Surrendering a career as a world-class professional netball player wasn’t easy.
It would be one thing, Renae Ingles says, if she weren’t still one of the world’s best players in her sport — a mashup of basketball, European handball and even Ultimate Frisbee. But she left the game in 2016 in her prime, knowing she had great years left. There are times, she acknowledges, when she still struggles with that.
Then she’ll look across her living room and see Joe on the floor, jostling with their twins Jacob and Milla, and the decision feels right.
For Renae Ingles, moving from Australia to America to be with her husband — Jazz forward Joe Ingles — was ultimately worth it. Theirs has been an almost decade-long romance, but it was too often a Skype or FaceTime relationship between two people in two different — and distant — places at the height of their professional athletic careers.
It was never ideal. Having a nanny with Renae Ingles helped. But it finally reached a point where maintaining a relationship on two continents was no longer sustainable. They needed to be a family.
THUNDER AT JAZZ
When • Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • ESPN
“We just needed to live under one roof,” Renae said. “The decision wasn’t easy. In terms of giving up my career, it was incredibly tough. If I were physically unable, it may have been easier. But my body hasn’t given up on me.”
On Saturday, Joe Ingles will start at small forward for the Jazz against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 3 of their Western Conference first round series. Vivint Smart Home Arena will be sold out and rocking.
Renae and the twins will be there, as they were in Oklahoma City. Joe and Renae no longer have a long distance relationship. And they’re now closer than ever.
“Once we realized where our relationship was going, I think we both knew that a decision had to be made,” Joe Ingles said. “We weren’t sure when it would happen, but when the time came, I wanted to leave it up to her. I didn’t want to pressure her.”
Renae likes to joke she made Joe beg for three weeks for a cup of coffee with her.
“I definitely didn’t beg,” Joe said with his trademark sarcasm.
Joe was 21 and had just led the now-defunct South Dragons to Australia’s National Basketball league championship. Renae had just won a national netball championship with the Melbourne Vixens.
Joe also disputes the timeline of their first get-together — “I had just won the championship, and stayed out with my team the night before,” he said. “I just knew that I was going to wake up to a message from her that said she couldn’t come. Instead I got a message to meet her that morning. So I took a quick shower and headed over.”
What is not in dispute is, once they did get that coffee, the couple immediately hit it off.
“I knew right away that I wanted to marry her,” Joe said. “I told her that on the first day. So we pretty much spent the whole day together that day.”
Joe was gone to Spain a month later.
JOE AND RENAE INGLES
• Joe and Renae Ingles have been married since 2015. Their relationship began nine years ago.
• Renae Ingles was one of the best netball players in the world. She made her international debut in 2009.
• Twins Jacob and Milla were born in 2016.
• Renae Ingles retired from her sport in 2016.
• Joe is in the first of a four-year, $50 million deal with the Jazz.
The distance between the two wasn’t an issue, initially. They both understood where they were as a couple — each one was in their 20s and each was pursuing a career that required lots of travel. Being in the same place at the same time wasn’t always going to be possible.
Joe’s career progressed quickly. He won a Euroleague title with Maccabi Tel Aviv, a team coached by future Cavaliers coach David Blatt. He became one of the best players in Australia. He won rookie of the year honors in that country’s National Basketball League and became a fixture on the Australian national team. By the time Ingles hit his prime, he had become one of the best players in the world not playing in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Renae was becoming one of the most decorated netball players in Australia. She captained the Under-16 national team in 2002. She was the International Player of the Year in 2009. She’s known as one of the best wing defenders in the history of the sport. She led her country to a gold medal in the 2015 netball world championships.
“There were difficult times, but we got used to it,” Renae said. “Of course, we were missing each other with our careers. But, we figured out how to become that support person for each other. I think being together now, we realized it was the little things [we missed]. It’s great coming home to your partner each and every night. These are all the little things in distance that you can’t get.”
Through all those hectic weeks, months and years, their relationship persevered. Renae knew Joe eventually wanted a crack at the NBA, although he rarely talked about it. One day, the Los Angeles Clippers came calling. Joe went to training camp. Renae booked a flight to Los Angeles to be with him.
However, just that quickly, Joe got cut. Clippers coach Doc Rivers liked Ingles’ game, but said at that point he needed backcourt help more than a small forward. So, Jared Cunningham was given the final roster spot.
Cunningham played 19 games before being traded. He hasn’t played in the league since the 2015-2016 season.
“It was like the rug had been pulled out from beneath us,” Renae recalled. “It was tough, getting that call while I was boarding the plane.”
Thank-you for all of the texts, calls, emails and well wishes. I am so thankful for the amazing people in my life... family, friends, teammates, coaches, sponsors, members & fans of our sport... and for the countless opportunities that this sport has provided me with. The biggest thank-you of all to my wonderful husband and kids for the constant love and support. Bring on Round 14 this weekend! #tbirdsrising
Rather than a dead-end, though, it turned out that Joe Ingles’ NBA story was just beginning. The Jazz came calling, and quickly signed him. At the time, it looked like a move made to appease Jazz lottery pick Dante Exum, a fellow Australian. But very quickly Ingles became a valued backup player, moving into the starting lineup by the end of last season.
All the while, Joe and Renae’s relationship continued to solidify. The two got married three years ago. Twins Jacob and Milla came in 2016. Joe rushed to Melbourne to be there for their births. He held them for 36 hours, and then jetted off to Rio to play for Australia in the Olympics.
Once Rio’s Summer Games ended, tough decisions had to be made. It was clear that the family needed to be together. Something had to give. And that turned out to be Renae’s career.
“I felt horrible,” Joe said. “I still do. It would be ideal if America had a netball league. I know if she were playing, she would still be playing at a super high level. I left the decision up to her. We talked about it as a family. But I’ll always feel some kind of guilt.”
Here and now
This has been a career season for Joe Ingles. He’s averaging 11.5 points, 4.8 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. He and his family have virtual lifetime security, courtesy of the four-year, $52 million contract he signed last July. He’s firmly entrenched in Utah’s starting lineup. And in Wednesday’s Game 2 win over the Thunder, he had a significant role in holding OKC star Paul George to 6-of-21 shooting from the field.
Renae and the kids have been with him through it all, and he says he’s never been happier. In the locker room after every road game, he FaceTimes Renae and the twins. He has a tattoo bearing her name as well as the kids’ names on both wrists.
With the Jazz, Ingles has become a leader inside the locker room and has embraced the community. He’s one of the veterans who balances out a younger element of the Jazz that includes rookie star Donovan Mitchell.
“Joe’s been that guy that does the dirty work for us,” Mitchell said. “He’s such a funny guy and he keeps the guys engaged and he always keeps the energy and spirit up. It’s easy to look at Game 1 and be like, man, all three of [the Thunder’s] big three went and did their thing. So he came and said, hey, look, we have another game to play. And that’s just a testament to his leadership and character.”
Renae says she will always know she made the right decision. But she still misses her sport. She misses being a part of a team, and laments having to watch from afar.
Still, she said, “All I ever have to do in my toughest moments is look at Joe and the twins across the room.”
One day, the Ingles family will likely return to Australia. And Renae does not rule out a return to the sport she once dominated.
But if they go back, they will do so together.