- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LONDON -- If the U.S. women's basketball team really wants the attention it deserves for its Olympic success and world dominance, there is a simple solution. Just lose.
"What?" point guard Sue Bird said. "Bite your tongue right now!"
I understand Bird's reaction, but trust me. A loss or two, a missed gold medal (and perhaps the players trashing their rooms afterward), and the team will receive the media's full-court pressure. As coach Geno Auriemma said, "The only [women's basketball] story that will come out of these Olympics is if we lose. And that will be a big story."
A loss briefly seemed like a possibility in Saturday's Olympic tournament opener against Croatia before the Americans squandered a terrific media opportunity by rallying from a first-half deficit. Missing easy layups, clanging shots off the rim and turning over the ball repeatedly, the United States trailed by three late in the second quarter. And this, mind you, was against a team it beat by 54 points in an exhibition last week.
"I really think what you saw was some early jitters," Bird said. "Some missed layups, some missed easy shots we normally make, and that kind of kept Croatia in the game."
Eventually, the United States outscored Croatia 29-8 in the fourth quarter for a comfortable 25-point victory, 81-56. Team USA found its shooting touch but its great depth was the real difference -- "We could probably field two Olympic teams," Bird said -- and it has been the difference since the American women's team last lost an Olympic game, 20 years ago in Barcelona.
"They are the best team in the world," Croatia's Ana Lelas said. "Croatia is such a small country, with four million and five hundred thousand people, compared to the States, where I bet they have four million just women's basketball players. I remember during Soviet times, we could compete with the U.S. Today is very hard. They have more experience. They don't need to play two months together to get used to each other. I think they had 10 days. I think it's easy to coach a team like that."
Well, Auriemma might have a slightly different view.
Saturday's victory was the Americans' 34th consecutive in Olympic play, and the United States is gunning for a fifth consecutive gold medal. And yet, for some reason, there is more attention on the U.S. women's soccer team, which hasn't accomplished nearly as much.
Bird isn't as upset about that as her teammate and good friend Diana Taurasi, but she also finds it perplexing. She said the team's success is so taken for granted that a couple of fans asked her Friday who the United States was playing in the first game, and when she answered, "Croatia," they said, "Oh, we don't want to go to that one."
"If a men's team would have done what we've done, I think people would be applauding them and congratulating them," Bird said. "And for whatever reason, when it's women's basketball, it's, 'Oh, the competition is terrible!' or 'Oh, they should do that.' It's expected, and no one really truly appreciates it. They expect it. And for some reason, soccer doesn't have that. Maybe it's because they lose a couple times."
That's what I'm talking about, Sue.
As you might expect, Auriemma has given this issue considerable thought. After all, he has dealt with the side issues that come with dominance at UConn.
"I think when you live in the United States and you're a great women's basketball player and you're a great women's basketball team," he said, "you have to live in a country where the best basketball players and the best basketball team in the world live: the men's team. So you're always going to be compared to that team and those players, and you're always going to come up short. That's just the nature of the game.
"Basketball is the most popular women's team sport in America. The women's soccer team gets a lot of attention once every four years, but all the rest of the time, women's basketball gets about just all the attention for any women's team sport in America. But when it comes time to the Olympics, it's like, 'Yeah, they're going to win.' That's unfortunate. And it's not fair to these players and the ones who came before them. I don't know that there's anything we can do about that except just play."
Well, they also could lose and snap their winning streak. Although, given that their next opponent is Angola, that's not going to happen.
"Right now the only streak we're talking about is winning one in a row as many times as possible," Auriemma said. "We're not thinking about what the other teams did in the Olympics."
The shame is, not enough people think about what the other teams did, either. Or, for that matter, what this one probably will do as well.