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Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Players have little gelling time

Associated Press

How refreshing! A group of professional basketball players excited about going to Athens.

Dawn Staley
Dawn Staley says that the Olympics mean more to the women because the WNBA has existed for a shorter time than the NBA.
No one offered a lame excuse for staying home, no one wimped out. For the U.S. women's basketball team, the Olympics -- no matter what uncertainties might surround the site -- is still a big deal.

While USA Basketball practically begged NBA players to fill out the men's roster, organizers on the women's side had more players trying to get on the team than spots available.

One WNBA coach, Detroit's Bill Laimbeer, got mad because two of his players weren't selected.

Swin Cash is so excited about seeing Athens that she's taking her mother. Sheryl Swoopes is thinking about taking her 7-year-old son.

"Let me put it this way,'' said Renee Brown, who chaired the selection committee and is the WNBA's vice president of player personnel. "The 12 we went after all said yes.''

Three of them are on their third Olympic team: Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley. Katie Smith and Yolanda Griffith are back from the 2000 team.

All five could have been forgiven for a been-there-done-that attitude or even for just wanting a break. The Olympics come two-thirds of the way through their WNBA season, which is taking a one-month hiatus to free up players for Athens, including some who'll represent other nations.

"My feeling on it is this,'' Staley said. "The NBA has been around for a very long time. They make a lot of money. It isn't the pinnacle of their career. It isn't what they strive to do. It isn't the highest level of play for them.

"Whereas the women, the WNBA hasn't been around for that long. Reaching the peak of our career was playing in the Olympics. We didn't have that route in the United States. Until the WNBA has been around for a while, I do believe the Olympics is the best experience for women.''

DeLisha Milton-Jones, another member of the 2000 squad, would have been appearing in her second Olympics, but the Los Angeles Sparks' All-Star instead will miss the Athens Games after suffering a torn ACL on July 9 in a WNBA game.

The U.S. Olympic Basketball committee is expected to name Milton-Jones' replacement next week, and Detroit's Cheryl Ford and Ruth Riley and Indiana's Natalie Williams are considered the favorites.

Neither Ford nor Riley have played in the Olympics, and look to join six other first-time Olympians, who will find out what that experience is all about. Three were teammates on a national championship team at Connecticut: Cash, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. They're joined by a former college rival, Tamika Catchings of Tennessee, and WNBA veterans Tina Thompson and Shannon Johnson.

It's a nice mix of experience and eager young players, a team that has shooters, rebounders, inside scorers, ballhandlers and tough defenders.

It also has a male coach, Van Chancellor, a first for a U.S. women's Olympic team. Chancellor has won four WNBA titles with the Houston Comets and guided the United States to the gold medal in the 2002 world championships, where his team had eight of the 12 Olympians.

"We just picked the 12 players we thought would best represent USA Basketball,'' Chancellor said. "Now, as it turned out, we got experience, we got youth, we got good athletes. We've just got to perform.''

What the team doesn't have is time.

Chancellor won't have his entire team together for the first time until Aug. 3 in New York, just 11 days before their Olympics opener against New Zealand.

While going 13-0 in exhibition games during a winter and spring training period, only a few of the 12 were together at any one time. Cash and Taurasi weren't officially added to the team until May, though they had played in some games, and Griffith wasn't picked until June.

Meanwhile, the Russians, Australians, Czechs and other national teams are together now except for the handful of players in the WNBA.

Chancellor's response? Don't whine, just play. The U.S. team faced similar constraints in 2000, yet won its eight games in Sydney by an average of 24 points en route to the gold medal. And that was after an entire WNBA season.

"We could use that as an excuse, but I don't believe in that,'' Chancellor said. "It's all the time we've got, so we're going to use it. I'll get us ready.''

The United States won the past two Olympic gold medals and has 17 straight victories in the Summer Games since a 1992 loss to the Unified Team. Since 1996, the United States is 34-0 in the Olympics and world championships.

"I feel good about the team we're sending,'' said Leslie, who led the United States in scoring in the Atlanta and Sydney Games. "If we work hard, come out and play hard every game, I don't see us losing.

"But if we come out with our B effort, we could be in trouble. Because whenever we step on the floor against another country, this is their big game.''

Russia, with WNBA players Svetlana Abrosimova and Elena Baranova, will have its usual strong team. Brazil always has talent, including Janeth Arcain, who skipped the WNBA season to get ready for the Olympics.

Australia features an older, more seasoned Lauren Jackson, who stars for the Seattle Storm and was a silver medalist with the Aussies as a 19-year-old in 2000. She caused a stir in Seattle when she posed nude in an Australian magazine that features Olympic athletes.

"America is definitely the favorite to win the gold, but we're going to put up a fight,'' Jackson said. "We've definitely got the team to do it. I think we've been a little intimidated by them in the past. We've got to get over that and I think we will.''

The United States would not meet Russia or Australia until the medal round because they're in a different pool. The Americans' toughest challenge in the prelims should come from the Czech Republic. China, South Korea, New Zealand and Spain, none considered a medal contender, also are grouped with the United States.

"I don't know if that's an advantage or disadvantage,'' Chancellor said. "You never know how some of them are going to play.''

Chancellor does know this, though, and it's comforting: He has a team that wants to play.