Shelby Britten is building a new pathway.
From the Yorta Yorta nation in Shepparton, Britten has made the most of every opportunity she’s worked for in Victorian basketball and beyond.
It has taken her from junior representative duties in Shepparton, through to the Victoria Country state teams, the Australian Under-17 team, Newberry College in America, representing the Australian Indigenous All Stars and now into the WNBL as she embarks on her senior professional career with the Bendigo Spirit.
It is an incredible progression she has undertaken so far, but the hard work is still to come, as she strives forward in the WNBL and as a role model for those rising up in the Indigenous basketball community.
This NAIDOC Week is important to Britten as it is an opportunity to educate and inspire change across Australia.
“I think the biggest thing in the world we live in is to educate people – it’s easy to be blind to the history we don’t want to know or that makes us uncomfortable,” Britten said. “NAIDOC Week gives that education to young kids, adults and to all types of people and keeps them aware of what the Indigenous people had to go through to get to today. If it wasn’t for the elders who sacrificed everything to benefit me and others my age, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today – I wouldn’t have the opportunity to play professional basketball, study at university.
Being an incredible athlete and someone for those young Indigenous athletes following in her footsteps to look up to is a role she doesn’t take for granted.
“I’m trying to show my face in the basketball community – by doing holiday camps, I hope I can continue to do that for kids not just in the Shepparton area, but at the national level,” Britten said. “It’s so important for indigenous kids – a lot do struggle but to see a light at the end of the tunnel and know if they put in the hard yards they can do it.
“I hope I’m being a role model as a person in school and beyond basketball too.”
As she lines up for the Bendigo Spirit this season in the WNBL, Britten wants to see more junior Indigenous players stick with basketball and follow the same pathway that enabled her to shine.
“We’re not keeping these indigenous kids engaged in basketball – they’re going to footy or netball as they can see those pathways,” Britten said. “That’s probably the biggest thing – the indigenous kids get to around 12-14 and it starts to dwindle off.
“In the Shepparton community and not having that role model in the Shepparton community for a long time makes it hard, but it’s something that needs to be worked on, not just in Shepparton, but across Victoria.
“There are so many talented kids in Victoria – and they either don’t have the money or the time to be part of it.
“My parents were in a fantastic position to provide for me and help.”
The journey has been full of fond memories for Britten as she charted a course through the Country basketball pathway – playing at Jamboree, representing Victoria Country at national championships and taking in every opportunity she could find.
It wasn’t just for her though – she worked for the opportunities she was given as it wasn’t always available to everyone in her family.
“I think my family has been such a big basketball family – my dad played, auntie played at Shepparton ,was only fitting that I’d play as well,” Britten said. “I played with the Gators, my parents gave me every opportunity to try out for state teams and I went from Jamboree all the way through to under-18 nationals with Vic Country.
“Just followed the pathway and worked hard and have to give credit for my parents for all the travel we did – we always found ways for me to play better basketball in the VJBL, playing for the Eltham Wildcats, college basketball and even now in the WNBL.
“I’ve always been a competitive person – whether in sport or school or myself and my brother fighting and being competitive.
“Basketball was that outlet for me and how passionate my dad and auntie were in basketball, but because of their upbringing as aboriginal people – they never got the opportunities that I got, so I think that kept driving me. I think that brought me more than just being a player in sport.”
That motivation guided her to think globally and marked the next destination of her basketball journey at Newberry College in South Carolina.
While success came at Newberry – Britten earned two All Conference Player accolades, made the All-Region Academic Team twice as well as the all-time single season three-point record holder (86) – it had its challenges.
The internal pressure of moving overseas far from home and family.
The external pressure of going to a Division 2 College as opposed to a Division 1 school.
The ups and down of collegiate life as a student-athlete.
But she endured and made the most of the opportunity… as she has always done.
“I decided early on I wanted to go to college,” Britten said. “Newberry’s Sean Page – was from Australia and had been in America coaching – and he was so great; he reached out to me and made feel wanted and I loved the vibe at the college – it had a lot of Australians there.
“Newberry is a Div 2 college, and I wanted to go to Div 1, but the way the players, coaches and everyone invited me there was so inviting.
“When I was growing up all the coaches said you can’t play Div 2, have to keep your eye on Div 1 colleges – when I’m talking to young people I tell them it’s not the be all and end all.
“You can make it to a professional league playing Div 2. My opportunities at Newberry were incredible – I wouldn’t have been able to play as much or get those opportunities that I would’ve at a different school.
“I’d be lying if I said it was easy… it was tough. It was really tough. Freshman year I didn’t play as much as I thought or that I liked, but you have to use that as drive and motivation to work harder.
“As a person you meet so many people from different backgrounds and they help shape me to who I am today. Teammates, athletic staff, professors – I got a different view of the world. We’re in a little bubble here in Australia and it was so eye-opening to be over there. South Carolina true blue Americans and so patriotic.”
From one challenge to another, Britten continues to find a way to progress.
Pulling on the Indigenous All Stars jersey last year was one of those incredible opportunities that Britten was keen to join as it is another new pathway for current and future Indigenous players to set their sights on.
“For so long there’s never been anything like this before – never been an Indigenous Australian team before, so for this to be brought to life for the younger Aboriginal kids – watch us and have something else to strive for,” Britten said. “WNBL and the Opals is something great to strive for, but to have this thing to connect young kids with their heritage and athletes of the same background as you is something so much more special.
“It’s something I definitely wanted to be in as there wasn’t many Aboriginal elite athletes in basketball when I was growing up… so I think it’s exciting.
“It’s exciting for the future more so than anything and that’s what we’re lacking – the pathway for the Aboriginal kids in basketball.
“You see it in other sports, but it’s something we need too.
“They’ve got something else to strive for.”
At the association level, Britten had an eye on NBL1 and pushing her case for a WNBL roster spot from there. But 2020 took away any chance of that as COVID-19 and Victorian restrictions came in to put a halt to the sport.
“It was tough – this NBL1 season I was hoping for it to go ahead as it was this season to prove myself to WNBL coaches, to prove myself in the big leagues,” Britten said. “Was kind of disappointed, but I was still studying and used tit to focus on my school for this year and was lucky enough for Tracey to offer me a contract.
“I trained with the Spirit last year and kept in regular contact, her and Mark had Zoom sessions going twice a week in April… those moments kept me going.
“It was really good to have a break – WNBL straight to NBL1 as well as college – so finally all the athletes got to have a breath which I think will help in the long run with our mental health too.
“It’s crazy when you sit back and think about it.
“Playing juniors – VJBL juniors, then tournaments with my Shepparton team and it wasn’t until this year since I was a junior that I had a decent break.”
So for all the challenges she overcame at home and abroad, Britten’s character and incredible work-rate stood out. They stood out to her coaches throughout the pathway and they continued to stand out as she began to train for the Bendigo Spirit.
When head coach Tracey York gave her the amazing news about her WNBL career, Britten felt it was validation for those years of extraordinary work.
“I’ve been working hard in the Zoom sessions and had been doing a lot of fitness work – the way they set up those programs was great, with limited resources as well,” Britten said. “When Tracey told me she wanted me as a contracted 10, it was amazing as all the hard work we’ve been doing had paid off.
“You have your accomplishments throughout your life, but this was the big achievement I always wanted to achieve.
“I grew up watching Bendigo and their star players like Kristi Harrower and Kelly Wilson – and this was where I always wanted to be and was so grateful to get this opportunity.”
Britten and her Bendigo Spirit are currently in the WNBL bubble in Queensland with their season commencing this week and continuing up until the WNBL Grand Final on 20 December. You can watch every WNBL game via Kayo as well as select games on ABC and Fox Sports.