Finally in spotlight, women go for basketball gold 51-game tour prepares U.S. team for Atlanta

June 16, 1996|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- For 13 months, the 11 members of the U.S. women's basketball national team have had what most of the members of the sorority of their sport have longed for: attention.

At virtually every stop of a nationwide tour, the players have been mobbed by autograph-seeking little girls and boys, prodded and queried by a media that heretofore has been indifferent, and become the subject of television commercials.

"It's been pretty amazing," point guard Dawn Staley said after yesterday's 80-79 victory over the Russian Olympic team at the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion.

But as their 51-game international goodwill and preparation tour comes to an end with today's formal selection of the 12-player Olympic squad, will any of this have mattered if there's no gold?

"They're out there for a cause. We've been on a mission all year and we're heading to the final phase now," said coach Tara VanDerveer.

Said Staley, a former Virginia standout: "We've got a lot of pressure in that the Olympics are in our home country and women's basketball is on our backs. That's a lot of pressure, but at the same time, you couldn't have put together a better group to handle that pressure."

The reason for the national team concept -- to select 11 of the country's best players and pay them $50,000 to live, train and play together for a year, before sending them to do battle in the Olympics -- was twofold.

After winning Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988, world championship and Goodwill Games titles in 1986 and 1990, and the Pan American Games crown in 1987, the United States had been shut out in major international competition -- except for a gold in the 1994 Goodwill Games -- with humbling bronze medals in the 1992 Olympics and 1994 world championships.

The decision was made by USA Basketball, this country's international basketball governing board, in 1994 to give Americans, who previously had basically assembled a squad a few weeks before a competition, a better chance to win by putting together its own national team.

"This program is beneficial to women's basketball. You can't just show up a month before the Olympics and expect to win. We will see the benefit of that in Atlanta," said VanDerveer, who has won two national championships at Stanford.

So far, the national team, which played 20 of the nation's top college squads through March before meeting international competition in tours to China, Australia, Russia and the Ukraine, has gone undefeated and won 34 of its 51 games by 20 points or more.

Those games were well-attended, with seven sellouts and the attendance more than 5,000 in 19 of the 26 American games.

The second component of the formula was marketing the team and raising the profile of the sport of women's basketball, which is only now beginning to grow as a spectator sport.

Off the court, the players have been part of a marketing campaign that is unprecedented for women's basketball, with nine nationally televised games, eight corporate sponsors, including Nike, Sears and Kraft, kicking in support dollars combined with the marketing genius of the NBA.

Many of the players, who sacrificed lucrative overseas contracts to play for their country, have seen their American marketability increase in immeasurable ways.

For instance, Sheryl Swoopes, the 1993 national Player of the Year at Texas Tech who scored an NCAA record 47 points in the title game that year, has become the first American female athlete to be the subject of her own shoe line, the "Air Swoopes" model by Nike.

"We're carrying a torch. It's a big responsibility," said guard Teresa Edwards, the only American basketball player -- male or female -- to play in three Olympics. "No other team has had the opportunity to do what we have done."

But there are questions about whether the players have spent so much time at corporate functions that they may be sapped of the energy they'll need to grab the gold.

"It's not just being on the floor and doing all the work there and weights and the training and conditioning, but it's also the promotion and marketing of this team to let people be aware of what's going on and who they are. I think that has drained a lot from them," said television analyst Ann Meyers, a four-time All-American at UCLA in the 1970s.

The team will get a badly needed break after the selections are announced today. Guard Jennifer Azzi is recovering from a broken nose, and forward Katrina McClain, who had 13 points and a game-high 12 rebounds in yesterday's squeaker, has battled bursitis in her hip.

Guard Ruthie Bolton, the team's best outside shooter and second-leading scorer behind center Lisa Leslie, missed yesterday's game with strained ligaments in her left knee.

The Russian team exploited Bolton's absence by clogging the middle and daring the Americans to shoot from the outside. Leslie, the 1994 national Player of the Year at Southern California, took up the slack by hitting from the outside and exploiting her quickness in the post to score 24 points.

Still, the American team, thin on the front line, could use some bulk, and is expected to address that need today with the selection of former Louisiana Tech standout Venus Lacy, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound forward, to the final slot.

After a year of marketing, playing and learning, the time to produce has come, and for the national team, the Olympic opener on July 21 against Cuba, a team it has beaten six times already, can't come soon enough.

"We just want it to get here. We really want the Olympics to get here, play them and take our gold medals and go on," said Edwards.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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