Jennifer “Jenny” Cheesman was born November 2nd, 1957 in Adelaide, South Australia. She started playing basketball when she was twelve years of age with the Forbes Rebel Club at Marion Stadium. “I loved it right from the beginning,” recalls Jenny. She also played at Glengowrie Primary School with friends. They didn’t have a coach and coached themselves. At this stage in her life softball and netball were her two main sports.

5 feet 5 inch (166cm) Guard

1984, 1988 Olympic Games

Jenny had been into sport from a very young age. Whether it was trying to do 1,000 skips with a skipping rope without a mistake as a five year old, or water skiing as a four year old, or playing catch as a three year old with future Essendon champion AFL player Paul Weston, Jenny was caught up in physical activity.

Softball became significant in her life. As an eleven year old she overheard a conversation about the World Championships being held in 1974 and she worked out that as a sixteen year old she could make that team, so she set out on a training program which involved anything her older sister (who played A grade softball) did plus extra sessions. She was selected for A Grade softball as a thirteen year old and as a fifteen year old she was selected to the Australian Softball Team.

Her first senior Australian representation was with the Australian Softball Team in a representative game against New Zealand. As a sixteen year old Jenny went to the USA as a member of the Australian Softball Team at the World Softball Championships. She comments, “Goal setting is hugely motivating, even if you don’t understand what you are doing!”

In netball Jenny played A Grade when she was thirteen. She was selected on the Australian Schools Championship Team and the South Australian (SA) State Netball Team in 1973, but did not play in the Australian Championships due to an injury to her knee. “1973 was a memorable and busy year for me and a costly one for dad, as I played in six Australian Championships, the Junior and Senior SA State teams for softball, Netball and basketball, and for Australia in softball,” recalls Jenny.

At the Glenelg Basketball Association, Jenny loved the basketball. “My early years at Glenelg were great. It was a bottom Club so it was not that hard for me to play A Grade by the time I was thirteen years of age. I’d only been playing basketball for some eighteen months but the women in the team were so supportive,” says Jenny. Julie Nykiel and Tracey Morris (future Australian players) joined the club, Brendan Flynn (future 1984 Women’s Olympic Coach) and his wife Heather joined the Club and Glenelg basketball was taking off. Jenny was a year older than Julie Nykiel (Grade 7) and Julie played in another team (Grade 6). Julie recalls, “I remember seeing her play as a centre in netball and thought to myself that she was so naturally talented and I greatly admired the way she conducted herself on and off the court.  That was the first moment I think that I saw her as my role model and hero.”

Jenny was learning about losing games, stopping star players, and leadership. “I also learnt about not giving up when we defeated Torrens in a Grand Final. We were down some thirteen points with three minutes remaining and we pressured on defence to come home and win by a point,” says Jenny. 

Jenny went to the Australian Basketball Club Championships as a fifteen year old and vividly remembers getting “smashed by fifty points” by a strong Melbourne CYMS team that contained Australian players Karin Maar, Jan Bowman and Jan Smithwick. “That sparked a desire in me to understand the game and to deal with pressure,” says Jenny.

Jenny was selected on the SA Under16 Girls Basketball Team for two years (1971, 1972) for the Australian Championships (the first years the championships were held for that age group for girls). SA won the title both years.

She captained the team in her second year with Jenny making a foul-shot to win the game in overtime. “I learnt a lot in that game….being a team…handling pressure….pushing yourself physically…and how important the mental side of the game is,” recalls Jenny. “I was incredibly lucky to have so many wonderful people coach at my Club in those days.”

There were no Australian Junior Teams for girls in the nineteen seventies so Jenny had to wait until she was seventeen (1975) when she played for Australia at the Women’s World Basketball Championships which were played in Colombia. The Australian Team performed well and finished the tournament in 10th position. There were also not many basketball tours for the women in those days and Jenny’s next tour was to Europe and China in 1978 where the Australian Women’s Basketball Team played some fifteen games. In 1978 she also played on the winning Australian Women’s Basketball Team at the Oceania Championships.

Jenny Cheesman warming up in the 1984 LA Olympic Games
(Basketball Australia)

Jenny Cheesman playing for the Canberra Capitals (The Basketballer)

In 1979 Jenny played for the Australian Team in the Women’s World Championships in Korea and the team had an exceptional tournament to finish in 4th place. Even though she was barely twenty two years of age Jenny was now a starting player on the Australian Team and one of its leaders. In 1980 the Australian Women’s Team went to Bulgaria for the pre-Olympic Qualification tournament but failed to qualify for the Olympics that were held in Moscow. Jenny was now the Captain of the team at twenty three years of age.

In 1982 Jenny led the Australian Women’s Team in the Chinese Taipei Tournament.

She captained the Australian Team at the1983 Women’s World Championships held in Brazil. The team came 11th. Jenny played for the Australian Team when it won the inaugural Commonwealth Basketball Championships the same year.

She then travelled to China in 1984 for seven games with the Australian Women’s Team. Jenny and the Australian Team then travelled to the1984 Olympic Qualification Tournament in Cuba. The Australian Team played ten games in the Tournament and was desperately unlucky to not qualify for the Olympic Games after finishing 6th.

Jenny and the team arrived back home in Australia, but were then informed that due to a Soviet boycott the Australian Team was now in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

Jenny described making the 1984 Olympic Games as, “A life-long dream come true…Since I was twelve years old my aim has been to play basketball at an Olympic Games”. At th1984 Los Angeles Olympics Games, Jenny and her husband, Phil Smyth, would become the first husband and wife to captain Australian sporting teams at the same Olympics. 

This was the first time that an Australian Women’s Basketball Team had qualified for an Olympic Games. Jenny was named Captain of the team. Although they only won one game in the LA Olympics (a mighty upset over Yugoslavia) the Australian Team finished in 5th place (from only six teams in the tournament).

By this time Jenny was also a coach at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). She continued to coach the cream of Australian girl basketball players while leading her country on the court.

In 1985 Jenny captained the Australian Team to the Gold Medal in the inaugural Australia Games. She then led the team to success in the 1985 Oceania Championships and on a twelve match tour of Europe.

Jenny played for the Australian Team in the 1986 World Championships in the Soviet Union. The Australians finished the tournament in 9th position.

She toured with the Australian Team to Europe in 1987 for eleven games and to the USA and Canada for seventeen games.

In 1988 the emphasis for Jenny and her team-mates was on the Seoul Olympic Games. Jenny played for the Australian Team against Japan and against Canada in Australia before the team played in the Goodwill Games held in Korea.

The Australian Team’s biggest task however was to get through the 1988 Olympic Qualification Tournament in Malaysia. This was a tough eleven game tournament for the team. The Australian Team secured a place in the 1988 Olympic Tournament in Seoul after they gained 6th place in the Qualification Tournament.

Before heading to Seoul Jenny captained the Australian Team in a tournament in Riga, Latvia. The team then travelled back to Australia and then up to Korea. They certainly were “battle-hardened” if not very tired by the time they reached Seoul.

The Seoul Olympics were huge for Jenny and the Australian Team. She was named as Captain of the team. After a slow start to the tournament the Australians upset the USSR for that country’s first ever Olympic loss in women’s basketball.  They lost to Yugoslavia on a fluke basket that denied them entry to the Gold Medal Game, and then lost the Bronze Medal playoff to the USSR. The Australian Team gained 4th place the best result to that time.

Jenny had played 167 games for the Australian Women’s Basketball Team between 1975 and 1988 and was Captain of the team in 133 games from 1980 to 1988. She retired from international basketball at the conclusion of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

Team-mate Julie Nykiel describes Jenny as, “A true champion both on and off the court. She is one of the greatest players Australia and the World has ever seen, a master at whatever she put her mind to, and I felt privileged to have played with her.”

Australian team-mate Trish Cockrem comments, “I admired Jenny Cheesman a lot and used her as my yardstick.” 

In the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) Jenny played 296 games. 109 games were with Canberra (1986-91), 37 with the AIS (1983-84) and 150 with Noarlunga, and Adelaide (1981-82). In 1985 she played with Canberra in the Second Division of the WNBL as that club attempted to qualify for the First Division. She missed the 1990 WNBL season with Canberra to have a baby. With Canberra in all time statistics (dated 2012) she is 4th in scoring (1474), 5th in baskets made (539), 2nd in free throw attempts (465) 2nd free throws made (366) 2nd in free throw percentage (79%), 5th in steals (176) and 1st in free throws attempted in a single game (18).

Jenny was to go on and carve out an exceptional career in coaching, with the AIS teams and with Australia. She won the WNBL Coach of the Year with the AIS in 1990.

Her coaching career for Australia (as Assistant Coach) commenced in 1993 in Australia against the Ukraine, Athletes in Action, Japan, Russia, Bulgaria and the Pre-Oz Games (Brazil, France, Canada, USA) for the 1994 World Championships.

The 1994 World Championships were held in Australia. Australian Team (now called the Opals) finished in 4th position. Jenny’s coaching career as Assistant Coach with the Opals continued in a similar vein through 1995. She was a member of the Australian Team coaching staff for games against China and Korea in Australia, and on tours to Europe, Canada, Chattanooga USA and then to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics where the Opals finished with their first ever Olympic Medal (Bronze).

The big target and challenge for Jenny and the Opals was the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. The Opals had home series against Cuba, Brazil, Russia, NZ, the C7 International Challenge, the USA Challenge, Wollongong Invitational as well as a tour to Europe before they entered the arena in Sydney. The Opals played brilliantly at home, lost only one game and were Silver Medallists.

The Sydney Olympics brought down the curtain on a fabulous basketball career for Jenny Cheesman with the Australian Women’s Basketball Team, first as a player, and as the first Olympic Captain, through to two Olympics as an Assistant Coach. She had captained Australia in two Olympic Games and two World Championships and played in four World Championships.

She was an outstanding leader, athlete, pressure player, highly skilled and a consummate point guard. She possessed a very high basketball IQ, and was one of the most motivated athletes of her time. She coached basketball to pass on her immense knowledge and experience and served as an inspiration for team-mates and the generations of girls that followed her.

In 2004 the Fair Play Award at the Under 14 Girls Australian Championships was named in her honour. That same year she was inducted into the Basketball Australia Hall of Fame. In 2006, Cheesman polled as the 8th greatest Australian female player in the Australian Women’s 25-year Basketball Team.

Jenny Cheesman has been awarded an AM for services to basketball.