Americans' path to gold proves gap is widening between U.S., world
LONDON -- At the last coronation in this city prior to Saturday night's at an Olympic basketball arena, the royal outfit was embroidered with a Tudor rose, a Scottish thistle, a shamrock, a maple leaf, a silver fern and other symbols of the vast British Commonwealth. The year was 1953, which, coincidentally, also saw the introduction of a women's world basketball championship. A team of presumably non-Gitanes-smoking Frenchwomen finished third, the only time France had won a medal in a truly major tournament until the thank-you-ma'am-may-I-have-another game -- USA 86, France 50 -- that upgraded Les Bleus to an Olympic silver.
Anyway this time, royalty wore swooshes.
This is the thing about coronations: they are undeniably newsworthy but utterly devoid suspense. In 1953, her Majesty, Elizabeth II, already had been on the throne for 16 months. It's not like a Tudor or a Stuart was going to hoist a three from the top of the key and stun her at the buzzer. And since a first-half hiccup in the semifinal against big and physical Australia, the only team in the world that can play with the U.S., this one went about as smoothly as the one 59 years ago. Her Majesty's coronation took place in front of 8,000 invited guests at Westminster Abbey while Team USA had a rather more substantial crowd at the O2, called North Greenwich Arena to suit the Olympic sensibility, although those who came to East London did not dress as spiffily. Westminster Abbey offers the incomparable frisson of knowing Cromwell, Dickens and Newton are buried there, but O2 did have a guy between quarters leading "the Mexican wave," so there was that.
The royal analogy, as overextended as a Visa card in an Olympic souvenir store, is employed because American women's Olympic basketball was born to the purple. Beginning in Atlanta 1996 with the reign of Sheryl and Lisa I -- Swoopes and Leslie -- and continuing to the present with Princess Diana (Taurasi), there is no question whose faces will be on the twenties if they ever print Olympic money.
The difference between these industries is that the British royal family is rooted in order and the Olympics are rooted in competition. And the problem is, at the moment, the Americans did not have much to make it interesting in London 2012. They nuked the field, winning by an average margin of 34 points. Of course, don't hate them because they are basketball beautiful. This is not their problem.
They just happen to be too damn good for their own good.
As coach Geno Auriemma noted, the depth of American women's basketball does not approach the men's. You could not have assembled a USA women's B team and not been guaranteed a silver medal. Nor were the 12 best players in the tournament all wearing those USA Nike jerseys. France has a tough lefty point guard, Céline Dumerc, a Lenny Wilkens-type who was limited to 2-for-10 from the field by the smothering American defense but who still had a solid tournament. Australia's 31-year-old Lauren Jackson remains the premier player in the game, and 6-8 Aussie center Liz Cambage, who turns 21 next week, was unstoppable in the first half against the Americans. You could cherry-pick a few other players, but the gap between the U.S., which has genuine battles against Australia and even lost to Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 world championship, and the world seems to be growing into a chasm.
Candace Parker holds the contrary view. In the mixed zone, while holding her three-year-old daughter, Lailaa, she held to the view that that the gap is "closing, for sure. The game is changing for the better, and I hope everyone recognizes it and gets on board with women's basketball. Who would have expected France to play for a gold medal?"
Well, not the French. Their expectations were as modest as a humble baguette. Marion Laborde, a reserve, noted, "We were more relaxed (against the U.S.) because we already had a medal. Getting to 50 points was important for us. We wanted to show our best face, but (the Americans) are too good on all levels. We hoped to make it closer. But to win? Impossible."
France actually led 13-12 -- Les Bleus would lead for 65 seconds during the game -- but Parker then scored the first of her 10 field goals. Après elle, le déluge. She went off for 21 points, grabbed 11 rebounds (four offensive against the big but immobile French post players, including a gorgeous left-handed put-back) and had two assists. In the third quarter Parker had four points during a 19-0 run that covered 5:41 in clock time and a lifetime for France.
This was not an easy tournament for the former Tennessee star, who last year missed considerable time with shoulder and knee injuries. After the third round-robin game, Auriemma lifted her from the starting lineup in favor of Maya Moore, one of six of his former Connecticut players on the team. Parker noted Saturday that everyone prefers to start but says she took it upon herself to provide as much energy as she could coming off the bench. "Everyone had their moments in this tournament," she said. "My teammates carried me in other games."
In addition to whipping the world, Team USA managed to sublimate ego, a sometimes even more profound challenge when the talent gap remains so pronounced. The Americans shared the minutes, shared the ball and played with intensity on defense. As Parker learned while playing on the gold-medal team in Beijing, no one remembers the scores of games or who had how many points. "The only thing you take away," she said, "is who was on the team."
And the gold medal, of course.
"You never want to be on the team that ends the streak," she said. The streak is now 41 games. "It's a great tradition."
Yes, great for American basketball, where the crown looks secure. (Princess Diana Taurasi is bound for Rio, and Parker plans to return for a third Olympics.) But for the rest of the world, American women hoops hegemony is growing as old as the realm.