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Younger players will lead next U.S. run

8/29/2004

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.