- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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BEIJING -- The U.S. women's basketball program has been relying on Lisa Leslie as the inside force since before most of us were regularly using the Internet. Yeah, that long. When she wasn't able to go to the 2006 World Championship because her uncle was in a serious accident, Team USA felt the effects of her absence. And ended up with bronze.
She's back for these Olympics, her fourth, and says she won't be going to London in 2012. Well, I still won't count her out, but at least it appears that the Americans could have a rock-solid replacement for her in Sylvia Fowles.
"When I go out [of the game], I always say to Sylvia, 'DJ, keep the party rolling,'" Leslie said. "Which means, 'Keep it going.' When I come out, there's no letdown."
Fowles doesn't have the shooting range that Leslie has developed. And she doesn't have that "sixth sense" about where to be all the time, but that's something she can get with experience.
Fowles had 16 points and 14 rebounds Saturday in Team USA's 97-57 victory over the Czech Republic in its Olympics opener. Fowles, who suffered a sprained left knee in June and missed time with her Chicago Sky team, has looked good here in China.
"She did things tonight," U.S. coach Anne Donovan said. "She's working back from the injury, so in the last couple of weeks we've seen a tentative Sylvia in some cases. Tonight, that was all gone.
"She really was jumping out defensively and in that stance sliding. We hadn't seen that in the last 10 days. She's been good in the post, but tonight she was good away from the basket as well."
The Americans started the game slowly -- hey, they were up late the night before at the opening ceremonies -- and trailed 13-2 early on.
Nobody on the team suggested that being at the ceremonies was any kind of excuse for the initial sluggishness. But it's worth mentioning that Team USA took part in them the night before playing its first game, which was a nice gesture -- especially because the players don't get to actually see most of the cool stuff.
If you watched the ceremonies, you know that China set the world record in Olympic pageantry -- and good luck to anybody ever trying to break it.
Thing is, when the performances are going on, the athletes wait in a holding area before they march out in the parade of nations. Leslie said most of what they saw of the ceremonies was on television repeats Saturday.
"We've seen highlights of them today," Leslie said. "It's like, 'Oh, wow, look at that!'"
Diana Taurasi, who had a team-high 17 points, described the opening ceremonies from the athletes' perspective.
"It's a long process," Taurasi said. "I think we left the hotel at 5:30 and didn't get back until 1:30 in the morning. It kind of throws your schedule off. Obviously the best part is walking into the stadium."
"Well, I think it was a little long," said Fowles, who's usually pretty concise with words.
She's also a good listener. Ask her teammates or Donovan about Fowles, and that's typically what they always mention.
"She's so coachable," Donovan said. "She hears what you tell her and makes the adjustments. We talked to her at halftime: 'Five boards, that's great, but where else are you?' Sixteen points is where she was."
Fowles, like fellow WNBA and Olympic rookie Candace Parker, has gone without much of a break from the Final Four to pro basketball to the Olympics. Taurasi did the same thing in 2004.
"It's very tiring, but the Olympics are a new setting," Taurasi said. "The minute you put that jersey on and you're with these other players and you've watched the Olympics and you're finally in it, there's no time to be tired. I don't think mentally, you let yourself. Because it is an amazing experience."
Fowles, like the rest of the team, had been too busy with practice to do much sightseeing since she has been in China. But she enjoys every part of this, and she has her mother here, too.
"She arrived on the sixth; it's her first international trip," Fowles said.
"I was afraid she was going to get lost on her way over here, but she made it."
Fowles' mom was part of the crowd at Saturday's game that included President Bush, First Lady Laura Buch and daughter Barbara Bush. Also on hand were the members of the U.S. men's basketball team, who were in their own section of the stands getting lots of camera attention from the adoring Chinese fans.
The game, understandably, was a little hard to focus on for the crowd after the Americans took over and extended their lead. Fowles, however, said she stayed vigilant because she understands that you can't coast in the Olympics -- even when you think you've got it wrapped up. You know where she has heard that.
"I'm just soaking up as much as possible from Lisa and Tina [Thompson]," she said.
"Lisa and Tina are the ones who always keep me going throughout practice.
They stay on me every day, and I credit them for it because I come out here and do a good job."
Leslie is not done yet by any means -- she had four points and 10 rebounds against the Czech Republic -- but she'll be comfortable one day with Fowles stepping in as Team USA's top center.
"Sylvia is going to be one of the most dominant players to play the game," Leslie said. "Why? One, her body. You look at her stature -- she's so strong. And she's open to learn all the time. Her hands are getting better, and her ability to finish left and right is better, her free throws are better.
"She's adding post moves, reverse layups. Physically, she can outplay any post player in this tournament already."
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.