Storm Stars Clash in World Championships

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Kevin Pelton, | September 11, 2006
In terms of prestige, at least in the United States, the World Championships fall somewhere below the Olympics as an elite international basketball competition. That doesn't change the importance of the 2006 FIBA World Championships, which open tomorrow in Brazil, for the Storm players and Head Coach Anne Donovan battling for a gold medal.

"It's different from the Olympics, but it's still a major competition," said Sue Bird, who is participating in her second World Championship after winning it with the U.S. in 2002. "Now that I actually know a lot of the players that play on the Russian team, this is their Olympics. This isn't a joking matter. I'm looking forward to that.

"I'm really honored to be on the team and want to do the best that I can for the gold medal."
courtesy USA Basketball
"The World Championships are something that USA Basketball in general is going to take very seriously. I'm really honored to be on the team and want to do the best that I can for the gold medal."

The U.S. women bring a remarkable track record of success into this tournament, having won gold in the last two World Championships (1998 in Germany and 2002 in China) and each of the last three Olympics (1996 in Atlanta, 2000 in Sydney and 2004 in Athens). Over that span, the U.S. has gone 42-0 in the World Championships and Olympics, an incredible run of dominance.

Now, however, the U.S. enters something of a transition period. The core of the USA roster for the past decade has been guard Dawn Staley, forward Sheryl Swoopes and center Lisa Leslie. Staley will be in Brazil, but on the sidelines - she's now an assistant coach. Leslie was on the World Championship roster before being forced to pull out last week because of a family emergency. Swoopes is the only member of the famed 1996 team left playing for the U.S., and even she has been limited by back spasms during the team's training in North Carolina.

The task of building a new American women's hoops juggernaut belongs to Donovan, who has been preparing to lead the U.S. for decades. She did so as a player, making three U.S. Olympic squads and winning two gold medals, the latter as a co-captain in 1988. Since moving to the sidelines, Donovan has served as an assistant coach in Athens and at the last two World Championships.

"Russia, Australia, China, Brazil - they're all looking for that crack," said Donovan when she was named head coach in January. "It's our job to make sure there isn't a crack. I think with the caliber of players that we've got in the USA, nobody's going to find that crack. We're going to spend every minute making sure that we don't have a weakness. My perception is that we are strong because we know we have to work at it. We don't take anything for granted. We've had great leadership with the players that understand that people are breathing down our necks and if we let up or there's an expectation that we're just going to pick up a gold medal, that's when we'll falter."

Another key player in the USA's transition is Bird, who steps into Staley's role as point guard. Not only will Bird be asked to run the U.S. offense and get her superstar teammates the looks they need, but her leadership will also be critical. At 25, Bird is still a young player, but she is not much younger than Staley was in 1996 (26) and has won championships in high school, college and the WNBA as well as helping the U.S. to gold in Athens as a reserve. Bird's leadership grew dramatically during the Storm's 2006 season, and it will be tested again in Brazil.

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"I think Sue's well and truly ready for her spot on the national team, and she's going to lead them, I'm sure," says Storm forward and Australian star Lauren Jackson. "She's playing awesome basketball at the moment and I believe that she's going to be the captain and leader for a long time to come."

Still, the USA's transition period - particularly given the recent withdrawals from the roster of both Leslie but also Yolanda Griffith - seems to provide an opening for countries like Australia, Russia and host Brazil. All three have challenged the U.S. at times during the decade of dominance, only to fall short. Australia helped destroy some of the USA's invincibility with a win in the Opals World Challenge in Canberra this spring. Though the U.S. was without several star players and facing a hostile crowd, a win against the U.S. is still a win.

Just don't tell it to Jackson, who used her season wrap-up session with the Seattle media to laud her opposition.

"We would have to have the game of our lives to beat the team they've got. It's not unheard of. It could very well happen."
Stuart Hanagan/Getty Images
"They're a powerhouse," Jackson said. "America is the best women's basketball power. There's no doubt. We would have to have the game of our lives to beat the team they've got. It's not unheard of. It could very well happen. I'm going to go out there and give it 100%. Hopefully, on that gold-medal game day, that's our day. In all honesty, I have so much more respect for USA Basketball now than I did before I came over here. Watching the players grow up, watching them develop, the way that they're treated, the professionalism, it's phenomenal. It's kind of awesome just to be a part of it over here, be involved."

When the two teams met in a friendly exhibition last week in Durham, N.C., the U.S. eked out a 56-49 victory in a defensive struggle. The USA was without guard Katie Smith and forward/center Cheryl Ford, helping the Detroit Shock to the WNBA title, while Swoopes sat out because of her back, but the result indicated the U.S. and Australia are competitive.

The Opals have on their side their intense desire to beat the U.S. and win gold in a major competition. When asked to compare winning a gold and winning the WNBA Championship, Jackson doesn't hesitate to say the gold is more important personally, explaining, "It's my country."

Russia could pose a bigger problem for the U.S., however - pun intended. Russia's size presents an issue for a U.S. squad with only one player ( Michelle Snow) taller than 6-3. Russia counters with the world's tallest front line, anchored by 6-8 WNBA vet Maria Stepanova. In the Athens Olympics, the Russians threatened the U.S. in the semifinals before falling 66-62. The two teams are paired in powerhouse Group C, which also includes China and Nigeria.

Brazil, which stars another international Storm player - forward Iziane Castro Marques - can reasonably expect to be an ungracious host in the World Championships. Brazil finished a disappointing seventh in the 2002 World Championships, but has reached the semifinals of the other three most recent major international competitions, losing to Australia in the semis in Athens.

If two of the group of Australia, Brazil and the United States do meet in the finals, it will be a somewhat awkward matchup for the Storm players squaring off against each other - especially since all three will play key roles. Even in 2004, when Bird was a deep reserve for the U.S., Jackson found going up against her close friend challenging.

"It's bizarre, because she's my partner in crime, mate," said Jackson. "Having to suit up against her, it's weird. Even in the Athens Olympics, having to warm up and look down on the other end and see Sue, it's like, 'Really? Do I have to?' Then setting a screen on her, it's hard. 'What do I do?' It's difficult, but it's fun."