Each week leading up to the Olympic Games later this summer, we will introduce you to the WNBA players who will be representing their countries in Athens. From first-timers to veteran Olympians, the WNBA's best and brightest stars will be showcasing their skills on the world's biggest stage.

Elena Baranova, Russia
By Matt Wurst, WNBA.com
The Basics

Country Russia
Hometown Moscow, Russia
WNBA Team New York Liberty
Position Center
Height 6-5
Weight 182 lbs.
Birthday January 28, 1972
Olympic exp. 1992, 1996
Both the game of basketball and the greater global landscape have changed over the course of New York Liberty center Elena Baranova's accomplished career. But while she has worn many different jerseys over the years, she knows what country she is playing for in Athens.

The oldest and most experienced player on the Russian Olympic team, Baranova won a gold medal playing for the Unified Team in 1992 and even suited up for the Soviet Union back in the day. She joined the Soviet National Team in 1989, and won a gold medal at the European Championships two years later. That proved to be the last major title for the Soviet Union, which broke up that year. In 1996, Baranova first played for a Russian team, but finished a disappointing fifth in Atlanta. She was the tournament's second-leading scorer (20.3 points) and top rebounder (13.1), but was unable to play in the 2000 Sydney Games due to a knee injury.

At these Olympics, Baranova knows she will be sharing the spotlight with some of her younger teammates. At the twilight of her career, Baranova compares her game to that of her idol, Larry Bird, as he neared the end of his career. She can no longer be the superstar that she once was, but she is more than capable of hitting big shots and putting points on the board when her team needs her.

The 6-5 Moscow resident was a charter WNBA player in 1997 and has moved around the league ever since. She has played with the Utah Starzz, the Miami Sol and the Liberty. Baranova is having another fine season again in 2004, averaging 12.0 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game. Her .909 free throw percentage also ranks no. 1 in the WNBA.

Baranova will be going to her third Olympics
(David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images)
Up close and Personal
Do you have any favorite Olympic sports other than basketball>
"In Atlanta, I got to watch diving, which was very nice. We were cheering for our countryman, who ended up winning the 10-meter platform competition. The pool was the closest facility to where we were, so I also got to watch the swimming and water polo events."

In your previous Olympic experiences, did you ever get to see the men's basketball teams play? What about other sports?
"Oh yes. We also watched the Dream Team – the men’s basketball team from the United States. They were a lot of fun to watch. The venues and events were so far away from each other in Atlanta that it made it harder to watch many of the other sports. Barcelona was much easier because everything was downtown."

Who is your favorite Olympian of all-time?
"I respect and admire all of the Olympians because I know how hard it is to get to that level. The training and workouts, then the qualifications – it is all so difficult. But Larry Bird is probably my favorite Olympian, just because he is my favorite all-time player, I used to watch all of his games and I love the way he played."

Are there any events you would like to see in Athens?
"I am not sure how Athens will be spaced, but I would like to watch as many different sports as I can. Maybe cycling or rowing, but whatever happens, it will be fun."

How is the international game different than what is played in the WNBA?
"It is a different style. In Russia, our game is faster and less physical. What I like about European basketball is that it is more of a passing game, more movement, more combination play and more thinking. There are also different rules. We play four 10-minute quarters, there is a 24-second shot clock, a smaller lane and a bigger ball. For me, the hardest thing about coming from Europe to here is adjusting to the smaller ball."

The United States has been the team to beat for a few years now. Do you see other nations closing the gap?
"The United States always takes the best athletes for their national team. It is very hard to beat the U.S. But as more foreigners come here to play, watch their game and learn their style, it will get easier to beat them in the future. There are a lot of talented young players in Europe, Brazil and Australia. It is a new generation. The core of the U.S. team is getting older and I do not know how much they will play their younger players like Diana Taurasi. As a result, it might be harder for the U.S. at future competitions."

Any predictions for the gold medal in Athens?
"I am very superstitious, so I don’t make predictions. All I will say is that we will play hard and do the best we can."

Game on Game
Tamika Catchings, U.S. forward:
"She is a great 3-point shooter, very dangerous and someone we will have to keep close eye on if and when we play Russia."

Sheryl Swoopes, Team U.S.A:
"Elena is another one of those players who is deceiving because even at her position she wants to go out and shoot the 3-ball a lot."

Svetlana Abrosimova, longtime Russian teammate:
"Extremely experienced and a great shot blocker. She knows the game and is a great passer. When she is there everything revolves around her."

DeLisha Milton-Jones, 2000 U.S. Olympian:
"Elena Baranova este ohno para ho basketball player. That was a little bit of Russian that I have picked up."

Tina Thompson, U.S. forward:
"She’s different to play against. Elena’s 6-5, and although she’s a post player, she shoots the ball like a point guard or shooting guard."

Katie Smith, U.S. guard:
"She is very tall and versatile. She handles the ball well and is an all-around smooth player -- she can hurt you from anywhere on the floor. Like Lisa Leslie, she is the backbone of her team and is a key player for them. I look for her to do big things."

Previous:
Ruth Riley, USA
Shannon Johnson, USA
Diana Taurasi, USA
Sheryl Swoopes, USA
Yolanda Griffith, USA
Dawn Staley, USA
Sue Bird, USA
Tina Thompson, USA
Katie Smith, USA
Lauren Jackson, Australia
Lisa Leslie, USA
Tamika Catchings, USA
Swin Cash, USA

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