For U.S., it's time for payback

In the spotlight today Women's basketball

Beijing 2008

August 21, 2008|By Tribune Olympic Bureau

BEIJING - The Olympic women's basketball semifinal between the United States and Russia needed another subplot like three-time gold medalist Lisa Leslie needed "Star-Spangled Banner" lyrics.

Yet there it is, South Dakotan Becky Hammon wearing the red and white - but no blue - of Russia, a move that Leslie initially described as "un-American."

This story line follows Russia upsetting the Americans in a 2006 world championship semifinal, as well as the minor detail of today's winner advancing to Saturday's gold-medal game.

"Is that all?" joked guard Sue Bird.

With no Russian heritage, Hammon became a naturalized citizen on the basis of her contractual ties to the club team CSKA Moscow. This came after it became obvious that she would not be considered for the 29-player pool used to select the U.S. team.

The U.S. team soundly defeated Russia in an Aug. 4 Olympic tuneup in Haining, China, so Hammon says she's past the oddity of playing against her home country. And Team USA is far more concerned with payback for its stunning 2006 world championship loss.

Bird said she can still hear the packed gym in Brazil, which included Australian players, cheering against a Leslie-less U.S. team. The racket contrasted sharply with the pin-drop quiet post-game locker room that Bird can also recall.

"A lot of silence," she said. "When you lose big games like that, you're angry at yourself because when you wear the U.S. jersey, a lot is expected. You're supposed to win gold medals. To miss out on even an opportunity to do that was very disappointing.

"It's what fuels us. I know not all of this team was there. But everybody else watched it on TV. We've already watched film on that game. And I think we're a much better team now. Sometimes losses turn out to be the biggest wins because you can learn more and they can motivate you."

Aiming for its fourth straight Olympic gold medal, the U.S. women's team has steamrollered through this tournament, winning its first six games by an average margin of 43.2 points. No opponent has come within 36 points as the Americans have run their Olympic winning streak to 31 games.

"You can see that people are all about winning. It's never been about the stat sheet or who's got what," Leslie said. "And I told them in our very first meeting that after winning three gold medals, I can't remember who led what in any [statistics]. But you don't forget the losses.

"Some people in some countries are happy with bronze medals. We weren't. And we aren't."

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