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THE HOME TEAM FROM NEAR AND MOSTLY FAR, THE BEST U.S. PLAYERS CAME TO VIE FOR SPOTS ON THE OLYMPIC TEAM

May 29, 1995
May 29, 1995

Table of Contents
May 29, 1995

THE HOME TEAM FROM NEAR AND MOSTLY FAR, THE BEST U.S. PLAYERS CAME TO VIE FOR SPOTS ON THE OLYMPIC TEAM

The huge countdown clock on the grounds of the U.S. Olympic
Training Center in Colorado Springs stood at 424 on Monday, a
reminder of how many days remain until the 1996 Summer Games
begin. But the lettering on the clock might as well have read 424
DAYS LEFT TO COME UP WITH A NICKNAME FOR THE FIRST STANDING,
PROFESSIONAL AMERICAN WOMEN'S NATIONAL BASKETBALL TEAM, WHICH HAS
BEEN ASSEMBLED TO KICK INTERNATIONAL DERRIERE IN DREAM-TEAM STYLE,
OR AT THE VERY LEAST RECLAIM THE GOLD MEDAL. USA Basketball
officials have been auditioning nickname candidates almost as
feverishly as they've been considering prospects for the team
itself. The Fab Femmes didn't pass muster. Dream Team Too and the
Dreamettes were judged too derivative of the men's team. Also
gonged: the Liberty Belles, the Hoop Troupe, the '96ers, the
Golden Girls and Chicks Who Set Picks.

This is an article from the May 29, 1995 issue Original Layout

But one name under consideration gets just right what this
entire experiment is about, even though the moniker probably
won't be adopted because it lacks pizzazz. The U.S. women's
national basketball team, whose members are to be announced
Thursday after a seven-day tryout and whose players will form
the nucleus of the '96 Olympic squad, is the Home Team. The name
fits, and not just because the Games will be in Atlanta. It's
felicitous because, for the first time, the American women's
hoops diaspora is coming home to play for pay in and for its own
country.

Until now, elite American female basketball players who wanted to
play and get paid for it after college had only one option: to
sign with a club team overseas. The money available to such
players in countries like France, Italy, Japan and Spain can be
enticing -- as much as $200,000 to $300,000 annually. But U.S.
players have found that little else abroad is ideal. In Japan,
male coaches routinely punch and kick their female players,
sometimes during timeouts; American stars such as Katrina McClain,
a two-time Olympian, and former Iowa forward Shanda Berry had
``no-abuse'' clauses written into their contracts. In Italy, where
former Stanford guard Jennifer Azzi has played, a married club
official who had professed his love for her stood vigil outside
her apartment after she spurned his advances. ``I remember sitting
home crying and wondering, Why am I doing this?'' says Azzi, whose
Italian teammates would report details of her private life back to
the coach. ``These people thought they owned me. My life felt so
invaded.''

Virtually every one of the 24 elite candidates who mustered in
Colorado Springs last week at the U.S. National Team Trials had a
tale to tell about the travails of the mercenary life. In Italy,
Sheryl Swoopes, who led Texas Tech to the '93 NCAA championship,
never got paid on time. Before her first game in Spain, Dawn
Staley, college player of the year in '91 and '92 while at
Virginia, discovered that her surname had been misspelled STANLEY
on her uniform. In Hungary, former Auburn guard Ruthie
Bolton-Holifield, who grew up with 19 siblings and loves to talk,
found the language to be such an inscrutable goulash that she
never got past igen (yes) and hello (hello). Forced into exile,
the best American women eventually found their sweet regard for
basketball curdling into something laced with bitterness. ``They
develop almost a love-hate relationship with the game,'' says Home
Team coach Tara VanDerveer. ``They love basketball, but hate that
they have to go away to play it.''

Perhaps that's why all but three of the players invited to the
trials showed up; why the 18 candidates, all former college stars
ranging in age from 21 to 30, who were still in the running as of
Monday for the 12 available spots on the team, agreed, if
selected, to conditions that include a schedule that will keep the
team together for 14 months of steady travel, flogging women's
hoops throughout the U.S. with an eye to generating enough
interest to make a post-Olympics pro league viable Stateside.
That's also why last week even the locks to make the team strained
for every rebound and dived for every loose ball.

With the national team contract calling for a nonnegotiable salary
of $50,000, most of the players selected will take a pay cut. In
the case of McClain, who stood to make five to six times as much
in Hungary this season, the disparity caused her to announce on
the eve of the trials that she would pass up the invitation. But
she was besieged with phone calls from friends and fans urging her
to reconsider, and, after talking the matter over with her family,
she reversed herself a day later. ``I just want to win a gold
medal and at the same time give women's basketball in the U.S. a
chance,'' she says now.

Sacrifices will be made all around. VanDerveer has left Stanford
to direct the team full time. (USA Basketball is matching her
salary of approximately $146,000.) Edna Campbell, a former Texas
guard, may have to spend another year away from her 11-year-old
son. Bolton-Holifield may have to take a sabbatical from her
husband, while Swoopes, former USC All-America Lisa Leslie and
former Stanford forward Katy Steding have already planned their
weddings around the national team's schedule. Berry will have to
take a leave from the Montgomery County, Md., police force if she
makes the team, and Val Whiting, a former Stanford All-America,
has already deferred plans to go to medical school at UC San
Francisco. ``Some sacrifices are more financial, others more
personal or emotional,'' says Carol Callan, the team director.
``But the prize here is such that you're willing to make that
sacrifice.''

The team will be chosen by a selection committee comprising 13
high school and college women's basketball coaches. If the
committee does its job well, every player selected will become
an Olympian. But injuries or attitude problems may crop up. And
at least one current college player -- someone like rapidly
improving Kara Wolters, the 6'7" center who'll be a junior at
Connecticut next season, or rugged Katie Smith, a guard who will
be a senior at Ohio State -- will probably be added to the mix
next spring.

Whoever makes the team won't be entitled to take the floor with a
swagger. The U.S. has three bronze medals to show for its last
three major international appearances: the 1991 Pan Am Games, '92
Olympics and '94 World Championships. Meanwhile, the U.S. placed
seventh in the past two Junior Worlds. ``If we had won the Worlds,
we might not have created a national team,'' says Lynn Barry, USA
Basketball assistant executive director. ``But after we lost in
the Worlds [to Brazil in the semifinals] and in Barcelona [to the
Unified Team, also in the semis], we thought we'd better give
ourselves the best chance possible.''

VanDerveer sees her task as breaking down each overseas star and
rebuilding her into a part of the U.S. team. Thus she will preach
fundamentals and team play to players who couldn't pass the ball
or play defense for their overseas club teams without infuriating
their coaches, who needed them to shoot and stay out of foul
trouble. During last Saturday's morning practice session, the
candidates formed two lines facing each other and began exchanging
. . . chest passes. Imagine the men on Dream Team III being asked
to do the same thing, and two words come to mind. One is player.
The other is mutiny.

To reinforce the need for togetherness among members of a group
that will travel and play together for more than a year, the
selection committee conducted interviews on Monday and Tuesday.
(Sample question: ``Are you prepared to sit on the bench here when
you could be starring overseas for $300,000 a year?'') But those
who showed up for the trials had already weighed the alternative
-- the full-contact pep talks and stoop-sitting Romeos they would
be leaving behind -- and got with the program. ``A lot of my money
went toward phone bills and bringing people over to keep me
company, so it's not that much of a pay cut,'' says Staley. ``Hey,
the only reason I played overseas was to get the international
experience to help me make this team. Overseas was my sacrifice.
This is my reward.''

Rather than viewing the domestic tour against top NCAA programs in
their on- campus arenas as a series of one-night stands, the
national team will treat each gig as a three-day stopover, with
open practices, clinics, charitable appearances and autograph
sessions. ``I hope it's more than a dribbling and shooting show,''
says VanDerveer. ``I hope we'll be the kind of team our country
embraces. That, instead of focusing on who can dunk and who can't,
people will say, `They really lay it on the line. This is a team
we're proud of.' ''

The public may do just that, for it's so rare to find a pro team
whose coach makes almost three times as much as the best player,
whose athletes sing the national anthem (as former Central Florida
forward Tari Phillips did, in Whitney Houston style, before Sunday
afternoon's public scrimmage), and whose players will sign
autographs with eye contact and a smile and without forcing
parents to take out a low-interest loan. At a time when everyone
in pro sports is clamoring for more, here's an elite group
gratefully settling for less. ``You're playing for yourself and
your teammates, but also for your fans,'' says Rebecca Lobo, the
1995 college player of the year, whose exploits at Connecticut
this past season have given her a bigger following than any other
American women's player ever. ``It's not about playing and running
back to the bus.''

The national team will ride a cresting wave of interest in women's
college basketball. Lobo and her teammates so galvanized a
basketball-crazy part of the country that their NCAA final against
Tennessee generated something previously unheard of in the women's
sport: street action. During UConn's victory parade in downtown
Hartford, a sharpie among the crowd of 100,000 fans got the
attention of Husky coach Geno Auriemma. ``Hey, Geno!'' he called
out. ``You covered!''

The national team's $3 million budget wouldn't be possible without
the support of corporate decision makers, many of whom live in and
around UConn country. The NBA, that pin-striped marketing
leviathan, is acting as agent for sponsorship deals involving the
women's team. A total of 10 games leading up to the Olympics will
be televised by ABC, ESPN and ESPN2. ``It's like a domino
effect,'' says Carla McGhee, who helped lead Tennessee to the '91
NCAA championship. ``We got the NBA's attention. Then came Nike
and Reebok. Maybe Victoria's Secret will start giving us stuff.''

And maybe someone will give them a name. Suggestions are welcome.
``We don't want something that conveys supremacy,'' says Barry.
``Just something that suggests a hardworking attitude -- that we
want to recapture the gold medal, and we'll outwork everyone to do
it.''

After considering and rejecting the Hoopskirts, Super Hoopers and
the USAces (proposed slogan: Deal With Us), USA Basketball may yet
conclude that its new creation is nothing more, nothing less, than
the homecoming, homesteading, home-standing Home Team. When you
want something badly enough -- and when it has been so long in
the making -- it hardly needs a catchy name for latching on to.

COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM DEFRISCO Racked and Ready Aspiring members of the U.S. women's team get down to do some stretching before grabbing the basketballs and letting fly (page 64). [aspiring members of the U.S. women's basketball team stretching - T of C]TWO COLOR PHOTOS:PHOTOGRAPHS BY TIM DEFRISCO It's no stretch to believe that players like Campbell are prepared to sacrifice to be in the '96 Games.[aspiring members of the U.S. women's basketball team stretching; Edna Campbell jumping with ball]COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY TIM DEFRISCO Even stars such as Leslie (with ball) and McClain (97) got down and dirty at the trials. [Lisa Leslie and Katrina McClain on floor of court]TWO COLOR PHOTOS:PHOTOGRAPHS BY TIM DEFRISCO Lobo's fans come in all sizes, and in numbers that make her the most popular player in the game.[Rebecca Lobo signing autographs; Rebecca Lobo with ball]