Colorado Springs, Colorado
Carol Callan, director of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team program, was at the Colorado Springs, Colorado, airport Wednesday picking up two of the coaches who were taking part in this weekend’s USA Women’s U17 World Championship Team Trials. While she was waiting for the coaches at baggage claim, she noticed a young girl and her father walking by.
“You can just tell they were basketball people,” said Callan, who also is chair of the 2013-16 USA Basketball Women’s Developmental National Team Committee. Before she and the coaches left, Callan introduced herself to the girl and her father, confirming that she was indeed in town for the trials.
Of the 153 athletes scheduled to participate in the trials, this girl was one of 99 who are here for the first time. The first step, perhaps, in a basketball journey.
“You appreciate the kid who’s taking this big step to go completely out of their comfort zone,” said Callan. “To fly who knows how far to Colorado Springs, not knowing if they’re going to make it, not knowing what it's going to be like. It’s really scary. They're anxious. They're excited. They’re all those kinds of things.”
Of the 153 participants, only 35 were invited as a result of the selection committee’s identification process – based on input from high school and college coaches around the country, summer league coaches and even parents. The committee has been working over the last couple of months to identify these athletes – but the system is far from perfect. So, for the third year, the application process was put in place to allow for any athlete who meets the age qualifications and feels they have a shot at making the team to have a chance to experience the trials.
“We acknowledge the information that’s out there maybe isn’t as complete as we’d like it to be,” said Callan. “So we’d like to give kids the opportunity if they think they can contend. Or if they simply want to come to the tryouts to see what it’s like.”
Once they all arrive, there is no difference between the invited players and those who applied to come. In fact, two of the 12 players who made the USA U16 team roster at last year’s trials came through the application process. Those two -- Sabrina Ionescu (Miramonte H.S./Walnut Creek, Calif.) and Taylor Murray (Annapolis Area Christian/Odenton, Md.) -- are among the 35 invitees this time around.
On the heels of the U17 trials will be trials for the USA U18 National Team. While only 27 athletes were invited for that group, all of the athletes at the U17 trials are eligible for the U18 team and may be pulled into that group.
For the U17 team trials, athletes are split into two groups and will alternate the next few days between drills or scrimmages and off-the-court, educational seminars.
The plan is to have the U17 team down to 45 players by Sunday morning, and then the U17 12-person roster will be announced Monday, and the U18 roster will be announced on Tuesday morning.
As for what the selection committees are looking for, it’s not just the best shooters and dribblers – though that’s certainly a factor.
“You’re not looking at the 12 best all-stars,” said Callan. “You’re looking at a team that can win a gold medal. You’re going to want some players that are definitely some of the best. You also have to fill positions. You can’t take five great point guards just because they’re the best. You’ve got to fill out a team that obviously can compete. And you need to have some versatility.”
They want the best players at all five positions, she explained, but then they may prefer to add a player who can be a backup at point guard or shooting guard. They may look at players with different styles, so they have one point guard who’s strong at directing traffic in the half court and another who’s better at getting up and down the court.
“There’s no tried and true method – it’s not like swimming, where if you beat somebody in a race, you’re going to make the Olympic team.”
Two other factors that separate this selection process from trials in an individual sport are teamwork and leadership. In fact, that’s one of the off-the-court seminars these athletes will experience – a session that will be led by two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist Ruthie Bolton.
Spotting teamwork and leadership qualities in these athletes is not as difficult as it seems, Callan said.
“There are a lot of things that you can see. Eye contact. Someone else makes a play -- do you congratulate the person that made the play? If you make a mistake, do you hang your head and not run down the court to play defense? There are lots of little cues.”
Of course, players such as Diana Taurasi – an eight-time gold medalist with USA Basketball including three Olympic triumphs – stand out above the crowd at these tryouts.
“But there are others that hustle their way onto the team,” said Callan. “They just work harder than others.”
Of course, only 24 of the 180 girls who will be at the trials will leave Colorado Springs with a spot on one of these teams. For the 150-or-so that don’t make it, Callan hopes they can be like Seimone Augustus, who started coming to USA Basketball trials when she was 14 and missed the cut the first couple of times she tried. Eventually, she made what at the time was known as the USA U21 World Championship Team, and she was named MVP of the 2003 FIBA U21 World Championship. After that, Augustus won gold at the Olympics in 2008 and again in 2012.
“So those kinds of stories are all over the place,” said Callan.
“Ultimately, this is just the start. It doesn't mean they wouldn't be able to come back next year. Maybe this motivates them and they come back and kick somebody's butt. All of these things play into it, which is why I think it's great for any kid to come and try to be a part of it.”
With the success of the application process, Callan said the natural next step is to possibly organize regional tryouts, so kids don’t have to travel quite as far to participate. In the meantime, she hopes all athletes at the trials have a chance to grow.
“Because we have so many kids coming, and they have to pay their own way, we want to give them something in return. So when they leave, not only did they try out and see what that’s like, but they also had a chance to learn something and be improved players when they leave us.
“It's a tough process, but if it wasn't so important it would be too easy. It has to be difficult to become part of a national team, and ultimately -- I'm sure in their minds -- to become part of an Olympic team.”