One of the most heart-warming stories of this NBL1 West season has been the successful return to the basketball court of Raya Thompson who is finding her way at the Perth Redbacks after a horror run of knee injuries threatened her career.
Thompson grew up in Bunbury and was among a host of exciting young players coming through the South West Slammers who got the chance to start playing as teenagers with no ceiling put on how far they could go with their career.
There were three guards who were always seen as the standouts of that emerging group and while Georgia Denehey (Joondalup Wolves) and Tayah Burrows (Rockingham Flames) are both now living and playing in Perth and have had the chance to play in the WNBL, it’s been a tough road for Thompson.
She got the chance to start playing with the Slammers as a 15-year-old and was progressing along in exciting fashion as a guard with enormous potential, but then that was all put on hold with a horrific knee injury during the 2018 SBL season.
It was such a devasting injury that it took almost two years for her to be ready to return to the court. She’d joined the Perth Redbacks having moved up to Perth for university and was training for the 2020 West Coast Classic when struck down with another cruel knee blow.
That meant her return to the court would have to wait until the 2021 NBL1 West season.
Given it had been almost three years from when Thompson last graced an SBL court, it’s fair to say she has been making the most of being back on the floor even though the road to do so has been remarkably tough.
“I find it really hard to put into words just how happy I am to be back playing again. I’m absolutely loving every second of it,” Thompson said.
“This season has been the perfect opportunity for me to get back into the swing of things and find where I’m at with my skills and game again.
“Thankfully, I’ve done it without any real knee issues too, which was really all I could ask for out of this season. Since being away from playing for such a long time, I’ve learned to not take basketball for granted and to be happy just to be doing what I love!”
Going through the injuries Thompson has now been able to make it back from only makes it more admirable to see the way she has fought back, and to enjoy being able to see her play the basketball she is now for the Redbacks out on the court.
“I tore my ACL, meniscus, and partially my MCL in the 2018 SBL season,” Thompson said.
“My knee rehab was the longest and hardest process that I’ve ever been a part of. I was so close to coming back for the 2020 WCC season before re-tearing my meniscus in only my second pre-season training session.
“The toughest part about coming back from such a big injury is the discipline. Sometimes you feel like you’re getting absolutely nowhere with progress and the final destination feels unreachable. All you can do is just keep going.
“I’m so proud of myself and the work ethic I put into making my comeback a strong and healthy one. It was hard but it was worth it to be where I am now. It’s pretty special, especially to have my family in the stands who travel just to come watch me play.”
Thompson has settled right into the backcourt seamlessly with the Redbacks this NBL1 West season alongside Makailah Dyer, Denielle Ashworth, Bri Bailey and Sarah Allen.
That group is a big reason why the Redbacks are now gearing up to take part in a finals campaign with their final position at the end of the regular season to be determined following Friday night’s clash with the Cockburn Cougars at Belmont Oasis.
Thompson has enjoyed the season up to this point and has embraced playing with her new teammates.
“This season has been really great. The league is so competitive and I am loving how exciting it has been. Playing for the Redbacks in a new team for me has been fun and I’m actually quite disappointed the season is slowly coming to an end,” she said.
“Mak is a great teammate. She’s been a lot of fun to be with, on and off the court. She’s really backed me this whole season and I definitely appreciate her knowledge and learning from her.
“I’ve also really loved playing under our captain, Jjay. I value work ethic as a player and to be playing under a captain who is such a hard worker and a true player of the game, it’s been really special.”
After a disappointing loss at home to the Mandurah Magic last Friday, Thompson is looking forward to helping the Redbacks bounce back this Friday night and ensure they give the finals a real crack.
“It’s really important we build momentum with the last regular-season game before coming into finals,” Thompson said.
“I try not to worry too much about positions on the ladder and where teams will be sitting by the time finals come around. My mentality is just to do what we have to do for each game that we play.
“This season is anyone’s for the taking. I think our team has all the assets to make a really solid finals campaign. When we show up to play we can beat anyone and I’m hoping that’s the way we finish the season.”
As for what brought Thompson to the Redbacks, she’d already moved to Perth for her studies and then having played under coach Craig Allen in state teams, it just seemed to be the obvious choice for it to become her new basketball home.
“I moved to Redbacks mostly because of Craig who I have had as a former coach,” she said.
“Craig stayed updated throughout my rehab progress and I knew that I could trust him to help and support me in my first season back. I think I’ve fit in well with the dynamic of the team, I like the role that I have been given and I feel really supported at this club.”
Thompson is also enjoying living in Perth after growing up in Bunbury even if there is plenty of banter at her new home with Warwick Senators and Perth Lynx star Mackenzie Clinch Hoycard.
“Living in Perth has been good so far,” Thompson said.
“I live with my best friend and rival, Mackenzie Clinch Hoycard which is good fun, and means basketball is often the topic of conversation even away from the court.
“Other than that, I keep busy studying for Uni with a quick trip home to Bunbury every so often to see my dogs … and family!”