U.S. women did not generate buzz, but did generate fifth straight gold
LONDON -- Diana Taurasi stood stock still, her hands, usually so active, quietly clasped behind her back except for periodic swipes at her wet eyes. As the Olympic women's basketball medal ceremony proceeded at London's North Greenwich Arena on Saturday night, she looked off in the distance, lost in thought. In blowing out France 86-50 to win the USA's fifth straight gold medal and 41st straight Olympic game, she and her teammates had made it look easy. But Taurasi, standing atop the medal podium for the third time, could only think, Man, this is so hard.
"I usually don't get very emotional when (I) win something but for some reason when we walked into the arena afterward, it kind of hit me this might be my last (Olympics)," she said later. "After three of them -- they are really hard. Even if you win a game by 30. The whole process is really difficult, to try to get 12 really good players to just kind of buy into one thing. It takes a while, it takes a lot of effort."
This group of U.S. players, like their predecessors heavily favored to win gold, hadn't had much time to suss out each other's strengths and quirks. Yes, six of them had played for U.S. coach Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut, but for Sue Bird, Asjha Jones and Swin Cash, that was a decade ago. The squad had convened for a weekend in Seattle in May, and then in mid-July it came together for a flurry of practices and pre-Olympic exhibition games on three countries. "There are still times I'm thinking somebody is going back door and they're thinking something different," said Bird, who like Taurasi is a three-time Olympian. "Those things tend to get ironed out the longer you play together. And you have to do it quickly. In Seattle, we were overpassing like crazy. You're not used to your role, you're not used to what you should be doing."
On Saturday, the U.S. appeared to be mostly wrinkle-free. The defense held Les Bleues to 28 percent shooting and forced them into 21 turnovers. The final box score was a testament to teamwork and depth: all 12 Americans scored, all 12 rebounded and eight had at least two assists. And true to the team's mantra, "Our subs are starters," the star of the game was a starter-turned-sub: forward Candace Parker, who had been pulled from the starting lineup after three pool-play games in favor of rookie Maya Moore. In the final, she totaled 21 points and 11 rebounds coming off the bench. "The depth," said Bird. "It's what has won us gold medals in the past, it's what makes our team so special, it's what makes us so difficult to play against. When we sub, there's always someone coming in. There are waves and waves."
Waves of great players, and an average scoring margin of more than 34 points over the first seven games, failed to draw much media interest. While hordes of journalists attended every practice and game of the U.S. men's team, the women saw just a handful on a regular basis. They were well aware their journey lacked a certain kind of drama: They weren't doing something for the first time, as the U.S. women's water polo team did in winning a gold medal; they didn't leave outcomes in doubt, as the U.S. women's soccer team did in beating Canada in the final seconds of their semifinal. They weren't on a redemptive mission, and no tragic personal stories fueled them. They didn't stir up controversy on twitter, didn't show up in viral photos they'd live to regret; didn't wear ill-advised t-shirts that proclaimed, "Greatness Has Been Found," as the U.S. soccer players did after they won a gold medal.
Their only hook was reliability. And reliability doesn't sell papers or generate clicks. "What we've got are a couple of flat-out basketball players," says Auriemma. "They don't get caught up in the other stuff; they are just basketball players. That doesn't make headlines. Like Diana and Sue, when we get to the gym, it takes them about 25 seconds to get their stuff on and they are out there shooting already. They are getting up 150 shots each before some guys even lace up their sneakers. And I think that's reflective of what our team is about."
Simply put, this group was a collection of low-maintenance, high-production gym rats, similar in talents the players who came before, but different. No player from the 1996 team that started this golden run is still playing. "That's what makes the streak even more impressive," said Bird the day before the gold-medal game. "It's not the same group of people playing great together. It's a different group every time. There are people without gold medals on this team. And then there are people who have them and want to keep that legacy going, to keep that history alive, take the torch, so to speak, from those who came before us and do well with it."
Asked if this team might be the best of the five straight champions, Auriemma wisely demurred. "I hate to say who's the best, it's like comparing your children," he said. "I didn't coach those other teams, but if I did I'd probably say, 'Yeah, this is the best,' because you always get attached to the one you're coaching. But the United States has had unbelievable great teams since 1996. And I think we're just another one on the list."