Out of the mouths of sons. It was five-year-old Kevin Grentz who gave his mother, Theresa, a cute albeit harsh perspective on her role as coach of the women's basketball team that will represent the U.S. in Barcelona. "I'm excited about going to the Olympics with you, Mom," said Kevin. "I'm really hoping you can get me Michael Jordan's autograph."
Is it any wonder that, having been left to follow in the considerable wake of the country's male basketball players, alias the Dream Team, America's female players are doomed to short shrift even in their own homes? Though the women are merely the D-Team's Shadow Crew, only the Shadow seems to know about the strange workings of international basketball. After all, it's not the U.S. men who have earned gold medals in two consecutive Olympics and have won 45 of their last 47 games in international competition while saving Uncle Sam's reputation on the court.
The fact is, the U.S. women have no nifty team moniker and not much individual identity. Any reader who can rattle off the names of the two most famous active women pro basketball players—Paula Abdul and Larry Johnson's Grandmama don't count—gets an all-expenses-paid trip to the women's Olympic trials in Colorado Springs.
Whoops. Too late. The first round is over.
June 7, 1992
The problem is, of course, that hardly anybody knew such trials were going on last week, what with all the anticipation over the alleged excitement we'll all feel while watching Messrs. Jordan, Ewing, Malone, Johnson and Barkley massacre some poor, suspecting nation in the men's competition this summer in Spain. Has it been ever thus, that women's hoops has labored under that signature song written by the immortal Travis Tritt: Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)?
"I'm quite used to it (the disparity in interest between the men's and women's games]," says Teresa Edwards, a former All-America at Georgia and a two-time Olympian. "I feel I won't be involved in this game when we get to the point when women finally get their due. We've worked so hard for women's basketball, and we've done all we can. I can't let it upset me. But at the same time, if you get used to things, you can't change them. I believe we have been much stronger than them mentally."
"Them" means the U.S. men's international teams, which since being embarrassed by Brazil in the Pan American Games in 1987 have had some rather pathetic finishes: third in the '88 Olympics, second in the '90 Goodwill Games, third in the '90 Worlds and third in the '91 Pan Ams. The women's lament is that even when there was no Dream Team but just a nightmare (yeah, you, John Thompson), nobody noticed the terrific things the women's team was up to.
"The resentment doesn't start with the Dream Team," said Sonja Henning, Stanford '91, Pan Am squad '91, last week in Colorado Springs. "It goes way beyond that. What upsets me is the exposure that team has gotten. The U.S. had a Dream Team in 1984 and 1988—a Dream Team of women who won the gold medal. Those female athletes were not given the same type of recognition. Maybe someday women will be treated as equals. Obviously, that's not going to happen this summer."
But wait. If basketball aficionados can turn their attention away from men's hoops for a moment, they might notice such U.S. international stars as Venus Lacy and Bridgette Gordon, who are professionals in their own right—if not in their own country.
Lacy, 6'4", the former roughhouse rebounder from Louisiana Tech, has played for two years in Japan with a smile on her face, a gold VL on her front teeth and brutality in her heart. She's Charles Barkley with class, and last week she was positively Barkleyian concerning the women's trials, which she said "aren't fair. The men already have their team picked, and we've got to bust our tail to get on the team. People have never treated us equal and don't look at us as being professionals. But we're all playing for the same team—the U.S.—so everyone should be equal. What makes them better than us?"
In Italy, where Gordon led Comense Pool of Como to the 1991 Italian women's pro title, apparently nothing. Included in Gordon's pro contract, besides a free apartment, are all kinds of initials: BMW, TV, VCR and an ample supply of CDs. Oh, yeah, and a salary of about $200,000. Gordon, who starred at Tennessee and on the '88 U.S. Olympic team, has her own fan club, the Boys of Bridgette, not to mention more jewelry and a better haircut than any three NBA thrillionaires combined. "I'm a professional, and in Europe I'm treated that way," says Gordon. "I'm used to being a star. And then I come back home, and I'm treated like an amateur."
Grentz, who coaches at Rutgers, is more circumspect about the plight of the women: "I think with what's happened with the NBA, it's just a fact of life."
"I look at it from a positive point of view," says Nancy Lieberman-Cline, 33, the grande dame of distaff hoops, who, alas, like Lacy and Gordon, did not make the cut down to 18 women on Sunday. (The final 12-member Olympic team will be named on June 12.) "The men are like rock 'n' roll stars. We don't live in that fast lane, with the celebrity status. If we can sneak into that shadow, we'll get more attention, and that's not bad."
Cheryl Miller, the Southern California legend who raised the women's game to a new level in the early 1980s before be-coming-a sports reporter for ABC-TV, responded to all the attention she received as a surprise candidate at Colorado Springs by at first refusing to speak to the media. Bad form. Cheryl. But if Miller was preparing an exclusive sound bite on herself, she got a stunning scoop when she did indeed make the cut.
It turns out that Miller had been playing pickup games in Los Angeles under strict secrecy, or as much secrecy as a superstar could get while mixing it up with the likes of Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal. "I'm damn near over the hill, at least near the slope," Miller, 28, said, "hut I love surprises. I love surprising people."
And about that three-day silence? "I've been interviewed so much. It was their time, the younger players," she said.
Good form, Cheryl. You must have been taking p.r. lessons from Jordan, the men's version of Cheryl Miller. Unfortunately, Jordan won't be able to see Miller play. On Monday night Miller withdrew from consideration for a spot on the team because of a knee injury. Still, Jordan and the men's squad have been very supportive of the women. "I talked to Michael Jordan," says Lieberman-Cline, "and he said that in Barcelona the guys will probably come to the women's games."
Whooooa! Stop the presses. That right there would be one humongous improvement over the relationship between the men's and women's teams at the Pan Am Games in Cuba last summer, when the men's team commuted by air between their games in Havana and their hot tub-equipped rooms at the May-fair House in Miami's Coconut Grove, and the women's team stayed in the athletes' village in Havana. "Every one of these kids is going to be a multimillionaire in two years." Bill Wall, executive director of USA Basketball, semidiplomat and head coconut, said last summer of the men players, who were all from the college ranks. "That's why you can't equate this with team handball. If we're spoiled and arrogant, so be it. The days of being Boy Scouts in the village are over."
Notice, Wall did not mention anything about Girl Scouts—until the American women's team was "upset" 86-81 by Cuba in the semifinals as a certain fatigue-wearing, beard-stroking, cigar-chomping ruler led the home fans in the wave. Later, when Wall was asked if there was anything the women's team needed, he replied, "Yeah, a new coach," a remark that demeaned the unpaid and tireless efforts of Vivian Stringer, the coach at Iowa who has twice been national women's college Coach of the Year.
Last week Wall, now a lame-duck executive director—following the Olympics he will become coordinator of special projects for USA Basketball—reiterated an apology he had made to Stringer "for that quote being taken out of context." The context was that the nucleus of the U.S. women's team had played for Grentz on previous international gold-winning squads and was more familiar with her system.
Wall's graceless remark unleashed a flurry of resentment that had been seething among the women for quite a while. There were complaints that the women's hotels and practice facilities, in Myrtle Beach. S.C., and Tampa, leading up to the Pan Am Games had been substandard; that financial backing for the women was lacking; that the dread second-class treatment was everywhere evident.
"The traveling back and forth to Miami was a big thing to us and would have helped," says Gordon. (It didn't exactly help the U.S. men, who were beaten 73-68 by Puerto Rico in the Pan American semifinals.)
Last week in Colorado Springs, Wall and Stringer met face-to-face in USA Basketball meetings, and everything seemed hunky-dory. "Last year? A dead issue, water over the dam," said Wall. This summer the Dream Team will train in that basketball hotbed of Monte Carlo, where the men players will stay in hotel rooms costing about $350 a night, all paid for by Prince Ranier, while the Shadow Crew trains in Montpellier, France (rooms: about $130, paid for by USA Basketball); in Barcelona, the men will stay in a luxury hotel while the women remain in the athletes" village.
Grentz initially planned for the women to train in Bermuda until she decided that the facilities weren't good enough, and she had the option of keeping her team outside the village in Barcelona. "But to me being in the Olympics is being with the other athletes," she says. "If the men were staying in the village, it would be a three-ring circus. How would you provide security if Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were roommates?"
Lynn Barry, the assistant executive director of USA Basketball, points out that even the women's team "is looking forward to meeting the men's team. People don't know the real story. USA Basketball did gender equity from the very beginning. We've always treated the women the same way as the men."
The evidence suggests otherwise: that women are treated about as equal in USA Basketball as they are in the U.S.A.