Commentary

Pondexter to miss world championship

Reason for absence unclear, but opportunity is a privilege that seems hard to pass up

Originally Published: September 20, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Somehow, very stupidly, I kind of held out slim hope that it could still would work out. That Cappie Pondexter would still join Team USA, even after coach Geno Auriemma indicated last week she wouldn't.

[+] EnlargeCappie Pondexter
Bob Donnan/US PresswireCappie Pondexter helped the U.S. national team win the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics.

USA Basketball on Sunday released a list of 14 finalists for the team competing at the upcoming FIBA World Championship for Women, which begins Thursday in the Czech Republic. The squad still has to get down to 12, so there remain two more painful cuts to make. But right now, we have a pretty good idea who will be with Team USA, and we definitely know it won't include Pondexter.

To USA Basketball, this is old news. The team's coaches and administrators have moved on, and they are focusing only on the players they have with them. Understandable. And we will certainly concentrate on that, too, in the coming days. But considering the stature of a player like the New York Liberty's Pondexter, I have some things to say about her absence from the team.

When last we saw her on the court, she played 39 minutes and scored 36 points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals at Atlanta. Next, Pondexter was seen at New York Fashion Week. Auriemma and USA Basketball weren't pleased that she wasn't joining the U.S. squad right away for practice.

A week ago Sunday, after two USA exhibition games in Hartford, Conn., Auriemma mentioned Pondexter among several players dealing with injuries who would be considerations for the 2012 Olympics even if they weren't on the world championship team. This took reporters by surprise, since there hadn't been any public announcement about Pondexter being injured.

"Cappie's got some issues, physical. Wasn't here either day, obviously," Auriemma said. "She's not making the trip to Spain with us when the team leaves tomorrow morning. Right now, if you asked me whether or not she's going to join us at all, I would say, based on my conversations with her, probably not."

So was this actually an injury? When did it happen? How long will she be out?

Then Monday morning, Pondexter said on her Twitter page that it was a "personal decision," making no mention of an injury. She added that it had nothing to do with USA Basketball, which she said had always been committed to her.

Of course, it wasn't USA Basketball's commitment to her that people were wondering about. It was the other way around.

If this is about Pondexter feeling too drained to play (she did lose a friend who was murdered recently), then why didn't she and/or USA Basketball just say that?

And even if the reason she isn't competing is because USA Basketball is upset with her for going to Fashion Week and not reporting to the team -- perhaps team officials said, "Get here right away," and she said, "No, I'm busy" -- frankly, that could have been honestly communicated, too.

In fact, Pondexter could have said a long time ago, "You know, I am really committed to a future in fashion, and I feel it was more important long-term for me to go to Fashion Week than to practice with Team USA."

People might have criticized that statement, but it would've been an open admission and then everybody would have known where everybody stands.

Of course, you have to wonder what Pondexter's plans were if the Liberty had made the WNBA Finals. Because, you know, that was going on during Fashion Week, too. I assume she wouldn't have skipped the games out in Seattle to stay in New York and go to fashion shows, right?

But the counterargument to that, obviously, is that playing for the Liberty is a different gig. And, of course, it is. Pondexter is contractually bound to play for the Liberty and certainly wouldn't/couldn't put Fashion Week ahead of that.

Playing for the Liberty is an obligation. Playing for Team USA is a privilege -- and one you can turn down, if you so choose.

I'm really not out to "rip" Pondexter. But I'm disappointed that one of the world's best women's basketball players won't be competing in the world championship. And if her relationship is so good right now with USA Basketball, why not an official joint announcement last week: "Cappie's not playing, the reasons are personal, but she wishes the team well, she looks forward to her future with the team, blah blah blah."

Look, Pondexter wanted a trade from Phoenix to New York, she said, because of her interest in pursuing a career in fashion. I can see why Fashion Week would have its allure to her in a personal and professional sense. But it couldn't have been something Pondexter was absolutely counting on doing … not unless she was also counting on the Liberty not making the Finals.

And it's not as if it could possibly have surprised her that Team USA wanted her as soon as her WNBA season was over.

People may say, "What's wrong with her looking out for the rest of her life after basketball?" And there's nothing, inherently, wrong with that, but …

Pondexter is one of the very best women's basketball players in the world. She was a first-team All-WNBA selection. Maybe she's ticked off that she wasn't league MVP, and that's fine. She can use that as fuel if she wants -- although when you lose out on such an honor because a player like Lauren Jackson gets it, I don't know how ticked off you can reasonably be.

[Cappie] Pondexter wanted a trade from Phoenix to New York, she said, because of her interest in pursuing a career in fashion. I can see why Fashion Week would have its allure to her in a personal and professional sense. But it couldn't have been something Pondexter was absolutely counting on doing … not unless she was also counting on the Liberty not making the Finals.

The bottom line is, there are still not that many showcase occasions for women's basketball players. If you're 27 and at the top of your sport, I don't see how you put anything else careerwise ahead of that right now.

Some might suggest USA Basketball is too inflexible. Now, I've been a critic of it over the years about various issues. USA Basketball has its flaws -- as do virtually all organizations -- with politics and cliques and such. But when it comes to preparing for major events, the organization has been extremely flexible. Because it has little choice.

The WNBA schedule conflicts with that of the rest of the world, and that will always cause some scheduling issues that USA Basketball, in particular, bears the brunt of.

The U.S. team simply does not have much time together before the competition starts, and every day is paramount. I'm sure Sue Bird and Swin Cash would have preferred sticking around longer in Seattle, celebrating and being feted after winning the WNBA title, an accomplishment that they can't know if they'll ever get a chance to enjoy again.

But they left quickly to join the U.S. team. (Same with the Storm's Jackson and Abby Bishop joining Australia, Svetlana Abrosimova going to Team Russia and Jana Vesela to the Czech Republic's squad.)

And I don't want to get all historical-preachy here, but, hey, that's what we 40-something people are for, right? USA Basketball gave American women's players their only real post-collegiate visibility for a long time, then played a vital role in the lead-up to the WNBA's launch in 1997.

If you question why women who get the chance to play for USA Basketball should have a passionate loyalty to that commitment, I guarantee that people like Anne Donovan, Teresa Edwards, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie would have a very decisive answer.

And for anyone who might suggest, "Well, it's 'just' the world championship, not the Olympics" … bite your tongue. The world championship came first for women, and by a couple of decades, before the sport got its introduction to the Olympics in the '76 Summer Games.

The world championship started in 1953 in Santiago, Chile. The U.S. team won it, but the trophy was so large, the team couldn't bring it back on the plane. Then in 1957, the Americans won again. They were again awarded a comically enormous trophy.

They got this one on the plane, but once they landed in New York, the cargo fees everything that the team brought back -- souvenirs, luggage, the trophy -- added up to $713. And nobody with the traveling party had that kind of money on hand.

One of the U.S. players was from my current home base, Kansas City. Her name was Lucille Davidson, and years later, she revealed what she wrote then in her diary about what happened when the '57 team landed: "No one from AAU was there to meet us … We were there for several hours until a Pan Am officer released the players' luggage. But they held the trophy."

Eventually, it was shipped to gather dust in an AAU office in Indiana, where it was forgotten until somebody realized one day what it was and sent it to a proper home: the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn.

This is also something Davidson wrote about that world championship: "When the final whistle blew, we all went crazy … don't think a single girl didn't admit it was the biggest thrill of a lifetime."

Now, I realize that is over a half-century ago, and women's basketball is in a different place now. But it seems sad to me if the women who have a chance to play for Team USA today don't have that same feeling. I'm not saying Pondexter doesn't feel that, but the whole Fashion Week thing is bound to make people wonder.

I certainly hope she will be on the Olympic squad in two years. Big events need and deserve the best players, who should do everything possible to compete in them. It's a shame Pondexter will not be at this world championship, whatever the reasons.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.

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