The Long View
For the thirdstraight time in international play, Team USA failed to win gold. But don'texpect drastic changes in its lineup
Last Saturday,after defeating Argentina 96-81 to take the bronze medal at the FIBA WorldChampionship, the U.S. team made the hourlong bus ride from Saitama Super Arenaback to the Four Seasons hotel for the last time, winding from the northernsuburbs of Tokyo into the pulsating, neon glow of the Ginza district. Theatmosphere on board was relaxed. Players who'd been on the 2004 Olympic teamjoked about whether their two bronze medals equaled one silver. There was noneof the despair or finger-pointing that followed the world championships in '02,when Team USA finished sixth. "Hey, we did six weeks together, we becamelike a family," Elton Brand said. "Of course we felt like we could havewon the gold, but it's a three-year process and now we understand what ittakes."
This notion ofthe world championships as a warmup act for the Olympics was pervasive. DwyaneWade explained that the team was only "getting used to the rules a littlebit," and LeBron James said of international ball, "It's a wholedifferent game. You have to forget about the NBA." What few spoke to waswhat might have been at this event, not only from a technical standpoint-whatif coach Mike Krzyzewski had installed James at point guard earlier in thetournament, an adjustment that was the key to the victory over Argentina?-butalso from a personnel one. What if there had been veterans like ChaunceyBillups and Shawn Marion on a team whose tricaptains (James, Wade and CarmeloAnthony) averaged 22.3 years of age? And then there was the elephant in theSaitama Super Arena that no one talked about: What if Kobe Bryant had suitedup?
September 10, 2006
"It's notfair to say," said Brand. "What if [Michael Jordan] was younger and wason our team? We were the ones out here, [and] we gave a good effort." Jameswas more philosophical. "I'm not sure how that would have worked out,"he said. "Kobe would have been a big part of our team if he was here. Butwe're very excited with our three captains."
Had the Americanswon gold they would have had an obvious core going into the Beijing Games(which they now have to qualify for next summer at the FIBA Americas tournamentin Venezuela). Because they didn't, there have already been calls to revise thelineup. What was clear was that the U.S. must upgrade its defense-especiallyagainst the pick-and-roll-and its shooting. Bryant would have helped in bothareas: He's one of four players on the expanded roster to make an NBAAll-Defensive team (along with Wade, Billups and Bruce Bowen; only Wade was inJapan), and he has a jumper suited to the 20'6" international three-pointline. Players like Joe Johnson aren't pure shooters; they've trained themselvesto hit from the NBA's 23'9" arc. But Bryant, while not an NBA three-pointmarksman, is one of the few perimeter stars at home 20 feet from thebasket.
That said, don'texpect the U.S. roster in China to be much different from the one in Japan. Theteam bonded (unlike its recent predecessors), worked hard for Krzyzewski andcomported itself admirably on the world stage, with Brand, Shane Battier andChris Bosh worthy of all-ambassador honors. "If there's a change ortwo-that's ultimately what I see, if any-that's only the flexibility that wehave built into the system," said Team USA managing director JerryColangelo. "But, no, we're not throwing the baby out with thebathwater."
It's also a signof the changes in international basketball that a U.S. team could feel goodabout going 8-1 and taking bronze. That's why that bus ride wasn't a downer,why James and Wade talked optimistically about preparing for Beijing: Losingisn't what it used to be. A disappointment? Yes. A disaster? No.
Asked if peopleback home understand how international competition has evolved since the daysof the original Dream Team, Battier shook his head. "I don't think so,"he said. "All those young players [overseas] who were watching the 1992Olympics-well, guess what?-they're full-grown now." What he didn't say wasthat on many of those international teams, many of the players have also beenpracticing together since 1992. And that's what ultimately will make thedifference for the U.S.: not personnel changes, but chemistry and familiarity.You know, the things that turn individual players into basketball teams.
And a Mother WillLead Them
Monarchs forwardDeMya Walker couldn't sleep on the eve of Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. But itwasn't her four-month-old daughter, Zachara, who was keeping her up; it was heropponent, the Shock. "I was so excited for this game, I was like a littlekid bouncing off the walls," says Walker. "I watched film over and overall night."
Walker'seagerness to hit the floor was evident. She scored all 11 of her points in thefirst nine minutes as Sacramento took a four-point lead; the hosts would wingoing away 89-69 to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. "Once theydefend me," says Walker, who added five assists and five rebounds, "Ihave no problem fading to the back and taking on another role."
That's just whatmany expected Walker to do this season after she delivered Zachara on April 11,but she rejoined the team on June 14 and the starting lineup on July 30.Although her stamina is still wanting, at week's end the 6'3" Walker hadincreased both her minutes per game (19.0 to 23.7) and her point production(9.3 to 11.6) in the playoffs. "I wasn't going to let anyone tell me what Icouldn't do," Walker, 28, said as she sat in a corner of the locker roomafter the game, holding Zachara on her lap. "People kept saying, 'If DeMyacomes back, she won't be the DeMya of old.' That's what kept me motivated. Iwanted people to come back at the end of the season and say, How?"
If the Monarchsrepeat as champions, the same might be asked of them; Walker's absence is justone of several obstacles they have overcome. There was center YolandaGriffith's arthritic knees, which forced her to leave her European season amonth early; guard Kara Lawson's mysterious bout with fatigue, which sidelinedher in the preseason; and the death of coach John Whisenant's mother, Virginia,in June. "Our goal was to hang tough," says Whisenant. "We knew itwas going to be a struggle early on."
Now Sacramento isplaying its best basketball. After sweeping the Comets and the Sparks in theplayoffs, it stunned the Shock, widely considered the league's most talentedteam, in Detroit in Game 1 and led through three quarters of Game 2 beforebowing. "We don't have a single player on the first or second All-WNBAteams," says Walker. "That speaks volumes about us."
The Monarchs playsuch an exhausting help defense that no starter averages more than 27 minutes;that has forged the WNBA's strongest bench. In Game 3 five of their sixreserves played 12 or more minutes, and all six scored, combining for 42points. Indeed, the only player who didn't score was Lawson, a starter who hada team-high 22 points in Game 1.
Sacramento didn'tneed Lawson to win Game 3. Nor did it need overtime, but Walker would have beenready. "There are good days and bad days as far as my stamina goes,"she said. "Today, I could have run forever."
• Follow the WNBAFinals at SI.com/wnba.
Even without NBA All-Star Pau Gasol, who was sidelinedwith a partial fracture in his left foot, Spain won its first worldchampionship on Sunday, routing Greece 70-47. The Spanish nucleus has beentogether for six years-forward Jorge Garbajosa and guard Juan Carlos Navarrorecently played their 100th games with the national team-and this winter twoteammates hope that familiarity will breed NBA success. In July, Garbajosa, 28,signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the Raptors, joining point guardJosé Calderon, 24, who last season averaged 5.5 points and 4.5 assists as aToronto rookie. "He's a versatile player," Gasol said of Garbajosa(above). "He is hard to defend as a four, and defensively he has a lot ofmobility." The 6'9", 245-pound Garbajosa was MVP of the 2005 and '06Spanish Cup finals and is expected to back up Chris Bosh. "He can make thethree-pointer and has the size to go up against guys in the paint," saidRaptors assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini, who was G.M. of BenettonTreviso during Garbajosa's four seasons in Italy. "He's a guy who willfight anybody."