive for Australia.
“I’d like to be able to do that too with the next crop of Diamonds’ goal shooters, players like Cara Koenen and Sophie Garbin. I’m really excited by what I’ve seen of the Australian talent this season, but we need to challenge each other and keep getting better. That’s going to mean the Australian team is as strong as it possibly can be heading into the next Commonwealth Games and Netball World Cup.”
As the season progressed, and the Giants were finding wins hard to come by, their game plan became increasingly based around two moving shooters – Jo Harten and Kiera Austin, both well-known exponents of the two point shot. Bassett said that after a while she took it personally that she couldn’t get out on court.
“Sitting on the bench when the team is winning, that’s fantastic. But when the game plan isn’t working and your team is losing, that’s when I started to feel frustrated. I believed that I could get out there and help the team to win, and that’s when I started to question what I was doing.
“I had hoped to play more with Kiera Austin, as I think she is the future of Australian netball in the goal attack position. She’s very smart, a great defender as well as attacker, a very level headed person and a great teammate. But the club preferred the combination of Kiera and Jo, and there wasn’t much I could do about that.
“In the end I felt that I was in an environment where I was increasingly unhappy, feeling that I wasn’t valued or respected, and I was just becoming more miserable.”
While Bassett had another year left on her Giants’ contract, she realised that for her emotional wellbeing, and that if she wanted to play for Australia again, she needed more court time than she was getting. She sought advice from Fitzgerald and the Giants’ management two thirds of the way through the season, in one of a number of conversations that she described as ‘tough’.
“I knew I wasn’t being used to my full potential, and that I needed to be looking at what my options were before they closed down. They made it clear that their game plan didn’t really include me and that I wouldn’t be part of the starting seven moving forwards.
“Between rounds ten and eleven I asked if they would release me from my contract, and they said they were more than happy to. It was a big sign that I was no longer wanted by the club. I didn’t get out on court again after that conversation, so the club was clearly looking to move forwards without me.”
Despite being considered one of the premier goal shooters in the world, Bassett played just 292 minutes of court time across the regular season, out of a possible 840 minutes. She knew that it wasn’t nearly enough if she wanted to keep her place in the Australian team. However, when she was approached about a move to New Zealand franchise Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic, her initial reaction was a firm no.
“I didn’t think I could head overseas and still represent Australia, and I’d never do anything that might jeopardise playing for the Diamonds. Since I first started playing elite netball, wearing the green and gold, and doing everything possible to represent my country, has always been my goal.”
However, with the plethora of imports holding down goal shooting positions in Australia, many of them still in contract, Bassett knew it might be her best bet of gaining court time. Some candid chats with the Silver Ferns’ coach, Noeline Taurua, and new Diamonds’ coach, Stacey Marinkovich, followed.
“Having been my franchise coach for two years, Noeline knows me inside and out, and I knew she’d be honest with me. She told me that it would be a challenge moving to New Zealand, because things are different in club land over there, and that I would have to embrace it. But ultimately she thought it would be a good environment for me, and that her Ferns’ defenders would also benefit playing against me as much as possible.”
“I couldn’t have made the move, however, without the level of understanding I received from Stacey. We’ve known each for a long time – she was my captain when I first joined the Orioles – and have a deep level of respect for each other. Stacey was frustrated that I might have to leave Australia, but she’s very like Lisa Alexander, who has been so supportive to me through this time.
“They are not only both great coaches, but great people managers as well. So Stacey understands that people have to be happy off court, in order to perform on court.
“We discussed my situation in regard to the Diamonds, what she wanted from me, where my ongoing development needs to be, training against the zone in New Zealand, and generally getting my confidence back. Once I knew I had Stacey’s support, that sealed it for me. I was heading to the Magic.”
It’s been a complex process, and Bassett is deeply grateful to the Magic for their flexibility and patience with her. “They have turned themselves inside out to make it the easiest that it could possibly be. They’ve waited through my talks with Netball Australia, and for our season to end which went against Netball New Zealand’s regulations around their signing period, they’ve helped with visa issues, how to get Chino over there, and many of the details that come with a move overseas.
“I’ve always loved playing netball in New Zealand, and their fans are so passionate. I’ve spoken to Magic’s coach Amigene Metcalfe a few times, and along with being a good coach, she’s also a great communicator. The two goal attacks in front of me are strong players but quite young, so I can help mentor them, and form a strong partnership. Grace Kara at wing attack adds to the experience in the attacking end, while I’ve had some great battles with Temalisi Fakahokotau when playing for Australia, so I’m looking forwards to training with her.
“And of course there’s E (Erena Mikaere) who after our time at the Fever and Lightning is like a sister to me. Her capacity to get up to the high ball is fantastic – she’s really challenged me in the past and forced me to become a smarter player. So I’m really looking forward to what I can learn, and how I can be challenged to keep growing my own game. It’s a really exciting opportunity for me, and it will be nice to feel valued again.”
The next few months will be busy for Bassett as she packs up her Australian life, but she isn’t sure whether she will head to New Zealand before or after Christmas. Much will hinge on the national programme and Covid quarantine requirements. “There is a camp in January, and a tour after that if I’m selected. So if the Diamonds want me training here over the Christmas/New Year break, I will do that.”
Bassett is moving to the Magic on a one year contract, with the possibility of a further year’s extension. She hasn’t ruled out returning to play in Australia in the future, but for the time being, just wants to enjoy her netball again.
“I am disappointed that things have ended like this, and putting a smile on my face has been hard at times. However, I’ve been really well supported by Netball Australia and family and friends, which has given me a lot of faith going forwards that still playing netball is the right thing to do.
“And living through these difficult times has helped me understand that, good or bad, I’m myself, and I’m real. I’m not willing to change my values and pretend that everything is fine, or go along with things that I’m unhappy with. I’m comfortable with the belief that I put everything I could into the Giants over the past two years, and supported my teammates regardless of what my own personal situation was.
“So I’m looking forward to this opportunity, to life in New Zealand, and to trying something new while still playing elite netball. Hopefully along the way I will also find out who I am in life other than an Australian netballer.”
And with a disappointing year behind her and the decision made to move, Bassett is hoping that, finally, she will get some sleep again.