Two scenarios floated around Atlanta on the eve of Sunday's gold
medal women's basketball game. One came from Tara VanDerveer,
the coach who had guided the U.S. team over the preceding 14
months. "I can't believe we would come this far and not play our
best game," she said.
The other take on how the final would play out came from
Brazil's Marta de Souza Sobral, who, like Atlanta's public
transportation system, is known simply as Marta. "We're going to
steal the gold medal right in their home," said the 6'2" center
for the world champions.
If there's one axiom that emerged from these Games, it's that
Marta is unreliable. The U.S. Olympic team didn't merely play
its finest game in schooling Brazil 111-87 to run its record to
60-0 and win the gold; on Sunday night all the American players
scored. Together they shot 66% from the field, five delicious
percentage points better than Brazil had shot in a 110-107
defeat of the U.S. in Sydney in the semifinals of the 1994 world
championships. After that game the winners staged a raucous
celebration during the bus ride back to the players' hotel that
VanDerveer and two thirds of the members of this American
Olympic team happened to share. In Sunday's final the American
women parceled out 30 assists and mounted the medal stand
holding hands, a gesture of togetherness that evidently hadn't
crossed the minds of their male counterparts the night before.
Gilt, you could say, by association.
In the end VanDerveer did not have to alter her belief. "This,"
she said afterward, "was our best whole game."
The first inkling of what her players had in store for her came
to VanDerveer a year ago through the mail: She had prescribed
individual workouts for team members during a break in formal
training last summer, and signed worksheets sent weekly to
VanDerveer testified to how closely each player was abiding by
her regimen. From her home in Menlo Park, Calif., where she
monitored the times run and the poundage lifted, VanDerveer
could see that seven players weren't meeting their targets and
would thus be conscripted into a remedial "breakfast club" when
the team mustered for camp that fall. But VanDerveer's two
finest performers, guard Teresa Edwards and power forward
Katrina McClain--known as T and Tree, respectively--were meeting
every bench-press benchmark, every mile-run milestone, every
last goal VanDerveer had set.
VanDerveer had had her doubts about both. She had wondered if
Edwards and McClain would buy into a program that demanded
weight work three days a week, video sessions at least thrice
weekly and a numbing 102,245 miles of travel before the journey
was over. In their 30s now, with seven Olympic appearances
between them, both players had been party to dispiriting
third-place finishes at the 1991 Pan American Games and the '92
Olympics, as well as that loss to Brazil in the '94 worlds.
Years of the have-jump-shot-will-travel life overseas, where
club teams expect their American mercenaries to play no defense
lest foul trouble keep them from gathering their requisite 40
points a game, had left bad habits ingrained in both.
In fact, Edwards and McClain, each a former All-America at
Georgia, were very nearly not members of the Olympic team. On
the eve of the trials in May 1995, McClain had decided to accept
a $300,000 offer from a club team in Hungary. The U.S.
federation was offering $50,000, take it or leave it, with no
guarantee that an Olympic roster spot would be held open if she
lit out for Budapest. A shoe deal with Nike would have made up
some of that gap, but, at 30, McClain had to consider her
financial security. "I knew it was going to be all or nothing,"
she says now. "And I didn't think I was up for the whole year,
for that kind of intensity."
Two hours before USA Basketball's deadline for returning a
signed player contract, McClain called her brother, Troy. "She
had supposedly already made her decision, and here she was
calling me at that late hour, asking advice, second-guessing
herself," he says. "I knew then what she really wanted to do."
The Hungarians would have to find themselves another power
Edwards's problem was different. In that loss to Brazil at the
worlds she shot the U.S. out of the game, going 5 for 18 from
the field, and over the seven games she played in the
competition she dished out a miserly 21 assists. Would
VanDerveer even want her? "[Edwards] got into a
Teresa-versus-[Brazil's star guard] Hortencia thing," says Lynn
Barry, who supervises the women's program for USA Basketball. "T
wants to win so badly, she felt she needed to take it all on her
shoulders." When the selection committee included her on the
team--thus making it possible for her to become the only
basketball player of either sex to win three Olympic
golds--Edwards broke down in tears of relief.
"I may have been a little skeptical at first," says VanDerveer.
"I didn't want to get into a yearlong fight with a player who
was bucking the system. And this system wasn't for everybody.
But T and Tree bought into it. And if they were going to buy
into it, it was going to work.
"I have a theory with my teams. Your best players have to be
your leaders. And they both decided very early that they were
going to be our leaders."
Before being named coach, VanDerveer had asked herself every
morning what she could do to make herself a better candidate,
and after she got the job and took a year's leave of absence
from coaching Stanford, she visualized the medal ceremony at
least once a day. An example of her visualization techniques
occurred last November when the team came through Atlanta en
route to playing Georgia in Athens. VanDerveer bused the players
to the Georgia Dome and, though the building was set up for
football, led the players out to the middle of the field.
VanDerveer had asked Edwards to bring one of her gold medals
from the 1984 or '88 Games, and, as an inspirational Olympic
video played on the big screen, each player tried it on.
When someone hung Edwards's medal around McClain's neck, McClain
instinctively raised her arms in triumph.
"How'd she know to do that?" someone asked.
Came the answer: She'd done it before, as a member of the 1988
U.S. Olympic team.
The case can be made--and to those who mistakenly think women's
basketball was invented by Sheryl Swoopes in 1993 and perfected
by Rebecca Lobo two years later, it should be made--that the
growth of the game over the past dozen years is best reflected
in the careers of Edwards, who at the opening ceremonies took
the Olympic oath on behalf of all the athletes, and McClain, who
helped carry the Olympic flag. "These Games probably meant more
to them than anybody," says Andy Landers, who coached both at
Georgia. "It goes beyond the Olympics' being in Atlanta. It's
that they went into it as underdogs even to make the team. And
on a day-to-day basis they had to meet expectations that they
hadn't had to meet in years." Center Lisa Leslie, the Americans'
leading scorer during the Olympic tournament, has a budding
modeling career. Swoopes has a shoe named after her, and Lobo
has the largest fan following. But Edwards led all women in the
Olympics in assists, with a 7.7 average and a team-high 10 in
the final, while McClain was America's second-leading scorer and
Edwards and McClain first met 13 years ago at the National
Sports Festival in Colorado Springs. Edwards was a backcourt
prodigy just off her freshman season in college, McClain a
ballyhooed high school senior. McClain would be enrolling at
Georgia that fall, and Edwards expected to be peppered with
questions each evening when they repaired to the room they
shared. But none came. "I thought she was boring," says Edwards.
"She wouldn't say a word. She'd just sit on her bed, reading her
In fact, Edwards's carriage and confidence had scared McClain.
And when McClain showed up in Athens a few months later, she was
in for another fright. She discovered from an array of Edwards
family pictures gracing a desktop in her assigned dorm room that
Edwards was to be her roommate. The ice between the two began to
melt only as preseason practice wore on and All-America Janet
Harris bullied the freshman with impunity.
Eventually McClain took her roommate for an ally and faced
Harris down, and soon T and Tree were doing movies on weeknights
and church on Sunday. Years later, when the two teamed up to
play club ball in Valencia, Spain, McClain would be able to
return the favor; it was her companionship and knowledge of
Spanish that helped pull Edwards through a challenging year with
a difficult coach. Says Edwards, "[McClain] is good at reminding
me that I can help other people if I'm strong enough to help
Landers had to prod Edwards to try out for the '84 Olympics, and
others on the team have similar stories of evolution. There is
the Gump-like tale of stalwart backup center Venus Lacy, who
grew up wearing braces on both legs and whose mother or brother
had to carry her to elementary school. Reserve forward Carla
McGhee was nearly killed in a horrific car accident nine years
ago. And the gold-medal-game play of Leslie, who let Marta chug
to the basket at will during the opening minutes and was sat
down for doing so, turned magnificently around: She came back to
pour in 29 points.
Two other U.S. players, reserve guards Dawn Staley and Jennifer
Azzi, are every bit as chatty as Edwards and McClain are
taciturn. As the Games wound down, Staley likened the Americans'
sense of purpose and the resources at their disposal to the
space program--o much marshaled to achieve a singular goal.
"I've been in Atlanta for two weeks now," Azzi added. "I can't
remember the last time I could say that about one place. This
must be home."
Stitch together those two thoughts and there is only one caption
for the last event of the Centennial Games. It's a message not
appropriate to Dream Teams, only to teams that dream.
Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.