Younger players will lead next U.S. run

Updated: August 29, 2004, 3:07 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Diana Taurasi's postgame hug of Dawn Staley was purely spontaneous -- highly symbolic, too.

Staley's generation set the tone for America's dominance of women's basketball. She was hoisted off her feet by a player who represents the future of the sport, a generation that will be charged with keeping the gold medals coming.

It's three straight and counting.

Taurasi wrapped Staley in a bear hug after a 74-63 victory over Australia, a joyous clench that represented a turning point in American basketball.

It was Staley's final game as a U.S. player and it might have been the last for longtime teammate Sheryl Swoopes. The other member of the team's veteran trio, Lisa Leslie, feels that even at the age of 32, she has some good years left.

Together, they helped lift U.S. basketball to the top of its sport. Just as important, their actions and words have shown the younger players what it takes to win at the international level.

"It teaches us how teamwork eventually pays off,'' Taurasi said. "No matter how much you play or don't play, it doesn't matter. The team won a gold medal and that's all that counts.''

Taurasi, 22, has started for every team on which she has played -- until this one. She had to accept coming off the bench and did so willingly. An hour after Saturday's game, she couldn't stop smiling.

Yolanda Griffith and Shannon Johnson are four-time WNBA All-Stars and didn't start, either. Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Ruth Riley played only the final 17 seconds of the gold-medal game but afterward, each thanked coach Van Chancellor for having them on the team.

"They accept roles with USA Basketball and that's why we win,'' Chancellor said.

That selfless attitude was something never fully grasped by the U.S. men, who lost three times in the Olympics and took home the bronze medal.

The women, meanwhile, went 8-0 and run their Olympic winning streak to 25. If the world championships are included, the streak reaches 44. They've been so dominant that of those 25 Olympic games, only one was decided by a single-digit margin -- a 66-62 victory over Russia in this year's semifinals.

Playing as a team is only part of it, though. The U.S. success in women's basketball starts with the fact that the best players say yes when asked to be on the team. And they stick with the program.

Staley, who's 34, and Leslie have been playing on U.S. teams together since 1989. They've played in three Olympics and three world championships. Swoopes, 33, also has been on three Olympic teams and played in the world championships once.

Seven of the 12 players on the Olympic team were on the team Chancellor coached to the gold medal in the 2002 world championships. Some of them have played for club teams overseas, so they know the nuances of international basketball, something that was, well, foreign to the men.

"We come back because it's great basketball,'' Staley said "It's basketball being played the way it should be played. It almost takes you back to your childhood, some days when you just played simply for pride. And that's what we do for our country.''

Now it will be up to players such as Taurasi, Bird, Cash, Riley and Tamika Catchings to keep that pride alive. They'll likely be asked to form the core of the 2008 team in Beijing.

There are other candidates, too: Alana Beard, Cheryl Ford, Michelle Snow and Nicole Ohlde to name a few. Maybe even Candace Parker, the highly touted Tennessee recruit. Tina Thompson, who led the United States with 18 points in Saturday's game, is 29 and might still be around as well.

"I hope Lisa and Sheryl come back,'' Catchings said. "But if not, we'll be in good hands.''

And Staley? It wouldn't surprise anyone if she's coaching an Olympic team one day. She'll start her fifth season as the head coach at Temple in the fall and would bring not only her vast knowledge of international basketball, but a zeal for the game that's unmatched.

"I want to feel what coach Chancellor's feeling,'' Staley said. "To do it as a player and a coach, I'd like know what it feels like to be part of a gold medal-winning team as a coach and the preparation that does into winning.''

Winning. These U.S. women know nothing else.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press