Parker, U.S. make it look easy
LONDON -- It was Candace Parker's turn to shine, and she made it look easy.
It wasn't, although she knows no one believes her.
The most versatile player on the U.S. women's basketball roster, who can play guard, forward and center, who at any time can completely dominate a game with her length, her skills, her basketball acumen and her fluid, graceful style, imposed her will on an overmatched France team on Saturday evening.
Parker's 19 first-half points kick-started the Americans out of yet another early shooting slump and paved the way for an 86-50 rout in the gold-medal game of the London Olympics.
"Effortless" was the word Tamika Catchings used to describe her fellow Tennessee alum, because that's how it looks when Parker swallows a rebound, dribbles the length of the court and then lays in a finger roll. Name another 6-foot-4 woman who has the agility, body control and the confidence to finish a move like that in the biggest international game. Who else appears to float above the rim as she tips in the errant jump shots of her teammates?
"Nobody," answered Angel McCoughtry. "That girl can do anything. She can play any position and make it look easy."
There's that word again. Easy. Parker is one of those few WNBA players who has transcended her sport, a talented, intelligent, beautiful woman who could dunk. She is a marketer's dream.
But the past few years haven't been so breezy. For the first time in her life, Parker has struggled with injuries -- her back, her shoulder, her knee. She is trying to raise a young daughter along with NBA veteran Shelden Williams, juggling alternating seasons both at home and abroad in Russia.
A huge piece of this gold medal goes to her. I wouldn't be here if not for her.Candace Parker, on dedicating her gold medal to former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt
"I'd be lying to you if I told you it was easy," admitted Parker, cradling 3-year Lailaa against her shoulder as she conducted her postgame interviews. "We play overseas, we come back, we go through a WNBA season, then we train for the Games, then it's back overseas it's hard on my family. It's a grind.
"But it's such a short ride. You look up and you're 26 years old. In four years, who knows where I'll be?"
Parker's second gold medal was a joyous occasion to share with young Lailaa, who demanded to know why she was being yanked out of school and put on an airplane.
"We're going to win a gold medal," her mother announced.
When mom finally delivered, her daughter took stock of the coveted bauble and declared, "It's too big. I want something smaller."
She was the only one donned in USA's colors who articulated that sentiment. For the rest of this already decorated American squad, Saturday night's coronation was the culmination of a true team effort.
There was only one option for this star-studded group, and that was gold. They understood anything less would be catastrophic, yet if they felt pressure, they never exhibited it. Just before tipoff, coach Geno Auriemma reminded them in the locker room, "Good players expect to win."
"Honestly, losing never really entered our minds," McCoughtry said.
It was the third gold for former UConn stars Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Asked at a postgame news conference what it meant to win one for her coach and confidant Geno Auriemma, the normally bubbly Taurasi choked back a sob. "He knows me better than anyone else on this earth, including my family," said Taurasi, as tears trickled down her face.
Parker understands. She dedicated her gold medal to Auriemma's longtime rival Pat Summitt, the legendary Tennessee coach who shocked the basketball world by announcing she is fighting early onset Alzheimer's.
After her disappointing game in the semifinals against Australia, Parker tried to call Summitt, but was unable to reach her.
"She's watched every game," Parker reported. "We've traded texts. A huge piece of this gold medal goes to her.
"I wouldn't be here if not for her."
With their dominating performance, the United States has now won 41 straight Olympic women's basketball games. That's five consecutive gold medals. The women haven't lost in Olympic competition for 16 years.
The roster they brought to London was air-tight. They had everything they needed: size (Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles), scorers (Taurasi, Maya Moore, McCoughtry), textbook point guards (Bird, Lindsay Whalen), defensive irritants (Catchings, Asjha Jones) and even a wise veteran (Swin Cash) who has been here, done that.
And, then there's Parker, who could comfortably function in any of the above capacities.
"Candace has a lot of skills," Auriemma said, "and some nights she really tries to use them. Other nights, she forgets the skills she has.
"Luckily for us, tonight she remembered to use them."
Parker (21 points, 11 boards) was hardly alone. Bird hit some key jumpers, Catchings continued to be the standard by which defensive intensity is measured and Taurasi (9 points, 6 assists) happily settled into the role as facilitator.
The Americans devastated the French with their pick-and-roll offense, pounded them in the paint and forced them into 21 turnovers.
The French, who have never medaled before in Olympic competition, also arrived at the gold-medal game with a 7-0 mark, but as their electric point guard Celine Dumerc conceded, "We knew we didn't have a good chance to win."
Here's how you know when you are unequivocally the best basketball team in the world: You shoot 38.1 percent from the floor in the first quarter and manage to come out with a five-point lead.
Seriously, now. What makes you think the United States won't run the table to 20 years when Rio rolls around?
Here's the truly scary part about this roster. Maya Moore will be only 27 years old in 2016. Charles will be just 28. There's a rather dominating force by the name of Brittney Griner who might want in on the fun, too.
Candace Parker will be 30 years old in 2016. She has no idea what that means.
As her little daughter gleefully sang Tennessee's "Rocky Top" on cue for smitten reporters, her mother smiled, then sighed.
"I promised her candy," said the Olympic gold medalist. "It's going to be a long night."