USA All the Way
The 2008 Beijing Olympics is just around the corner and many of the best women's basketball in the United States have convened in New York this week to begin the long road back to Gold. The U.S. team will have the opportunity to punch their ticket to the Olympics at the FIBA Americas Tournament that begins in Chile September 26th. Practice began last night at John Jay College on the west side of Manhattan, tipping off a busy fall training schedule and a year-long pursuit.
Despite winning the last three Olympics, the U.S. Women's Senior National team must qualify for the Olympics after coming in third in the 2006 FIBA World Championships in Brazil, finishing behind first place Australia and second place Russia. And while the bronze medal finish was disappointing (Tina Thompson says she never even took her medal home), the loss has furthered the squad's desire to be the best team in the world.
"We know we are better than a bronze medal," Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said after the first team practice on Friday night. "That is just going to be motivation for us to come in, work really hard to get that qualifying spot, so we can get ready for the Olympics and prove that we are the top team in the world."
While the players are fired up, coach Anne Donovan would also like to use the
loss as a learning experience.
"When there is a bronze medal you really have to identify what the problem was and make sure you are focused on fixing it," Donovan explained.
Friday night was the team's first practice since a spring training camp in Italy, but many of the familiar faces for the U.S. program were not in attendance. While the national team player pool is listed at 27 players, fewer than half will be taking part in the camp due mostly to injuries and the WNBA Finals. And with only a few weeks to prepare for Chile, the team must adjust quickly.
"It is a short time frame," Sacramento's Kara Lawson said. "There are a lot of player playing together for the first time or even who haven't played that long together here. Then we have a lot of players that aren't here that we will have to integrate quickly. I think it's a matter for us just trying to gel as quickly as possible."
Lawson was not an original member of the national team pool but was added to the rsoter this week. Injuries to U.S. players Sheryl Swoopes, Tamika Catchings, and Lindsey Harding as well as player absences due to other obligations caused the committee to reach out to other players. The team officially announced the additions of Kara Lawson, Monarchs teammate Rebekkah Brunson, Connecticut's Asjha Jones and Stanford's Candice Wiggins on Friday.
"The beautiful thing about the United States is that we have a lot of talented
players here," Donovan said. "The difficult thing about the players we lost
is that they have a lot of experience and they have a lot of heart and passion."
With a roster including veterans over the age of 30 as well as college players, the team is working together to challenge each other and forge a new identity. That also includes the experienced players teaching the upcoming generation about international play.
"We learn a lot from the veterans," Tennessee's Candace Parker said. "They have great leadership. They show us the ropes because the international game is a lot different than what we are use to playing."
Young or old, college or pro, the goal is all the same.
"We know that the target is always on our back, whether we came in first, second, third or eighteenth," Seattle Storm guard and 2004 Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird said. "No matter what, the U.S. is always the team to beat. We are just thinking about Chile and qualification. We just really want to qualify for the Olympics and go from there."
In the first practice, Donovan and her coaching staff emphasized defense, sharing the ball and a selfless attitude.
"Defense is our focus right now because that is something you can always control as a team. That is an area that you can gel really quickly if everyone buys into it and gives maximum effort," Lawson said.
"We are all here for one goal and that is to win a gold medal. No egos, no selfishness on this team," Augustus added.
Before heading to the FIBA Americas Tournament beginning later this month, the U.S. will have quite a busy schedule. In addition to training in New York, the Americans will spend a few days playing on U.S. assistant coach Dawn Staley's home court at Temple University. They will then play two exhibition matches against the World Champions on September 16th in Trenton and September 19th in Connecticut. The Australian National Team featuring Lauren Jackson and Tully Bevilaqua will also be using these games as a tune-up for the Olympics next summer.
Immediately following the exhibition games, the will travel to Chile. But only 12 players will be packing as the USA Basketball women's committee will have some tough decisions to cut the expanded pool to a 12 woman roster.
"The committee will be looking for a group that plays well together, very unselfishly and keeps the team concept above all," Donovan said.
And with the best players practicing and playing hard together, it is no longer about finding the best talent, but about creating the strongest team that has the best chance of winning in Chile and, ultimately, in Beijing.