U.S. women living the dream
This summer, much is being written about the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Dream Team, which represented the United States in men's basketball at the Barcelona Olympics. The descriptions about the team and its place in history have personal significance for me, because I served behind the scenes as one of the NBA's staff liaisons to USA Basketball at that time.
It was a career highlight to be associated with this incredible collection of superstars, witnessing firsthand the way they mesmerized fans in San Diego, Portland, Ore., Monte Carlo and finally Barcelona. Traveling with the team that summer was truly like being on tour with a rock band, maybe even crazier. The Dream Team was -- and remains -- the gold standard of men's sports teams, and it deserves credit for the way it captivated fans the world over and for transforming the game of basketball into a global phenomenon.
Another highly gifted U.S. team is gearing up for these Olympics, although much less is being written about its prospects and storied past. The USA Basketball women's national team is in London with its sights set on a fifth consecutive gold medal in Olympic competition, a feat that has never been accomplished by any U.S. women's traditional team sports program.
Beginning with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and continuing over the past three Summer Games, the USAB women's program has won four gold medals without a loss, winning by an average margin of 27 points per game. The dynasty has produced several multiple gold-medal winners. Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie each captured four; Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley and Katie Smith won three; and five others brought home two each. Three players on this year's team (Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings) have two golds apiece with a chance to join the triple-gold-medal club in London.
If the team is undefeated again in London, it will have run its streak of consecutive Olympic game victories to 40. In the 40th anniversary of Title IX, going "40 for 40" would be an auspicious feat.
The accomplishments of the USAB women's team are more impressive because of the extraordinary challenges the team faces in getting quality practice time before each Olympics. Beginning with the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the team has been made up entirely of players from the WNBA, a league that plays its games during the summer months. While the WNBA suspends its season during the Olympic years to allow American and international players to participate in the Games, the league builds in only skeletal time for training and travel. In 2008, the USAB team conducted seven full practices before its first game in Beijing. This year's team will practice about the same amount before its opener Saturday. In contrast, USAB's Olympic opponents typically practice and play exhibitions for months.
The program has several strengths that have allowed it to overcome these limitations. One is continuity. Despite the rigors of their year-round participation (the WNBA in the summer and European leagues in the winter), the top players consistently opt to return to the program, which results in an experienced veteran core and eliminates the need to build a team from scratch every Olympics. With the quality of girls' and women's basketball in the United States, USA Basketball is assured of a solid pipeline of talented young players and can quickly reload when the veterans retire. Playing in the WNBA right before the Games ensures that the players are in top physical condition. The best coaches in the United States -- including this year's head coach, Geno Auriemma -- have gladly and consistently volunteered to be involved with the program, which means the most qualified basketball minds are on the bench as well.
And thanks to the capabilities of USA Basketball's staff in Colorado Springs, Colo., including CEO Jim Tooley and women's national team director Carol Callan, each women's team tour of duty runs smoothly and professionally, making it easier for the players and coaches to do their jobs.
I've been involved with the USAB women's program since 1995, when the NBA and USA Basketball joined forces to support the team that represented the United States in Atlanta. That team's gold-medal win, which redeemed a bronze-medal finish in Barcelona, followed a 10-month, 52-game domestic and world tour. The excitement and momentum that ensued led directly to the launch of the WNBA the following year. Collaborative efforts between the WNBA and USA Basketball, which have continued ever since, have allowed this remarkable streak to continue.
If I have a regret about the program, it's that I don't think it always gets the credit it deserves. Unlike some women's sports, where visibility rides entirely on the Olympic platform, the exposure of women's basketball is more regular. With the WNBA and women's college basketball in the spotlight annually, the national team is sometimes crowded out of the picture. The women's team is also routinely overshadowed by USAB's high-profile Olympic men's program, which has benefited from intense fan and media interest in the NBA and its stars.
But against other teams and certainly other women's sports programs, USA Basketball's domination deserves to be included among the top athletic performances of our time. If the team is undefeated again in London, it will have run its streak of consecutive Olympic game victories to 40. In the 40th anniversary of Title IX, going "40 for 40" would be an auspicious feat.
Five straight gold medals wouldn't be too shabby either.