Athens 2004: US Basketball Gold

At the end of the gold medal game between the United States and Australia, there was a moment that captured the sense of history and respect that is the very essence of the United States Women’s National team. The US had just put the finishing touches on a thrilling 74-63 victory, and was 17 seconds from clinching the gold medal. The subs, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Diana Taurasi and Ruth Riley, all under 25-years-old and all in their first Olympics, entered the game leaving three-time Olympian Dawn Staley as the sole veteran on the court. With time running out, the noise crescendoing as the crowd stood on its feet, the ball ended up in Bird’s hands, then back into Staley’s. It looked as if Staley was about to pass the ball back to Bird, an almost instinctual move, when Bird pointed emphatically at Staley and shouted, “You keep the ball!”

The final buzzer sounded and the diminutive point guard, playing in her last Olympics, was swarmed by her teammates and lifted into the sky.

It was only fitting.

In an Olympic run that raised so many questions — How would sandwiching the games within the WNBA season impact the players? Could the veterans incorporate the incoming rookie super-stars? Would the US women’s basketball dominance continue in the face of the men’s struggles? — it was team’s undisputed leader who put the exclamation point on the entire experience. In the final 1:37 Staley, not known for her offensive prowess, hit two free throws, scooped in an underhanded lay-up and then stroked the game’s two final free throws.

“I still have a little bit of offense left in me,” said Staley, 34, whose 14 points complimented Tina Thompson’s 18 and Lisa Leslie’s 13. “My teammates found me. Lisa even gave me the ball down in the low post for the first time in 16 years,” she added with a sly grin.

So Staley, Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes, the core of a team has dominated international basketball since a disappointing bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics, left Athens with their third gold medal. Their legacy? A mere 25 straight Olympic victories, three Olympic golds, and two World Championships.

“Some people said that we couldn’t do this, myself, Lisa and Dawn,” reflected the 33-year-old Swoopes, whose smothering defense and clutch shots were key in the semi-final game against Russia. “We were too old or it was time for the younger players to move in. But when it came down to it, regardless of who had gotten the job done, we definitely turned to the veterans. We knew we had each other’s back and we got the job done.

“It’s an amazing feeling to have these two players out there on the court,” said tournament MVP Leslie, 32. “I don’t think there was ever a time in my mind when I thought I’d lose a basketball game. That’s a credit to both of them, their heart and their fight.

Credit is also due to two-time Olympian Yolanda Griffith, who became synonymous with gravity defying offensive rebounds, and USA Basketball vets Pee Wee Johnson and Tina Thompson, whose years of commitment finally resulted in Olympic gold. “For over a decade now this was something I wanted to be a part of,” said Thompson, whose all-around game earned her all-tournament team honors. “I’m here in this moment and right now, it’s where I’m supposed to be. It’s a blessing.”

While 2004 is the end of the Olympic story for Staley – and perhaps even Swoopes and Leslie – Athens underscored how committed both the veterans and newest Olympians are to continuing the US women’s legacy. The learning happened because the youngest stars were more than willing to sublimate their own egos for the benefit of the team. Consider Bird, Cash and Riley, go-to players on their WNBA teams, averaged only about 11 minutes a game. Even Taurasi, thrust into a more active role because of a knee injury to veteran and three-point specialist Katie Smith, only averaged 19.3 minutes a game.

“I came in knowing what my role would be,” explained first time Olympian and starter Tamika Catchings. “Having Sheryl and Lisa, Tina and Dawn, I knew they weren’t looking for me to score.” Instead, Catchings become a ruthless defensive pest and lead the teams in steals. “In ’96 they were the young pups learning from all the greats that came before them,” she added. “They realize we’re doing the same thing now — trying to reach up and grab what they have, so when we come back in 2008, hopefully we’ll have learned enough to win another gold medal.”

“Who better to learn from than Dawn Staley,” said Bird, who at 23 is the defacto point guard of the future. ‘I love playing with her and I love watching her. The way she can control a game without scoring a point – the way she leads everybody, no matter who you are or what you are doing. She is a true point guard – a coach on the floor.”

“They’re hungry,” acknowledged Staley. “They’re like sponges. You just take them, put a bug in their ear here and there, just so they’ll know, they’ll remember these situations, when it’s time for them to lead.”

They’ll need to be ready, because the young and feisty Australians and Russians have served notice, and it would be foolish to ignore an up and coming Czech team, and the forever pesky Brazilians, who host the World Championships in 2006. There’s talk of encouraging the younger Americans play abroad to gain international experience, despite the temptation of endorsements and work opportunities that might keep them stateside, a luxury the earlier generations didn’t have.

But despite questions and concerns, there is a sense of confidence in the future. “I thought the greatest thing about our team,” said head coach Van Chancellor, “[was] we had experienced players, [and] we had young players getting ready to do it the USA way. When you look at Ruth Riley, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, we’ll be fine.”

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