Indigenous Sports Month: Nathan Jawai opens up on depression, being called a monkey, Outback Shaq


Nathan Jawai turned to alcohol to deal with his depression and stress. The proud Torres Strait Islander reveals how he overcame his countless setbacks.

Nathan Jawai’s rise from a city of just 1,000 people to all levels of basketball is remarkable, but he is very proud of the obstacles he has overcome.

In a candid interview, Jawai takes a look at his mental health issues, the day he was called a monkey, why he hates his nickname Outback Shaq, and how his inner strength helped him out on the other side. to become a voice for his people.

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Which Indigenous nation (s) are you connected to?

I am a Torres Strait Islander. The upper western island is the nation. Saibaigal.

My culture has … made me the man I am today thanks to the tradition of respect and family.

My favorite custom from my heritage is … initiation to pass from a boy to a man. We call it a shave party. We are not allowed to shave until we are of legal age, so your facial hair grows a lot. Before that, you need to go out into the field and learn the lifestyle as an adult for a week. We are taught to hunt turtles and things like that to support your family. We then move on to a big ceremony with dancing where you have all your uncles around you giving advice on what to watch out for in life and how to take care of your family. The custom of becoming a man had died down a bit, but fortunately it is starting to regenerate again.

Something few people know about me … I am a huge fan of Formula 1 motor racing, but my passion is giving back to my people. I like children. A lot of people don’t know it, but I started working part-time at the Cairns foster home. I started last year when Covid first struck. I just thought it was an opportunity to give back to young children. It is a blessing to be able to share my story to help others and helping underprivileged children is something I want to continue when I retire from basketball.

My first memory is … The love I felt from my family and my community. I found memories of fishing, hunting and camping at the beach, especially during school holidays. We were going for two whole weeks, and you never wanted to come home because we were having too much fun.

A piece of advice I would give to my teenager … Never take anything for granted. My parents sent me to school at St Augustine’s College in Cairns and I remember when I misbehaved and wanted to come home. I didn’t appreciate the opportunity and needed to take education more seriously. I would love to stay in school longer to hone my skills, instead of coming home to hunt and just hang out with friends.

The best advice I have ever been given … It’s okay to be uncomfortable. When I started playing basketball at 15, I was a shy kid, but Uncle Danny Morseu encouraged me to take every opportunity. He was the one who recruited me to Cairns from the Torres Strait. I was too embarrassed to go to the field, but Uncle Danny believed in me. He helped me overcome my difficulties by moving away from my small community and my doubts to continue playing basketball.

If I didn’t play sports, I would be … In the mining industry in Cape Town. I grew up around mining because my uncle has an earthmoving company and all of my cousins ​​and brothers work in this industry.

A common misconception made about me is …... I’m tall, black and look scary sometimes, but I’m like the nicest person. It comes down to the way I was raised and my cultural protocols. It’s always about respect, and I respect everyone.

Sometimes people are afraid to talk to me because I might intimidate them, but I am always open to conversation and I care about people.

When I abuse the police …it hurts a lot and I take great offense at it. It really affects me. We are all the same as people so it’s hard to hear when this is happening to me or someone else. Fortunately, I am in a position where I have a platform to make a difference. It’s (racism) an issue I’ve always tried to hide and not talk about in the past, but people like Patty Mills do a great job of speaking out. Patty gives me the confidence to stand up. My Outback Shaq nickname is not an abuse, but I hated it and still hate it to this day. It just doesn’t reflect who I am as an Australian, and I don’t think I look like Shaq, so I don’t identify with him.

My biggest challenge was. . . I have had a lot of challenges throughout my career. I had an irregular heartbeat playing in the NBA as I was hit in the head while playing in Turkey and went into intensive care with damaged arteries starting from my head. I was afraid of dying either way. As a result, I had mental problems and had to seek help.

Who helped you. . . I worked closely with my good friend – Jodie Maguire – who is the psychologist for the Taipans team who also worked for the Perth Wildcats when I was there. There were times when I wanted to quit basketball. I didn’t want to play anymore. I was stressed out, depressed and she helped me out to the other side. It’s always good to go talk to someone about your problems and struggles, and I encourage others to do so. I think people tend to hide things and be embarrassed about it, but the best advice I would give is to talk to someone if you are feeling down. Fortunately, I had a good family around me who told me to go get help, as there were times when I would turn to alcohol, and that didn’t solve anything. So having that support really helped me out of the hole I was in, and it made me a better person.

When people see me, I hope they think ….. I want them to be inspired by what I have accomplished and overcome so that they too can pursue their dreams, especially the children.

Family means …… All. Family has helped me become the man we see today through my parents, siblings and cousins. It is my backbone and where I return and I am myself like other people in my community.

My sports hero is …. Cathy Freeman. She inspired me when she raced at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and it is in my memory forever.

The sporting moment that meant the most to me was …. when Patty Mills won the 2014 NBA Championship with San Antonio as the first Torres Strait Islander to win a title. Patty gave confidence to the younger generation that I will never forget when I brought the NBA Trophy back to Torres Strait.

Have you encountered unconscious racism or prejudice against yourself during your career?

A fan told me to ‘sit down, you monkey’ at a game in New Zealand when I was playing for Perth. I was hurt by the comment, so I told the team manager. I wasn’t too angry during the game, but it sank after the game. Fortunately, the NBL and Perth were proactive and fixed the issue.

How does it feel to be an Indigenous athlete today?

It’s special because I carry the Native Children’s Flag. I was once the only Indigenous player in the NBL and now we’re just a handful. The NBL now hosts the annual Indigenous Round and it’s important to inspire the next generation.

How do we improve support networks for Indigenous athletes moving up the ranks of professional sport?
Patty Mills does a great job with her native basketball league in many places in Australia, but we need to continue to promote education and get involved in communities. I remember the NRL players coming to our community once growing up, but never again. You must continue to make a real difference.

Who is your inspiration … Apart from my parents, I would say Patty Mills for what he does on and off the field. Patty has transported the culture of the Torres Strait Islanders to the United States and uses her platform to represent us all. He does a remarkable job.


Helen L. Cuellar

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