In the third of my series of profiles of women in basketball, today I had the absolute pleasure of communicating with Marianna Tolo.

For those who follow women in basketball around the world, you would be aware of the presence and passion that is Marianna Tolo. The 6-foot- 5 centre from North Queensland started with the A.I.S. squad back in 2006. Two years later, she joined the Canberra Capitals for a few years of success.

In 2009, Capitals won their first title with Tolo. She teamed up with Abby Bishop, Michelle Musselwhite and Natalie Hurst amongst others to win the league. The second title in 2010 completely unexpected at the start of the season. Injuries, pregnancies and other commitments decimated the Capitals at the start of the season.

Fortunately, Bishop returned from her shoulder injury and Lauren Jackson, the greatest Australian to ever play the game, was enticed back to the club. In addition to these two incredible players returning to the fold, the greatest signing which impacted the career of Tolo was Carly Wilson.

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Wilson, in my humble opinion, was one of the greatest servants of this great game. She and Tolo became incredibly good friends. They had such good times, both on and off the court, and Wilson taught Tolo so much about being a person. This is not to say that Marianna Tolo was not already an incredible asset to herself and the game already, but Wilson taught her to be more.

Tolo learnt that in order to be a superstar you do not have to be a diva, nor a bad teammate. Wilson gave all that she had for every team that she played for and that made her great. Tolo learnt about humility as well as stardom from this incredibly talented, loyal athlete (who should have played many more games for the Opals).

Tolo has been nothing short of a superstar. She holds the record for most shots blocked in a WNBL game with 13. Who did she beat? None other than her teammate Lauren Jackson. She has played in Europe for three years, only coming back to Australia for a single season in the WNBL last year.

This was the season after Tolo cracked the best league in the world, the WNBA, where she played for the Los Angeles Sparks. Unfortunately, Tolo suffered a season ending injury to her ACL and had to rehab before the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. In true Marianna Tolo fashion, she did her rehab with the mindset of playing for the Opals again, which of course she did.

Tolo was always going to play back in Europe this year but it was a heart wrenching decision. To play in Turkey, Tolo is going to miss playing for her (and our) beloved Opals in front of her home crowd in her home state in the Commonwealth Games. When I asked Tolo about her reasons they were simple yet powerful ones.

She is playing in Europe again because of the promise made to herself. The constant playing and training for eight or nine months goes towards making her a better player. There is total immersion in basketball for that time and because of this Tolo is able to elevate her game.

The second reason is that players in European leagues are paid so much better than the Australian leagues. Tolo is looking to set herself up for a life beyond basketball. Most people think that an athlete as good as Tolo will be financially set up after playing basketball. Unfortunately for women in the sport this is rarely the case, unless they travel all over the world for the entire year.

Tolo loves playing at home; the league is incredibly strong and her heart is truly in this country. It would be great to see her body in this country as well but unfortunately due to the poor wages, our top players are always going to disappear overseas for the larger pay checks.

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Tolo has long advocated for better pay for women in basketball. Most players in the league have got other commitments such as work and study. This shows how truly amazing these players are. When I asked Tolo about this, she had such tremendous pride in the “silent soldiers.” There is an excitement about the TV deal. It is a great start to have Foxtel broadcasting games again.

With this visibility, the WNBL and clubs will be able to work together to secure greater sponsorships. Australia needs to take a leaf out of the European model where towns as small as Bourges who have 60,000 people get 3,000 of them to games. They also have massive corporate support for their teams.

With so many different sports getting more money into them like netball and AFLW, there is a possibility of Australian basketball losing some potentially great players. Being an athlete is not easy. There are massive ups and downs, as well as a total commitment and an intense physicality that go in to all the blood sweat and tears you see.

Each athlete has to ask themselves the question, is the reward worth the effort? Is it worth their professional effort even though they are not being paid as professionals? Fortunately for us as a nation, enough players have such a love for the country and the sport that Australian basketball is in a tremendous place right now.

If we want to keep it there, we, the general public need to vote with our feet. We need to get to any game we can or turn the TV on if we can’t make it. We need to tell the corporate world that they should invest in this great game. With Marianna Tolo as an ambassador for the game, it is in good hands. This humble superstar is not only a role model for all who watch the game, but for anyone who watches sport in general.

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