Testing Team USA's solid foundation
Player injuries, lawsuit against Auriemma could test Games' overwhelming favorite
The U.S. women's basketball team is just "supposed" to win the Olympic gold medal. It's not hoped for; it's expected. With an enormous hoops-playing population and the college system, Americans have by far the biggest top-level talent pool.
Fair or not, that's the viewpoint many have: It's the Americans' gold to lose, and it would take a lot for them to lose it.
But there are some things that might be shaking Team USA's solid foundation a bit. One is current and lingering injuries, including to WNBA standouts Diana Taurasi and Seimone Augustus, both prior Olympians.
Another is the employment discrimination lawsuit revealed Monday by The New York Times, in which an NBA security official, Kelley Hardwick, names U.S. women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma, the NBA and USA Basketball as defendants.
Hardwick's lawsuit states that she spurned a romantic advance from Auriemma during a 2009 tournament in Russia, and that he subsequently requested that she be removed from security detail for the London Olympics this summer. Hardwick also cites general gender discrimination by the NBA, a claim not specifically directed at Auriemma, the longtime women's coach at UConn.
Auriemma released a statement Monday night saying the claims were "beyond false" and that he would defend himself to the fullest.
There will be a lot of immediate speculation by people about which side they believe. These situations can be precarious for journalists, frankly. There are times when we can prudently state opinions. But there are other times when we need to let the system take its course as we try to sort out what happened.
I can say in nearly two decades of working as a journalist with Auriemma, he has never been anything but professional. In fairness, I do not interact with him in any other capacity. No one has ever told me, on or off the record, about him mistreating them in any way.
By the same token, I have not ever spoken with Hardwick. Her allegations raise very real, serious issues that women in the workforce still face in our society. Whether her case in particular actually has merit, though, must be adjudicated.
Obviously, that won't happen in a vacuum. For one thing, we'll have to see what impact it conceivably could have on the machine-like precision of Team USA, which -- as mentioned -- already has some potentially loose bolts with about a month and a half left before the start of the London Games.
Auriemma isn't just the Team USA coach, he's also the college mentor to exactly half of the Olympic team. Six former Huskies -- Taurasi, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, Tina Charles and Maya Moore -- are on the squad. They've all maintained a good relationship with him as they've moved on to the professional ranks, and you can expect that to some degree they will be worried, upset or angered by this.
Taurasi endured a difficult situation in late 2010/early 2011 when it was leaked to the media that she had allegedly tested positive for the stimulant modafinil while playing overseas in Turkey. She was later cleared by the Turkish Basketball Federation after the lab in question retracted its report of the positive test.
But she had to go through an agonizing few months of uncertainty and legal bills to clear her name. Auriemma stood by her during that time, and you can expect she would do the same for him now.
Taurasi has another issue, though, in regard to her health. She has played in just two of her Phoenix Mercury's seven games, and has been listed since the end of May as "out indefinitely" with a strained left hip flexor. She has attributed the injury mostly to fatigue, after playing for months overseas and then attending a USA Basketball training camp a week before the WNBA season started.
Meanwhile, Augustus -- last year's WNBA Finals MVP for the champion Minnesota Lynx -- has missed the past two games with a strained right quadriceps. Her injury seems more day-to-day, and the undefeated Lynx are so deep they have been able to rest her. Still, it's something Team USA has to keep an eye on.
At least so far, the other 10 members of the U.S. team seem relatively healthy this WNBA season. But you do have to consider that Indiana's Tamika Catchings, while back in action, suffered a torn plantar fascia in her right foot at the end of last season. And Los Angeles' Candace Parker -- who like Catchings is off to a strong WNBA start in 2012 -- missed all but 10 games of the 2010 WNBA season because of a shoulder injury, and about half of last season because of torn cartilage in her knee. Admittedly, other nations' teams have their injury worries, too.
But then there's the reality that the United States practices together much less than any other squad going into the Olympics. The WNBA needs the Americans playing on the league teams. That and their overseas commitments limit the amount of time the U.S. squad is actually together as a team. Neither is Team USA's head coach actually "full time."
These have been accepted facts of life for Team USA for a while. Women's basketball began as an Olympic sport in 1976, when the Soviets were still in a two-decade-plus period of dominance. But the U.S. juggernaut was building speed quickly in the post Title IX years.
The United States took silver in '76 behind the Soviets, then boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games. In the seven Olympiads since, the Americans have won six golds with a record of 47-1. Their only stumble was in 1992, with a semifinal loss to what -- for the Barcelona Games -- was called the "Unified Team." It was essentially the post-Soviet Union breakup squad.
That loss and a semifinal defeat at the hands of Brazil in the 1994 world championship prompted USA Basketball's unprecedented commitment to the team for the '96 Olympics. Prior to the Atlanta Games, the team traveled together -- with coach Tara VanDerveer on a leave of absence from Stanford -- for months playing exhibition games globally and in the United States. The Americans subsequently totally dominated the '96 Olympic tournament.
The WNBA launched the next year, in 1997. Team USA's only loss since then came in the 2006 world championship, falling to Russia in the semifinals.
So that's it: three losses for Team USA since 1984 in either the Olympics or world championships. That's why the expectations are what they are: 100 percent gold.
Clearly, there is a bigger, multifaceted picture to consider in regard to this lawsuit: How it might affect USA Basketball, the WNBA/NBA, UConn and Auriemma as one of the most prominent personalities in women's athletics.
But in terms of the London Olympics, it's fair to say that maybe there is an unexpected inkling of doubt that could creep in about the supposed "sure thing." Or perhaps that will actually fire up the American squad. It is something to watch out for.