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Saturday, August 23, 2008
Yet again, Leslie's presence leads U.S. women to Olympic gold

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

BEIJING -- Most athletes dream of coming home from the Olympics with gold medals. Lisa Leslie brought hers to the Olympics. She wanted to complete the set she's been collecting since the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

She did just that when the U.S. women's basketball team beat Australia -- again -- in Saturday's Olympic final, and after the 92-65 rout, Leslie proudly wore all four gold medals to the postgame news conference. A reporter asked Leslie what security precautions she took with the medals, adding that they would be rather difficult to replace. But gold medals have been fairly abundant for Leslie; and unlike the American men in the 2004 Olympics, she doesn't know what it's like to lose in the Games.

"I put this uniform on when I was in the 11th grade and I worked my way up to the national team, then the world championship, then the Olympics," she said. "I've had this opportunity to play with so many players. ... My dream was to hang four gold medals around my neck by the time I finished the Olympics here."

OK, so four gold medals over 12 years is only half as many as Michael Phelps won in one week. But Leslie can win only one gold per Olympics, and if the sight of the four medals around her neck wasn't impressive enough, the sound they made when she accidentally knocked them against the table was. They clanged together like garbage cans at five in the morning.

"I keep telling her she could go for five," U.S. teammate Candace Parker said. "I'm still going to nag her about playing in her fifth one. And I'm very persuasive."

If, as she has stated, this is Leslie's last Olympics -- she will be a 40-year-old mother by London 2012 -- she is leaving the program in capable hands. Leslie fouled out after scoring 14 points in the gold-medal game, but the U.S. still won easily thanks to its depth. The 27-point win capped a tournament in which the U.S. women's average margin of victory was a Dream Team-esque 38 points. The American women have won 33 consecutive Olympic games, dating back to 1992 (pre-Leslie) in Barcelona against the Unified Team.

"That's what USA basketball is all about," point guard Sue Bird said. "It's about passing the torch. Your legacy starts with the gold medal and Lisa has four. She earned that. She's a major reason why basketball in the U.S., not just Olympics-wise, not just WNBA-wise, is what it is today."

Leslie never lost a game in the Olympics, but the U.S. team finished third in the world championships two years ago when she wasn't there due to the birth of her daughter.

"Lisa's presence is the biggest thing," Bird said. "Of course, she's going to score. Of course, she's going to get rebounds. But it's her presence more than anything that's the key. We missed her in Brazil."

In addition to Leslie, coach Anne Donovan also won her fourth gold medal -- two as a player, one as an assistant coach and one as a head coach -- guiding the team back from its disappointing loss in the 2006 world championships.

"It's been an interesting four years," Bird said. "We went from winning the gold medal in Athens to finishing third at the world championships. And then, all the talk was about how the rest of the world has caught up to us, that this [was] the Olympics to the get to the U.S., this [was] the Olympics to knock off the U.S."

It wasn't.

No one seriously challenged the U.S., not even Australia, which had two of the world's best players in its lineup: Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor. After a slow start, the Americans pulled away late in the first quarter and cruised the rest of the way. The U.S. held Australia to just 25 percent shooting from the field while hitting 59 percent of its own shots. Four players scored in double figures, led by Kara Lawson's 15.

"We weren't going to be the team to let Lisa lose," Parker said. "We wouldn't let her Olympic career end that way."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.