IT says everything about the remarkable competitive drive of Zoe Harper that the Grand Final she remembers first is the one she lost being a six-time SBL championship winner and that desire for more success is why she was back just seven weeks after having her first baby.
Harper will celebrate her 250th game in the SBL this Saturday night as her Willetton Tigers take on the Joondalup Wolves in a battle of top four teams at HBF Arena as the race for the playoffs heats up.
It doubles as Harper’s 200th game for the Tigers and along her remarkably successful journey, she has won championships with Willetton in 2004, 2005, 2010, 2011 and most recently 2016 along with being part of that historic breakthrough for the South West Slammers in 2012.
Six championships might be enough to satisfy anyone and Harper certainly knows how lucky she’s been, but that 2015 Grand Final loss to the Rockingham Flames will always sting and while she’s still playing, every part of her wants to add at least another title to her collection.
The chance to do that as a mother is motivating her more than ever and that’s why she returned so soon this season after giving birth to son, Theo, and it’s also driving her on to continue playing long enough for him to be able to see his mother in action on the court, and remember it.
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Not only is Harper one of the all-time most successful SBL players, she’s also one of the most natural competitors the league has season.
She just simply hates losing and can never get enough of winning, which is why that 2015 Grand Final loss still burns even though she has six championships in the SBL to her credit.
That’s all part of a career that’s also seen her play four years of college with University of Minnesota and in the WNBL with West Coast Waves/Perth Lynx.
While Harper feels fortunate to have been part of the five championships at Willetton and the one with the Slammers, she isn’t done yet and wants to achieve more success before her career is done and there’s no reason that can’t even include going all the way in 2019.
“I do feel lucky with the championships I’ve been able to be part of but then the one Grand Final I played in that we lost I was not very happy with,” Harper said.
“I did think for a while there that I was a good luck charm in Grand Finals because I had won every time I had made it to one so far, so I thought I was a bit of a good luck charm until that didn’t continue on in that game in 2015.
“But I’m very lucky obviously because there are girls who play their whole careers and don’t ever win a championship. I have been very fortunate to be on teams that have had amazing players and we’ve just managed to win a few championships along the way.
“You go into every season aiming to firstly make finals and then with the ideal goal at the end to win a championship. That’s what I go into every season thinking and I hate losing, and I think most people who play a team sport do hate losing.
“So we definitely go out there every year with the aim of winning the championship and if you don’t get it, then you refocus on the following year. But I’m starting to run out of years to come so hopefully over the next few years there’ll be at least another one, hopefully this year.”
Reaching a milestone like 250 games in the SBL and 200 for Willetton is something that means a lot to Harper now that she’s at a point in her career where she knows there’s only a finite amount of time left now that she’s a mother and 31 years of age.
“It does mean a lot. It has been a long road and I’ve played obviously for Willetton for most of my career just with those couple of years in Bunbury. I’ve been quite successful and I feel very lucky to have played with some amazing girls to win championships at both clubs,” Harper said.
“It’s just nice to now cap it off at 250 after obviously having a bit of time off at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. It’s nice to reach a milestone like this.
“I have been playing basketball for a long time and it’s nice to be recognised for playing a certain amount of games even though obviously I don’t show up to reach a certain target like this.
“I show up to play with the girls and I feel very lucky that I’ve had some awesome teammates who have turned into great friends. That’s pretty much why I turn up every week, just because I enjoy running out with those girls.”
Harper sat out the back end of the 2018 SBL season once she fell pregnant and then missed the opening 12 games of the 2019 campaign before making her first appearance as a mother in the last clash with the Joondalup Wolves, a win at Willetton Basketball Stadium.
Harper has done well to get back to making a contribution in the five games since especially admirable given her limited preparation having given birth to her son, Theo.
She always knew she wanted to come back but it was always going to depend on how quickly she could recover from the birth.
Perhaps seven weeks was even quicker than she could have imagined, but everything went smoothly and she couldn’t be happier to be juggling basketball and motherhood, as challenging as it is proving to be at times.
“I always wanted to come back, it was just a matter of when and depending on how the birth went as to how my body would feel afterwards,” Harper said.
“I always wanted to come back, it was just a matter of when and I just thought if I had taken the whole season off, then maybe I wouldn’t have come back at all. So I told myself I had to come back because I’m not ready to give up basketball just yet.
“It’s definitely been a challenge. At the very beginning I came back within seven weeks of Theo being born and that was definitely a challenge to get straight back into it. I thought I would ease my way in but that wasn’t quite the way it worked out.
“It’s definitely been a challenge to get some fitness back and then juggling being a mum on top of that, and showing up to training on the back of no sleep and having to find babysitters for when I have a game and training.
“But Willetton and Simon and actually the girls have all been really understanding in helping me as I transition back to playing.”
While being a mother is something most women dream of doing one day in their lives, it is a great unknown how the reality of doing it and everything that goes with it stacks up.
But for Harper, she couldn’t be more thrilled with how it’s going already and she hopes to soon be able to share her basketball career with Theo as he starts to grow.
“It’s honestly the best thing that’s ever happened to me. You don’t realise how much you are going to love someone until you have your own baby,” she said.
“It’s nice to be able to share with him, even though obviously he’s too little to understand right now, my basketball career as well and hopefully I can keep playing long enough for him to be able to see me play and take it in.
“It will be nice to share it with him when he’s a little bit older but who knows how my body is going to hold up. But then you never know, maybe he’ll even want to play basketball too when he’s older.”
Having moved from Albany to attend Willetton Senior High School for her last two years of school and then starting to play SBL at the Tigers in 2004 when she was just 16, it’s no surprise just how much the club at Willetton means to Harper’s life, and always will.
“Willetton’s been amazing to me. I grew up in Albany and when I decided to come up for Year 11 and 12, I went to Willetton Senior High and there were a few clubs that we were picking between when we did move up,” Harper said.
“Craig Friday was the decision-maker in the end and he was going to be my state coach when I was playing under-18s at the time before he had to pull out of because of the Rollers.
“But the club has always been so supportive and even though I had that time in Bunbury, they welcomed me back when I wanted to and I couldn’t think of playing for any other club at this stage.
“I’d love to finish my career out at Willetton and after having a child now, Simon and the girls have been amazing at welcoming me back and also supporting me being a first-time mum and helping me deal with everything that goes with having a baby.
“Willetton has been an amazing club to me and they are so supportive of their players, I couldn’t say anything better about the club that they are. Then looking ahead, it’s very exciting with the expansion with where the club’s going and that will allow the junior program to expand even further.”