What a difference a decade makes

Updated: July 24, 2004, 3:08 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

It was really just coincidence of time and place ... but an interesting coincidence none the less. Diana Taurasi had her "signature" Final Four exactly a decade after Sheryl Swoopes did in the same city, Atlanta. Which was also one of the Summer Olympic sites in the time in between.

Sheryl Swoopes
Sheryl Swoopes, above, and Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley are going for their third gold medals.
Taurasi was a huge part of three NCAA titles, of course, but she really carried a young UConn team on her back in 2003. Swoopes had the greatest NCAA title-game performance in 1993, scoring 47 points in leading Texas Tech to the championship.

Swoopes' Final Four in Peachtown was in the smaller Omni, Taurasi's was in the gigantic Georgia Dome. In 1993, the event officially became a sellout just before it happened, yet the Atlanta CBS affiliate pre-empted the first half of the Texas Tech-Vanderbilt semifinal for its afternoon newscast.

By 2003, the event was in its sixth year of a ticket lottery, with the semis and the title game in prime time on ESPN.

And we bring all this up because, thanks to the Olympics, we'll see Swoopes and Taurasi on the same team with the same golden goal in Athens, Greece. The U.S. team will have an intriguing mix of veterans and youngsters, spanning experiences that define women's basketball's journey over the past 16 years.

It has been that long since the oldest player on the U.S. team, Dawn Staley, entered Virginia as a freshman in the fall of 1988. She, Swoopes and Lisa Leslie are going for their third gold medal.

Leslie and Staley didn't win NCAA titles, so their 1996 Olympic golds somewhat served that purpose. Leslie has since won two WNBA titles with the Los Angeles Sparks, while Swoopes has won four with the Houston Comets.

Staley left Virginia in 1992 as the two-time consensus national player of the year. Those credentials and her future importance to U.S. basketball should have gotten her on the squad for the 1992 Olympics. However, she wasn't on the team.

It's fair to say there wasn't the same kind of vision in the selection process then, just 12 years ago. The college game did not get the exposure it does now and there was no U.S. pro league at the time that Staley was to imminently join.

Then, it was random speculation who might survive the overseas leagues for enough years to be a contender for multiple Olympic teams. There wasn't the automatic expectation, as there is with Taurasi, of a long-term future in the game.

But that 1992 Olympic team impacted Staley and women's basketball more than anyone realized at the time. After the Americans took a disappointing bronze, USA Basketball changed its commitment to the sport. With the 1995-96 "barnstorming" tour, keeping the national team together for a year, the organization sowed the seeds of ABL and WNBA.

Having the young players and the veterans is good. You can't take all veterans, because we need some young legs out there. The game is so fast, not everybody is going to have fresh legs every day. The younger players are who we've been building the WNBA for, and they'll be ready to take over when we leave.
Sacramento Monarchs' Yolanda Griffith
By the spring of 1996, before the U.S. team won gold in the Atlanta Games, the ABL announced it was forming. Which certainly helped spur the WNBA, an idea that had been lingering for a while but not taking root in the NBA power structure.

The Atlanta gold sealed the path that women's basketball went on next, with the rise and fall of the ABL and the rise and survival of the WNBA. There, at center of making it all happen with their long-term excellence, were Staley, Swoopes and Leslie.

Staley went through the ABL disappointment, whereas Swoopes and Leslie were in the WNBA fold from the beginning. The three are linked now as the fulcrum of change in women's basketball in a way that defines them similarly to how Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova are symbolic of women's tennis' true transition to the big time. Or Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and other 1991 World Cup soccer players stayed at the top long enough to preside over a marked change in their sport.

Staley (Class of '92), Swoopes (Class of '93) and Leslie (Class of '94) came along, excelled and persevered at a critical time.

"I still look up to those players," said Yolanda Griffith, who at 34 is in the same generation (Class of '93) and on her second Olympic team along with Katie Smith, 30.

DeLisha Milton-Jones, 29, also would have been going for her second gold but re-injured her knee recently and will miss the Games.

Tina Thompson, who at 29 has been the other stalwart at Houston along with Swoopes from the league's inception, makes a well-deserved Olympic debut, too. As does Shannon Johnson, who turns 30 near the beginning of the Athens Games, on Aug. 18.

And the older players acknowledge that the 25-and-under members of the 2004 team are crucial not only to the pursuit of gold, but the next steps the sport takes.

Taurasi and fellow UConn grads Sue Bird and Swin Cash were part of a 2002 Huskies team that went undefeated. Tamika Catchings did that her freshman year at Tennessee, but didn't get to have the senior season that she deserved in 2001 because of a knee injury. Now, she has become as big a threat as there is in the WNBA. Catchings, who will be 25 in late July, is the oldest of that group, which could have a couple more Olympics together.

"Having the young players and the veterans is good. You can't take all veterans, because we need some young legs out there,'' the Sacramento Monarchs' Griffith said. "The game is so fast, not everybody is going to have fresh legs every day. The younger players are who we've been building the WNBA for, and they'll be ready to take over when we leave."

And, certainly, the WNBA's long-term good health is linked with the Olympics. The Games are still of premium importance to the women pros in a way they haven't been and won't be for the NBA players.

The Olympics have taken precedence over the WNBA this season for some of the foreign stars, such as Brazil's Janeth Arcain, who stayed with their national teams to prepare. And the league has been an excellent developing ground for international competitors.

The WNBA will take a month-long break at the beginning of August for the Olympics. So the U.S. team, coached by Houston's Van Chancellor, gets together Aug. 3 and then has its Olympic opener on Aug. 14.

Everyone knows some of the opposition has an edge in time spent together as a team. But the Americans, who went 13-0 in their pre-Olympics spring schedule, can't worry about that. The United States won gold in the 2000 Games with relatively limited preparation time after that WNBA season.

Having Swoopes, Leslie and Staley is a lot like having the stars of a theater troupe that's called together again for an encore performance. They haven't forgotten any of their lines, and their syncopation with each other doesn't need much time to sharpen. The other U.S. players feed off of that.

Russia and Australia could provide the toughest challenges for the Americans, but are in the opposite pool and wouldn't play the United States until the medal round. But the U.S. team's experience and the players' still-obvious reverence for the Olympics should prevent any letdown no matter whom the Americans are facing.

The Olympics is a celebration of a lot of things, and not the least of that is women's basketball. The participants still treat it as the ultimate accomplishment, and we as viewers can appreciate the Games both for that and the big-picture bridge they provide between great players.

From Atlanta in 1996 to Athens in 2004, a continuing story line with some of the same characters has been woven. For so long, women's basketball lacked a narrative that truly linked and overlapped its generations. Now, it has the WNBA and the Olympics both providing that.

In 1993, no one could be sure of ever seeing Swoopes on a grand stage again. Now, she teams with Taurasi ... whom we expect to team with today's 14-year-old in the 2012 Olympics.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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