Savvy woman can show men the way back

Athens Olympics

August 29, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

ATHENS - When they post the job for head coach of the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team, there ought to be only one candidate: Dawn Staley - Olympic point guard/Temple University coach/Charlotte Sting player.

She doesn't just have serious game. Did you see the Motown-Philly move she made at the end of the U.S. gold-medal game, when rookie Olympian Sue Bird put the ball into Staley's hands? That was done on purpose. The ball should be in Staley's hands. She's the one with the firm grip - in all ways.

She also has experience, passion, leadership, presence, fortitude, graciousness, bravery and forthright intellect.

If these Olympics taught us anything about the disparity between U.S. men and women and the success of their respective team sports, it's that a shake-up is in order.

The U.S. women hit the Olympics trifecta yesterday.

Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Staley led the basketball team to gold with a win over Australia. The gold-plated trio of veterans looked at each other in the huddle when Australia was up by five and said, "It's time."

It worked. The basketball team joined the U.S. women's soccer and softball teams as Olympic gold medalists.

The guys? No soccer team qualified. No baseball team qualified. No Dream Team was sent here, which is why the guys were playing for the bronze yesterday.

They won that bronze, which was a good thing, mostly because Leslie, Swoopes and Staley didn't want their Olympic retirement party to be soured by medal-less male members of the basketball contingent.

"For males, their aspirations are to play in the NBA, in the NFL, in major league baseball," Staley said. "We just have the Olympics. This is the stage where we can broadcast our talents."

The women's softball/soccer/basketball trifecta was first completed in 1996, and the only thing preventing three consecutive trifectas was the soccer team's second-place finish in Sydney.

Otherwise, it's fairly safe to say the U.S. women are onto something.

That their Olympic prowess is really a testament to their historic lack of professional opportunities is a situation even Staley said she might trade. Gold medals are the epitome, unless you're eligible for $16 million a year from David Stern's more profitable pro league.

But the women are dominant enough to have reigned over three Olympiads, starting when soccer and softball were introduced at Atlanta. They've become a force in the Olympic movement.

It's not bad to be so consistently good.

In that spirit, here's an Olympic epiphany, based on two weeks of watching the U.S. women (of all teams) comport themselves in classy, caring, winning fashion: Make Staley the Olympic basketball coach - and not coach of the women's basketball team.

Staley lobbied for the women's Olympic coaching job yesterday. She didn't need to. Her rise to the top of U.S. basketball's pool for head coaching candidates is certain.

This Philadelphia-born gift to the game and coach of the women's team at Temple should be in line for Beijing 2008, at least.

In the meantime, we're talking Staley as coach for the guys.

Soon.

Now.

Before the guys show up for the wrong medal game.

Again.

U.S. men's coach Larry Brown did not invent the guys' woes, and those shortcomings were too large to be overcome during the five weeks the men's team was together. But neither did he do much to focus attention on solutions.

Time for Brown to go, which he would have anyway. It's an honorary position to serve as Olympic coach, which raises the question: If coaching the NBA stars in the Olympics is an honor, whoever coaches the men next cannot afford to be as negative as Brown was. Nor can the new coach be as divisive or as eager to bemoan the way the U.S. roster was selected.

Also, the new coach can't kvetch about the team not having enough time together to practice or that the young guys don't get it or don't quite act right or whatever else Brown said, suggested or intimated.

Women may cry in basketball. For proof, we give you Houston Comets star Tina Thompson, whose tear ducts were like lawn sprinklers after she won her first Olympic gold medal last night.

But if the U.S. women hoopsters gushed while accepting their gold, the guys whined during this fortnight - or acted befuddled or sulked because they were buried on the bench.

Guess no one ever told rookie Olympian Carmelo Anthony he doesn't know everything there is to know about the game of basketball.

Staley would tell him.

"I'm usually the one getting yelled at by [Staley]," Leslie said.

Staley is the embodiment of why the U.S. women won gold for the third consecutive Olympics. She talks about team and excellence and selflessness and innocence the same way Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm and Joy Fawcett were the force and voice of the women's soccer team, the way Lisa Fernandez is for the three-time gold-medal-winning softball team.

The guess here is that Staley would have better insight into how to get the U.S. guys to buy into the team aspect of the international game.

Staley does not lack job opportunities. The question about what to do now that her Olympic playing days are done isn't relevant. She coaches at Temple, which thinks so much of this passionate, intelligent employee that the university lets Staley play for the Charlotte Sting of the WNBA.

But she could do it.

Come to think of it, so could Foudy and Hamm for men's soccer. For the sake of symmetry - and as a testament to the women's prowess - Hamm will carry the U.S. flag into Olympic Stadium tonight during the closing ceremony.

Fernandez would have been a good choice, too. She could inspire the men of U.S. baseball to start to claim the glory, just like the women.

Medal leaders

Country G S B Tot.

United States 34 38 28 100

Russia 23 26 35 84

China 31 17 14 62

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