After a lengthy and circuitous trip across the pond, I have arrived here in Athens,
home of the first and the latest Olympic Games. As some of you may have heard,
we are staying on a large cruise ship, actually the largest cruise ship in the
world, the Queen Mary II, docked here in the harbor in Athens.
In addition to staying with other analysts and broadcasters, the ship is filled with corporate sponsors, Olympic officials and the U.S. Menís and Womenís Olympic basketball teams. There is a buzz and an excitement surrounding this entire event that I have not felt for a long time. The U.S. team is focused, motivated and prepared and kicks things off early Saturday morning (7:30 Eastern) against New Zealand.
The bulk of the team, especially the core group, has played together and knows
each other inside and out. They went to Cuba and Europe together and toured
the U.S. in the spring to play three games against Japan. Lisa Leslie, Dawn
Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, Yolanda Griffith and Katie Smith return again in 2004
as the core from the 2000 Olympic team. For Leslie, Staley and Swoopes, this
is their third Olympics, and when this core group gets together, the rest just
falls into place. Then you can throw Tamika Catchings and Shannon Johnson in
with that group because they were a part of that 2002 World Championships team
(and Sue Bird, too, but she didnít get to play too much in 2002). They know
each otherís roles on this team.
This may be the last Olympics for a few of the players, but I wouldnít count
Lisa out. Believe it or not, this is probably the oldest National team we have
had. We were younger in Atlanta and Barcelona. We had an older team in 1996,
but it was mostly late 20ís. This year, we have several players in their 30ís:
Smith, Griffith, Swoopes, Leslie, Staley. This is our oldest team, but our wisest
and most veteran team. I only wish we could have had Teresa Edwards on the team,
just for that nostalgia. She is a five-time Olympian!
Leslie and Thompson
Lisa Leslie is arguably the best player in the world right now (along with Lauren Jackson), and there isnít really anyone coming up behind her just yet. She has done so much for the WUSA and the USA Team. Iím not sure Cheryl Ford or Ruth Riley are those types of players. Some of the players in college now might get a look in four years, but Lisa Leslie is irreplaceable. Who knows what the future holds?
We also have some great youth on the team with Taurasi, Bird, Cash, Catchings
and Riley. I also think Thompson is a player who will be around in 2008 if she
is healthy and wants to play again. The Olympics are the stage that people think
about in terms of international basketball, but even our younger players have
gotten experience in the world championships, tournaments and exhibition tours.
Ruth Riley is the latest addition to the team, a good one at that, but we are
going to miss DeLisha Milton-Jones. She was a 2000 Olympian but what she does
defensively, her ability to guard different positions and rebound, are huge.
Even without Milton-Jones, there is so much experience on this team because
of the fact that they all play in the WNBA.
So what should we expect to see from the 2004 team? Dominance inside, stellar
defense, great passing and sweet shooting, of course, but this will also be
a fun team. They have been playing together and getting time, which is important
for their confidence. There will be players who will have to accept their role
and will not get as much playing time, but because of the rigors of the WNBA
season, fatigue and injuries will be a factor. The other teams have an advantage
over the Americans in that they have been playing together. They also have not
been beating each other up like the WNBA does to the Americans. These other
countries have been training and know each other inside out, have the experience
of playing together and have already accepted their roles.
Donít think for one minute that the Americans are coming in as underdogs. They are banged up as a result of most intense WNBA season so far. Tina Thompson had the calf strain. Diana Taurasi had the hip pointer, Sheryl Swoopes had a toe and ankle bothering her, Katie Smith has a knee problem, Dawn Staley tweaked an ankle earlier in the year, Lisa Leslie continually takes a beating, Shannon Johnson and Swin Cash each tweaked ankles and Sue Bird had a knee operation in the offseason. You have to hope no one will be affected by these injuries, but this is an emotionally and physically demanding situation that the U.S. Team has to be ready for.
But I donít think any of the Americans are looking forward to resting. They donít have that attitude. As Katie smith said a few days ago, ďif we canít get up for 8 games in 16 days, then we have a problem.Ē
Lauren Jackson, Australia
The gold medal expectations on the U.S. are huge, but it will be difficult
this year. Russia, Australia, Brazil and Czech Republic are teams that are ready
to rock the Athens court. People are familiar with Australia and Russia, but
I donít think you can count out some of these other teams. Even without Seattleís
Kamila Vodichkova, the Czech Republic is a team that will contend. Brazil has
Janeth Arcain, but there are also several players who got WNBA looks that just
didnít make it. They play with a different style on their national teams and
are very dangerous. South Korea and China always give us a tough game.
I think it is definitely closer than it ever had been before. It is almost
like 2000 and 2002 were for the menís team. Our American men have been working
with the coaches and players overseas for so many years that they have caught
up. It is not entirely the same for the women yet, but it is close. They are
not intimidated and this is the first year that we will see WNBA representation
from a number of other countries. Letís not forget that many WNBA players did
not come back this year and chose to stay home and train with their National
Other countries are all about the Olympics. It used to be that way for the U.S., but we donít use amateurs anymore, so things have changed. There is an excitement about the menís team because they are a young team that most resembles a team of college players. Their excitement and youthful exuberance also means that they arenít burned out yet. The players that are going are the ones that want to represent their country.
U.S. Womenís Basketball has dominated the sport for a decade, ever since they
were upset by Brazil at the 1994 World Championships. The Soviets once dominated
the sport, winning in 1976 and 1980. The true measure of the U.S. turning the
corner was beating the Russians in the 1986 World Championships and Goodwill
Games (which were held in the Soviet Union Ė that was huge!). Then we beat them
in 1988 and that got things going.
I was a member of the inaugural 1976 team, which was a good, young team. 1980
was our biggest team and our best shooting team, but because of the boycott,
we never got the chance to prove it. That team had five players average in double
figures and five players shoot over 60 percent from the field when we played
internationally. Even in 1984, there were some bench players and young players,
but that team just blew people away. 1988 was the first year we scored 100 points.
But the Atlanta team had played so long together, that five of the eight games
in the Olympics we scored over 100 points. 1996 had big-name players. There
wasnít that kind of exposure in 1992. 1996 was the turning point. In 2000, we
only had three players score in double figures.
This has been a 12-team competitionsince 1996. In the first few Women's Olympic
Basketball competitions, there was a round-robbin tournament with only eight
teams. The newer format makes it harder because you first have to come out of
your pool and then start playing elimination games. You could be third in the
pool and still win the gold medal. That is why the Russians are so savvy. They
will lose a game in their pool, holding something back for the medal rounds.
That game of possum is exactly what they did to the U.S. in the World Championships.
We killed them in the first rounds by almost 30 points, but they came back in
the gold medal game to only lose by three. They are very well known for playing
possum in the pool play.
There has always been a pride with these women about representing their country.
It certainly shows with Lisa, Dawn, Sheryl and Katie, the ones who have been
there in the past. They have proudly worn the U.S.A. jersey for a long time
and will continue to do so. With the demand on their bodies, there is something
different this year, but because of the professional exposure of the other international
teams, other nations wonít be as intimidated.
So who wins the gold? It should be the United States, but it will be a tough fight.