- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
Diana Taurasi proclaimed she was ready for Rio shortly after Team USA won Saturday's gold-medal game in women's basketball. Meanwhile, her longtime friend Sue Bird -- always the more cautious and calculating of the two -- was trying to speak in her customary measured diplomacy about returning for the 2016 Olympics.
But then well, Bird grinned and submerged for the moment into Taurasi's glorious wave of fearless optimism. DT probably doesn't believe that she'll ever stop playing competitive basketball. Or, at least, her mind won't go there.
Taurasi will be 34 for the next Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Certainly young enough, in a general sense, to still be a top-level player.
Still, so far this WNBA season, though, Taurasi has appeared in just two of the Phoenix Mercury's 19 games because of a hip injury. The wear and tear of nearly year-round play does get harder to take as athletes age, even if their competitive hearts are eternally young.
And four years can be a lifetime in the athletic realm. We can't know for sure who amongst the 11 American women's hoops gold medalists will be in position to go for a sixth consecutive Olympic gold in 2016. We can't even be certain how many will still be on the U.S. squad for the 2014 world championship in Turkey.
But this much we do know: The Americans don't appear to be losing any ground in women's hoops. The Olympic tournament was the coronation that everyone expected. Still, that predictability shouldn't be confused with inevitability.
Does the United States have the largest talent pool to choose from? Obviously, and it's not getting any smaller. But that alone is not a gold guarantee. A mindset must be forged with each group of players -- even if they've "been there" before -- for every competition they enter.
Since the women's back-to-back semifinal losses in the '92 Olympics and '94 world championship, USA Basketball hasn't taken anything for granted. That's not to say they really did that before then. But those defeats -- distant as they might seem -- still ring as alarm bells in USA Basketball's institutional memory.
Of course, Team USA doesn't have to go back that far to a less-than-golden result: The Americans won bronze in the 2006 world championship after a semifinal loss to Russia. That is still vivid in the minds of the five current Olympians -- Taurasi, Bird, Tamika Catchings, Seimone Augustus and Candace Parker -- who were on that '06 world team.
Having talent no doubt means a great deal. But that, in and of itself, won't get anyone a spot on the U.S. team. USA Basketball doesn't have the opportunity to get the team together as much as it would like. But it does have the luxury of being a stickler about commitment to whatever practices, exhibitions and games there are.
If you're healthy and can be there, then you better be there. Otherwise, someone is going to take your place.
For all the differences in personalities, backgrounds and experiences among the players on these past five gold-winning U.S. squads, there has been a unifying thread: team first. And not just because it's required. But because it's considered an honor.
That's a very tangible attitude that has been passed down as a sacred trust. It has been embraced by all who've made the U.S. national team, at least for the duration of their time playing on that team.
Everyone -- even those with a tendency toward crankiness/being obstinate/in their own worlds -- has subverted some of her natural star-like qualities to fit under the stars-and-stripes umbrella.
Some will suggest that the 41-game Olympic winning streak says more about the rest of the world's inability to challenge Team USA than it does about the accomplishment of the Americans. But that's not really being fair to either side, USA nor the "world."
Other nations have improved their commitment and training in women's basketball. Do they still have a ways to go? Sure, but overall, there are more countries playing better, such as first-time Olympic medalist France. Yet it's hard to see that progress when measured against the United States, because the Americans keep improving, too.
Ten things we'll take away from the London Games women's basketball tournament:
1. The deep end of the pool: This continues to be the hardest thing to conquer for Team USA's opponents: depth in basketball talent in the United States. Consider that of the top 10 in scoring average in this WNBA season thus far, half are Americans who aren't even on the Olympic team.
The effect of that depth was multifaceted and made a difference in every game in London. Team USA always had fresh legs to go to, especially key because it provided coach Geno Auriemma consistently dependable defensive-strategy options.
His UConn championship teams, as polished as they could be much of the time offensively, still had a bedrock of defense. Similarly, his Olympic team defended with vigor and skill. Over the course of 40 minutes, the Americans' defense was far too much for any of their foes.
Special mention goes to Angel McCoughtry, who came off the bench and averaged just 14.9 minutes, yet was Team USA's second leading scorer (10.9 ppg) and led the team in steals with 20. She goes back to her Atlanta Dream with a gold medal and the pride of having been an important sparkplug in her first Olympic tournament.
2. Auriemma's trophy case: Coaches don't get medals, but symbolically Auriemma now adds Olympic gold to his lengthy list of head-coaching accomplishments. His team won its games in London by an average of 34.4 points, but everything wasn't all that easy for him.
He has had to balance his national-team duties long with coaching UConn, which lost a difficult game against Big East rival Notre Dame in the Final Four this year.
And Auriemma is still facing an employment discrimination lawsuit in which he, USA Basketball and the NBA are named as defendants by NBA security official Kelly Hardwick. He said the suit wouldn't be "a distraction" for the U.S. team during the Olympics, and it certainly didn't appear to be. But it still must be resolved, and -- fair or not -- Auriemma has been forced to publicly defend his reputation.
UConn has a bumper crop of young recruits coming in, including the top-ranked player in this freshman class, Breanna Stewart. His immediate attention can now go back to the Huskies. He has multitasked between USA Basketball and UConn very well.
3. "UConnization" worked out fine: There's no way the folks who were irritated that UConn grads made up half of Team USA's 12-player roster were going to be appeased by the gold medal. They are still irritated, mostly because they felt that two of the former Huskies -- Asjha Jones and Swin Cash -- got bench spots that conceivably could have gone to other American players.
But Jones and Cash did their jobs in London; Jones in particular was a noticeable defensive presence along with another former Huskies player, Tina Charles, in the second-half effort to shut down Australia's Liz Cambage in the semifinals.
Taurasi was the team's leading scorer (12.4 ppg), and Charles also averaged in double figures at 10.5. Bird remained rock-solid at point guard. Maya Moore more than held her own in her first Olympics. Ultimately, the Huskies all contributed to the gold effort, and blended in with the other six players very well.
4. Los Lynx: The ride continues for Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Moore. They won a WNBA title with the Minnesota Lynx last fall, are currently in first place in the Western Conference and now have claimed a gold medal together.
It's the second for Augustus and the first for Whalen and Moore. All three played key minutes for Team USA, with Whalen and Augustus coming off the bench the entirety of the tournament and Moore starting five of the Americans' eight games.
The Lynx got off to a hot start this WNBA season, but cooled off a bit before the Olympic break. Minnesota is 15-4, with San Antonio -- winner of nine in a row -- at 13-5 and Los Angeles at 15-6 in the West.
In the glow of the gold, the Lynx trio now has to get back to work trying to defend Minnesota's WNBA title.
5. They back Pat: It has been such an emotional past year for everyone in the Tennessee family, including two of the greatest players to wear the orange. Pat Summitt's brave and public battle against early-onset dementia has affected Candace Parker and Tamika Catching very deeply, and both surely made her quite proud as they continued to carry on the extensive Tennessee legacy in the Olympics.
Parker initially was a starter in London, but then came off the bench for the final five games of the tournament. And she saved her best for last, playing a terrific gold-medal game in which she reminded everyone just how multiskilled she is on the court. Parker averaged 10.6 points and a team-best 7.8 rebounds at her second Summer Games, and now returns to the Los Angeles Sparks to try to help them overtake the Lynx in the West.
Catchings, who was the WNBA's MVP last year, won her third Olympic gold. She started every game in London and continues to be the queen of doing all the "dirty" work. Catchings turned 33 in July, yet she still plays every game with that "What if this is my last one?" hustle.
6. LJ's legacy: Olympic gold might be out of Lauren Jackson's grasp, but you have to greatly admire how much she has meant to Australia's women's basketball program. The Opals began their elevation in the sport before Jackson was with them, and won their first Olympic medal -- a bronze -- in the 1996 Atlanta Games. But since then she has become the best women's player in that nation's history, now with three Olympic silvers and a bronze. Plus she had the honor of being Australia's flag bearer in the 2012 opening ceremonies.
Jackson will be 35 in 2016, so her Olympic playing days could still be ongoing. It's just that it's hard to see the Aussies necessarily having any better chance in Rio than they did in London because of the Americans' continued strength.
But maybe geography will be a lucky charm for Australia. Their 2006 world championship title came in Brazil, although they didn't beat Team USA there to get it.
7. Growing Cambage: Speaking of the Aussies and their future, we saw some real progress from center Cambage, who turns 21 this week. She's essentially the age of a college junior or senior, which is good to keep in mind when critiquing her game.
She had one of the signature moments of this Olympic women's hoops competition with her dunk against Russia. And she had a signature half of basketball with 19 points in the opening 20 minutes against Team USA.
But her second half against the Americans showed where Cambage -- Tulsa's first pick in the 2011 WNBA draft -- still needs growth. Her stamina has to improve to where she can battle the likes of Team USA for a lot closer to 40 minutes.
That will help the Aussies for the remainder of her national-team career, plus make her into the marquee player the Shock hope she can be in the WNBA.
8. Russia's rough Olympics: In the history of women's basketball's international competitions -- dating back to the inaugural world championship in 1953 -- the Russian squad has been in three different forms: USSR, Unified Team and Russia. The first two, of course, were in different geopolitical times.
The USSR team comprised the entirety of the former Soviet Union from '53 until its official breakup in December 1991. With the Barcelona Games in 1992 so soon after that, the "Unified Team" -- quite an ironic made-up name for a squad from a region in such chaotic upheaval -- was the compromise solution. By 1996, Russia was defined as such without its former satellite republics, who competed independently.
Nonetheless, for the general purpose of this discussion, we'll combine the results of all of those teams under just "Russia." Through the first nine Olympic tournaments, Russia competed in eight, having boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games. The Russians medaled in six of those Olympiads, including the past two with bronzes in 2004 and '08.
In the 16 world championship tournaments, the Russians have medaled 11 times, with six golds. They won silver in 1998, 2002 and '06, beating the United States in the latter. But with their loss to Australia in this year's bronze-medal game at the 10th Olympic tourney, it now makes two consecutive major events in which the Russians have not won a medal. They were seventh in the 2010 world championship.
The Russians were 4-4 in this Olympic tournament, and were led in scoring (12.1 ppg) and assists (32) by American import Becky Hammon. She has made a career out of exceeding expectations, so it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that she'll go for another Olympics at 39. But she certainly can't be looked at as Russia's future. How Russia battles to get back/maintain its status in international women's hoops will be interesting to watch for the next four years.
9. French connection: Contributing to Russia's fall in these Olympics was the elevation of France.
The French played well as a team, pulling off the tournament's biggest upset with an overtime win against Australia in pool play. By the time they reached the gold-medal game against the Americans, the run was over. But the French silver medalists have to consider these Olympics a major step forward for the national team.
10. Around the world: What stood out among the rest of the field? Turkey, which has invested much more in the sport in recent years, finished second in Pool A behind the Americans. Turkey lost by three points to Russia in the quarterfinals, and seems to be a nation on the way up. Likewise, Canada -- which lost to Team USA in the quarterfinals -- should feel like it's making some progress.
But it was a down Olympics in this sport for the host nation of the next Summer Games. Brazil won silver in 1996, bronze in 2000 and was fourth in 2004. But the Brazilians finished next-to-last in the 2008 Beijing Games, and at 1-4 this year were better than only host Great Britain and Angola, both of which were winless.
Brazil and Australia are the only countries to break the gold threshold at either the Olympics or world championships besides Team USA and Russia (in its various aforementioned forms). Brazil's gold came in the 1994 world championship, which admittedly now seems eons ago.
Brazil's plunge in women's hoops is in direct contrast to the country's more successful women's indoor volleyball program. In that sport, the Brazilians were defending Olympic champions, but considered the underdog in this tournament to the United States. Yet in the gold-medal match, Brazil beat Team USA.
Volleyball is hugely popular in Brazil, and so that will be a major focus of the hosts in Rio. But can the Brazilians also get some women's basketball mojo back by then?
12dBonnie D. Ford