- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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BRISTOL, Conn. -- Lindsay Whalen tried to find a way to explain the timing she shares with Maya Moore on the basketball court, a connection between one of the best facilitators in the women's game and one of its best finishers who already helped the pair win both a world championship for the United States and a WNBA title for the Minnesota Lynx.
"Just last night ," Whalen began in reference to a game between the Lynx and the Tulsa Shock, their last WNBA game before they and teammate Seimone Augustus departed to join Team USA in preparation for the Olympics.
From a nearby chair, Moore interrupted to confirm the play before her point guard ever got to describe it: Whalen getting an outlet pass in the middle of the lane, lobbing a pass from just shy of half court that Moore collected in stride and put in for a layup, the ball never touching her left hand from catch to finish. It was one of three consecutive baskets on which they collaborated and came all of 20 seconds after Whalen hit Moore on a backdoor cut so perfect it could be clipped for an instructional video, but both minds drifted to the same mental image at the same moment.
"That was a nice pass," Moore said, her voice rising with residual glee as she fist-bumped her teammate.
"It was good," Whalen allowed with a grin.
Timing is everything in basketball. Sometimes it means waiting for an opportunity to present itself, as when Whalen paused to survey the court open ahead of her on that particular play, patiently waiting for a pass to present itself. Sometimes it means barreling ahead without a second of hesitation, as when Moore sprinted up the wing, confident a reward awaited.
It's true running a fast break against Tulsa. And it's true in fulfilling Olympic ambitions. For the youngest first-time Olympian on Team USA and one of the oldest, one play showed why the time is now for both.
Age difference notwithstanding, these Olympics represent the last "first" of any significance that either Moore, 23, or Whalen, 30, will experience in basketball. Both played in the Final Four while in college at Connecticut and Minnesota, respectively. Both played in a world championship and won gold with the United States in 2010 in the Czech Republic. Both played in the WNBA Finals and won a championship last season. Now both will participate in the Olympics for the first time, Moore as the youngest of four first-timers on the American roster and Whalen the second-oldest of a quartet that also includes Asjha Jones, 31, and Angel McCoughtry, 25.
"It's something we've all worked hard for, and it's been a goal we've all had for so many years," Whalen said. "To be able to make it this year is huge."
They just did it in their own time.
Whalen was in the running to make her Olympic debut four years ago in Beijing. The fourth overall pick in the 2004 WNBA draft already was an established star in the league by the time the 2008 U.S. team took shape, but she lost out to a guard rotation that included Sue Bird, Kara Lawson and Cappie Pondexter.
"That team was a great team of players and had lots of players who deserved to be on that team, and they deserved it over me," Whalen said. "I feel like if you say you gave yourself the best shot, or you were playing the best you could, then you can't [regret it]. Of course it would have been great, but now this year is my time to be on the team."
Whalen would have been younger than seven players who ultimately made the American roster that won gold in 2008. Now just two months past her 30th birthday, she is hardly an old-timer, but she is older than many she'll march alongside in the opening ceremonies in London. According to USA Today, the average age of the entire U.S. delegation in Beijing four years ago was 26.8, in line with the average age of the delegation from Olympics over the past two decades. Only four of Whalen's teammates on the current basketball roster, which has an average age of 28.1, are older than her, and three are repeat Olympians.
It's not as if Whalen lacked for ability four years ago, or that a U.S. team that went unbeaten with an average margin of victory of nearly 40 points would have suffered with her on the team. But those intervening years, in which she went from being a young player amidst veterans with the Connecticut Sun to one of the veteran leaders of a young Lynx team and an important part of Team USA in the world championships, were not spent in stasis.
"I've had to learn how to become more of a vocal leader," Whalen said of her time in the WNBA. "I think that leading by example is something I've always tried to do, or that most people try to do. I think the speaking up, the talking, is something I've kind of had to learn. Coming in as a rookie and playing with the players I played with -- I played with so many great vets, so of course I wasn't going to say a whole lot. But now on [the Lynx], where I'm one of the older ones, I think that's a role that even in this year and last year has really become more important for me to be able to do."
If patience played a pivotal role in sending Whalen to London, Moore's impatience earned her the trip. She has played for five teams in the past 15 months: Connecticut, the national team that went to the 2010 world championships, the Lynx, a now-defunct Spanish pro team and the current version of Team USA. Before she knew they would be teammates on the Lynx, Whalen watched the only college player on the team that won gold in the Czech Republic walk into those practices and look at home among players not yet her peers.
"She came in and just played," Whalen said. "She played her game, came in and did her thing, did what's made her so successful, whether it's playing great defense, shooting the 3, getting out in transition."
If Moore didn't show a lot of rookie nerves in helping the Lynx to a title last season, it was because it wasn't her first time competing against professionals. Her entire career, like those sprints down the sideline in transition, has been an exercise in getting places as quickly as she possibly can. London is just the next stop.
"As I got older and I started to see some of the opportunities that I'd be able to have if I kept on the right road, the Olympics was definitely something I wanted to be a part of," Moore said. "I just wasn't sure when. And then every year as I participated with USA Basketball, I knew I had a good opportunity as long as I worked hard and continued to develop, and it ended up happening."
There won't be much time for soaking in the Olympic atmosphere between practices and games, but aside from hoping to get at least one meal of fish and chips, the opening ceremonies will drive home where they are.
"Just a surreal kind of a time when the magnitude of everything hits you, that's what I've heard," Moore said of that walk. "It's just a fun time to see everybody. I can't wait to experience it myself."
She couldn't wait. Whalen did. Timing is everything with these two.
11hBonnie D. Ford