Rio de Janeiro – The U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team dominates the world with talent. It also dominates because of willingness.
While only two players return from the roster of the U.S. men’s team that won gold in London, nine of the 12 women on the U.S. team are back. While some of the men declined invitations because of fatigue or injury concerns, the turnover on the women’s roster was due to the selection process. The best American women rarely turn down a chance to play for love of sport and country.
“Before there was a WNBA or a WBL, the Olympics were what we had to look forward to,” Seimone Augustus of the Lynx said. “I remember having a poster of the USA women up in my room — Sheryl Swoopes and Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo on that poster. I probably still have that poster. That’s what I wanted to be. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Augustus has had nagging injuries during her career. She is 32 and at a juncture of her career where male players start babying their knees and ankles. She, like many other top women basketball players, never considered not playing.
“For us, it’s a huge point of pride,” Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen said. “It’s like being at the top of the game.
Before there was a WNBA and even college scholarships for women, there was the Olympics. That was always a goal you could have, she said. Now there’s more opportunities for scholarships and there is the WNBA, but that ’96 team started the WNBA, for the most part.
“This has always been something that I don’t think any of us would ever turn down,” Whalen said.
USA Basketball for the first time put together and extensively trained a dream team for the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta. Players such as Swoopes and Leslie led the Americans to an 8-0 record and a gold medal game victory over Brazil in front of more than 32,000 fans.
Now the U.S., which opens its Olympic schedule on Sunday against Senegal, has a 41-game win streak. The team hasn’t lost a game since taking the bronze medal in 1992.
U.S. women’s basketball might be the most dominant force in modern sports. It is heavily favored to win another gold in Rio with four Lynx players on the roster and Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve serving as an assistant to Geno Auriemma.
Auriemma can be brash in public. “He’s been great to work with,” Reeve said. “He wants everyone’s input. He has to make the final decision, but he encourages all of us to tell him what we think.”
Most top women players play year round, making most of their money overseas. “It’s definitely not easy to play in the Olympics during the middle of the WNBA season,” Lynx star Maya Moore said. “We’re coming from the overseas season, and we have every reason in the book to feel the mental and physical fatigue that comes with playing year-round. But fortunately most of us have had a long relationship with USA Basketball. They make it fun for us, they make us feel appreciated and celebrated, and it’s a fun culture.
“It’s similar to the Lynx in that we want each other to play well and share in each other’s success. It’s not very often you get to play with the best players in the world. We want to represent our long legacy of greatness.’’