U.S. women play, behave like a dream ATLANTA OLYMPICS

July 22, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Give me headstrong Lisa Leslie over hothead Charles Barkley, sweet-passing Dawn Staley over trash-talking Gary Payton, the real Dream Team over the repugnant Green Team, but only under one condition:

The women never change.

They're a joy to watch and a joy to interview, but how long will it last? Women's basketball is getting so big, it won't be long before Leslie does a commercial as Grandpapa.

Heck, George Steinbrenner was in attendance at Morehouse College yesterday, ready to fire U.S. coach Tara VanDerveer if the women's team failed to trounce Cuba.

The United States won, 101-84, but Steinbrenner reportedly was furious with the uninspired play of Sheryl Swoopes, describing her as "Ms. May" to the New York Post.

In all seriousness, the women aren't back-page material yet, but they graced the cover of Sports Illustrated's Olympic preview issue, and after the Games they will compete in not one, but two new professional leagues.

How long before Swoopes takes a year off to play baseball? Before Leslie says weight training interferes with her modeling career? Before we see a female Derrick Coleman, a female Isaiah Rider, a female Dennis Rodman?

All right, scratch that last one.

It's too weird even to imagine.

The point is, the women's game is taking off. For years, the top U.S. collegians needed to go overseas to continue their careers. Now, they'll be able to make a living at home.

The women deserve each and every gain -- the respect and recognition are long overdue, and so are the rewards. Still, you almost want to freeze them in their tracks, because soon the special magic of this moment will be lost.

Face it: One reason the women are so appealing right now is because they're everything the dollar-crazed, image-obsessed, ugly-American men are not.

"I don't know why we're a Dream Team," guard Teresa Edwards said yesterday. "We're not rich. We've been working hard for $50,000. They just got on the job."

And a fine job the men did against Argentina in their opener on Saturday night, leading at halftime by only two points.

How much did Nike and Reebok stock drop?

The women's $50,000 salaries might sound like easy money, until you learn that some of them could have made four to six times as much playing overseas and that they traveled more than 100,000 miles on their pre-Olympic tour.

A stark contrast, isn't it?

The women sacrificed money to play for their country, then spent eight months becoming a team, promoting their sport and not themselves.

"We could have just stopped," said Leslie, who hit the floor after bumping heads with a Cuban player yesterday, then recovered to score 17 of her game-high 24 points in the second half.

"We could have said, 'This country is not being very welcoming to us as women.' But we decided to fight, not only for us, but jTC also for the little girls. When I was a little girl, I didn't have the opportunity to see women play."

Now, thanks to these players and the trail blazers before them, young girls will. Maybe one day the women's NBA or ABL will attain major-league status. Or maybe the sport will never be as hot as it is right now.

Either way, it will never be like this again, with the women so close to a breakthrough, gaining new fans every day. They looked tense in the early minutes yesterday, but rallied from an 18-11 deficit to take a 54-44 lead at halftime, and that was that.

The preliminary-round victory reflected the team's depth -- all 12 players scored, and six had five or more rebounds. Indeed, the bench was so impressive, the star of the day was Staley, the backup point guard and shortest player on the team at 5 feet 6.

She delighted the crowd with several no-look and over-the-shoulder passes, then delighted reporters with tales from her youth in inner-city Philadelphia.

Indeed, the Virginia graduate is such a phenomenon in Philly, Nike recently erected a 67-foot-by-100-foot mural of her on the side of a building in Center City.

Yes, Staley has a shoe contract, but at least she's humble about it.

"If Jerry Stackhouse had gone with Nike, he probably would have been up there," said Staley of the Philadelphia 76ers star. "I thank him for going with Fila."

And the mural?

"It's overwhelming," Staley said. "Every time I go by there, it just seems like it gets bigger. It's too big for me."

Now, when was the last time you heard a Dream Teamer say that?

Staley is getting big; they're all getting big. Swoopes was the first woman to have a shoe named for her (Air Swoopes). Leslie has signed with the Wilhelmina models agency. Rebecca Lobo plays herself in a coming Tom Cruise movie.

Want more?

Earlier this week, Leslie went to a McDonald's in Atlanta, and needed security to help her depart. But the best indication of the women's newfound status is that they're staying in an Atlanta hotel rather than the Olympic Village, just like their male counterparts.

"You want to dog us on that, go to USA Basketball," Edwards snapped. "We're just doing what we're told."

Easy there, Teresa.

You're on the Dream Team, not the Green Team.

Don't change.

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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