U.S. women name eight core players
Roster filling up, but many questions, decisions remain
USA Basketball has a jigsaw puzzle to put together in terms of the senior women's national team. Not that the folks there don't have a lot of practice doing this. Just that it's worth remembering it's not as easy as it might appear.
The so-called "easy" part is the talent pool the United States has to choose from, which inarguably is the largest in the world. But that itself does not guarantee success in major international competitions, as Team USA has found out.
Although defeat has been quite infrequent -- once in the past 14 years, at the 2006 FIBA World Championship -- it sticks with those who experienced it.
Yes, the talent pool is huge, but then that also presents the issue of finding just the "right" 12 players out of so many candidates for the national team.
Then there are the time constraints that Team USA faces with finding available dates for a squad to train together despite the WNBA and overseas seasons taking up so much of the year. Also, head coach Geno Auriemma has his own college season at UConn to oversee.
Plus, since the WNBA is an American-based league, it's not like Team USA could even consider having its players step away for the summer to train together, as some other nations do.
Anyway, none of these is a truly gigantic obstacle in any sense. More just a bit of a maze the Americans will navigate as they aim toward the next two major competitions: the 2010 FIBA World Championship and the 2012 Olympics.
Monday, USA Basketball announced its initial eight players to the senior national team roster. The folks on a subsequent conference call -- Auriemma, women's team director Carol Callan and selection committee member Renee Brown of the WNBA -- did not refer to this announcement as "ceremonial," but that's kind of how I look at it.
These players might very well be on the 2010 and 2012 teams, but their places on those rosters are not absolutely guaranteed. There's always the specter of injury or -- gasp -- the possibility that someone else might beat them out for a spot.
The eight named -- Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings, Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles, Kara Lawson, Candace Parker and Cappie Pondexter -- were all on the U.S. team that won gold at the Beijing Olympics. They are the "younger" eight from that squad. The other four were Lisa Leslie (37 years old), Katie Smith (35), Tina Thompson (34) and DeLisha Milton-Jones (she'll be 35 in September).
Leslie has announced she will retire at the end of this WNBA season. As for the other three, USA Basketball wouldn't say they are essentially being "put out to pasture" in terms of their national-team future.
Since those on the conference call made a point of saying the eight named were selected not just for their talent but because of their loyalty to USA Basketball, it naturally propelled us -- pesky journalists that we are -- to ask about the exact "status" of Smith, Thompson and Milton-Jones.
Certainly, no one would ever suggest they have been anything but loyal and dedicated to USA Basketball, meaning they either said, "No thanks," or USA Basketball said it for them.
Brown, asked which was the case, said, "It's a mix." I have to admit that cracked me up it was your classic "I don't want to answer the question, but I'll say something that's bound to make you more curious."
I have heard from Smith that she voluntarily took herself out of the pool to, in her words, "pass the torch." At this point, I have not been told if that's the case with Milton-Jones and Thompson. But the reality is that they are at an age when it's perfectly understandable if they or USA Basketball -- or both -- are ready to move on.
Leslie is, in my mind, the all-time female MVP of USA Basketball, not only for how long she competed at that level, but how effectively. Smith, Thompson and Milton-Jones also have been valuable contributors. We can hope that every subsequent player on Team USA gives as much as they did.
Now, as to the ultimate makeup of the team for 2010, obviously it's just speculation now. Fans are wondering about their WNBA favorites -- including, but not limited to, players like Katie Douglas, Alana Beard, Lindsay Whalen, Candice Dupree, Shameka Christon, Candice Wiggins, Nikki Anosike, Lindsey Harding and Renee Montgomery.
In a subsequent conversation with Callan after the teleconference, she emphasized that the door is not really closed on anyone now, because USA Basketball wisely tries to keep its multitude of options open.
There have been rare times when USA Basketball did miss out on really opening the door to someone who deserved it. And I will say now -- while fully admitting I didn't realize it at the time -- that was likely the case a few years back with Becky Hammon. She found another way to the Olympics by playing for the Russian team.
But as Auriemma correctly said, "USA Basketball usually gets it right." He was referring to how effectively the organization gets top players into the pipeline, starting with the younger age groups, like the U-19 and U-16 teams that have won gold medals this summer.
The players' loyalty to USA Basketball on the women's side is one of the most important things that the veterans on the senior national team pass down to subsequent generations.
As Bird said in the teleconference, she learned about that -- and a lot of basketball-savvy things, too -- from older players like Dawn Staley.
"I remember times with them encouraging me and giving me advice," she said, "and now I feel like that's my role for the younger players."
Bird started as an understudy of sorts in 2004, and if she makes the Olympic team in 2012, she will have completed a very important cycle in being a link to players who are too young to remember that groundbreaking 1996 Olympic team.
Bird and Taurasi also are looking forward to playing again for their college coach, mentor and friend, Auriemma. It's expected that they won't be the only UConn connections on that team, though. Among current WNBA players, Swin Cash and Montgomery might be considered and isn't it at least worth mentioning Asjha Jones?
And, of course, current UConn stars Maya Moore and Tina Charles will be candidates, as both were part of the U.S. team that won gold at the World University Games earlier this summer.
There might be some inevitable negative buzz about how many Huskies might be on the 2010 or 2012 teams, even though it's not warranted. With the success of that program and several of the players who've been part of it, it's understandable that the national team will have a UConn flavor regardless of who is coaching.
(And it should be reiterated that Auriemma does not pick the team. He obviously has input, as all the head coaches have had. But the team is picked by the selection committee.)
There's a lot still to be decided and confirmed just about this year. In the next few weeks, Callan said, USA Basketball will determine and announce when and where the training camp will be this fall, and who will be invited.
It pretty much has to be in September, which means any players still involved in the WNBA playoffs then won't be able to make it. The camp itself is both for evaluation of players but also for bonding and preparation, which is a heck of a lot to try to get done.
The location will depend in part on where USA Basketball might schedule an exhibition game(s) to follow the training camp. It's very likely Team USA will face a team or teams in Europe, and thus will have an East Coast training-camp site.
Also still to be determined are Auriemma's assistant coaches. And since USA Basketball regulations say two of them have to come from the WNBA, that pool is pretty small.
Lastly, what about the eight players who were named Monday? It was interesting that during the conference call, most of our questions were about all the other unknowns -- the specifics of the training camp, the status of players not named, who will be invited to the training camp, what Auriemma sees as team needs to be filled, etc.
We didn't spend as much time asking about the eight, in part because they are proven commodities, all with at least one gold medal. Augustus is currently inactive with an ACL injury and will not be able to participate in a training camp this year, but no one doubts that when healthy she will very likely make the team.
The most controversial -- if such a word actually applies here -- name on the list was Kara Lawson, who has been injured and is having a so-so season for a Sacramento team in last place in the Western Conference. But she quite effectively filled her reserve role in Beijing, and so she's going to be given every consideration to make Team USA again.
Again, that doesn't mean these eight are locks for the world championship, which is Sept. 23-Oct. 3, 2010, in the Czech Republic. (And, yes, the WNBA schedule will have to be tweaked to accommodate that; this year's finals run Sept. 29-Oct. 9.)
It means based on what they've done, they have an inside track. But there is most definitely going to be competition to secure those 12 roster spots. And that's especially needed in the post, with the retirement of Leslie and the absence of Thompson and Milton-Jones if they indeed are not on the team.
Asked his "wish list" for post players, Auriemma chuckled and showed his diplomatic side.
"My wish list is for Lisa Leslie to be 25 again," he said. "But it's time for young kids now to step up and be the new players. What Lisa Leslie was -- somebody that can dominate the game.
"It's going to be some young kids out of college, and some guys from the WNBA any post player, this is a great opportunity for them."
It's exciting, really, for all who follow women's basketball. Some great players are cycling out of the national team, some are reaching their veteran peaks, some current Olympic gold medalists might have two more Olympics in them, and some are going to be brand-new to the world championship and Olympic experiences in the next three years.
It's going to be fun to watch this jigsaw puzzle come together.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.