Make no mistake, Dawn Staley was thrilled when she was selected, on Aug. 12, to be the first basketball player to carry the American flag in the opening ceremonies. But in the ensuing days, she never forgot that her main purpose in Athens was to pass a torch. ¬∂ When the 5'6" 34-year-old with aching knees and multiple job titles--Temple coach, Charlotte Sting point guard, MBA candidate, among others--was named to the U.S. national team two years ago, "People said, 'Why her? She's beyond her prime,'" Staley recalled during the team's romp through pool play in Athens. "The reason I'm here is to help the U.S. win its third straight gold medal and to teach the younger players how to do it again."
Staley accomplished both goals last Saturday as the U.S. beat Australia 74-63 in a rematch of the gold medal game in Sydney four years ago. Urging her teammates to shake off a sloppy first half, Staley scored 14 points in the final 20 minutes. "Dawn is a great leader," said 5'7" backup point guard Shannon Johnson, who also was a second-half spark plug with 12 points. "You saw that tonight. She put us on her back and gave us a big lift."
Much was made of the heat on the U.S. men's basketball team to win a gold medal, but the pressure on the women's team was hardly less intense. On the line besides another gold and a 43-game international winning streak was, in Staley's opinion, the reputation of the WNBA, one of the two pro leagues that launched in the wake of the '96 team's gold medal. (The other, the ABL, lasted 2 1/2 seasons.) Though the teams of other nations featured current or former WNBA players--Australia, for example, had six--Staley, noting that the U.S. team was composed entirely of players from the league, saw credibility in purely American terms. "We don't need the media exposure of not winning the gold medal," she said.
Furthermore, the U.S. women had no easy excuses for failure. Unlike the men's squad, the women's team included the best players in the country, a remarkably harmonious mix of Olympic veterans such as Staley, center Lisa Leslie and forward Sheryl Swoopes, who all won gold medals in 1996 and 2000; older Olympic rookies such as the 30-year-old Johnson and 29-year-old forward Tina Thompson; and budding WNBA stars such as guards Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi and forward Tamika Catchings. None gave a thought to passing up a chance to play on what is still considered the largest stage in women's basketball, even if it meant coming off the bench. "Being in the Olympics is the highest honor," said Taurasi, who was experiencing life as a reserve for the first time in her career. "That's the way we look at it, anyway."
Staley relished her role as this team's leader. Like a hyperenthusiastic camp counselor, she reminded players to keep hydrated, to get rest and to shut out the myriad distractions. On the court she was just as vigilant. If Leslie, her good friend, took too many outside shots, she'd order her back to the post. "She is like that with everyone," said Bird. "She makes everyone around her better."
Like Staley, coach Van Chancellor took nothing for granted. The folksy coach of the WNBA's Houston Comets ran practices "that were more intense and competitive than most of our games," said Thompson. The day after a 102-72 blowout of Greece in the quarterfinals, Chancellor had his players doing breakdown defensive drills. "Nobody does that this late in [a tournament]," said Chancellor, "but we aren't used to giving up 72 points."
Pressure defense was a key to the U.S.'s winning its first seven games, including a 66-62 semifinal squeaker over Russia, by an average of 25.6 points. Without primary outside threat Katie Smith, who was sidelined for most of the Games with torn cartilage in her right knee, the U.S. women were as lackluster from the arc (32%) as were their male counterparts. But they had two effective weapons inside--Leslie (15.6 points per game) and Thompson (14.1)--as well as a trio of point guards in Staley, Johnson and Bird who could get them the ball.
"If you shut down Lisa, then you have to shut down Tina Thompson. If you shut down Tina, you have someone else to worry about," said Australia's forward Penny Taylor after the game. "They have great artillery."
The Australians took solace in having cut their margin of defeat against the U.S. in the last Olympics in half. "You still have to play a perfect game to beat them," said another Australia forward, Trish Fallon, "but we're closing the gap."
Is anybody else? Olympic semifinalists Russia and Brazil are getting better, as is the Czech Republic, according to U.S. assistant coach Anne Donovan. "Most international teams are going bigger, to match our size," Donovan said. "And I see a lot of teams copying the play sets we do. They have recognized that they can't compete with us in the old, slow, half-court European style. As with the men, I think we're going to see the gap close and more teams out of Europe be competitive."
Staley sees little reason for worry. "I can honestly say that after I leave this Olympics, the U.S.A.'s future is going to be left in good hands," she said early last week. But even following the gold medal ceremony she still had a last lesson to impart. As Johnson walked with Staley back to the locker room, the first-time Olympian held out her medal, calling it "my first and only gold."
"Don't say that!" admonished Staley. "I said that in '96."
Smiling, Johnson corrected herself: "For now." ‚ñ†