New Leadership Emerging in Run-Up to World Championship
• Game Recap: USA 76, Canada 51
As the USA Basketball Women’s National Team prepares for the FIBA World Championship, which begins Sept. 27 in Turkey, the identity of the squad is shifting, with several players relishing their new roles as leaders while young talent emerges.
“In 2010 and 2012, I was soaking in everything I could from some of the vets that had been around,” says Maya Moore, now 25, who was the youngest member of the U.S. teams that won gold at the 2010 FIBA Worlds and the 2012 London Olympics. “And now being one of the more experienced on the national team, it just was kind of just natural to step up, and hop in, and go first and try to lead by example.”
Among the national-team newbies Moore is leading: Breanna Stewart, a 20-year-old Connecticut junior who could become the youngest USA Women’s World Championship Team member since Kara Wolters in 1994. Stewart scored nine points on 3-of-6 shooting and snagged three boards in less than 15 minutes of play in an exhibition game against Canada on Monday evening. On Tuesday, Stewart and the rest of the U.S. team is scheduled to depart for Paris, where the North Syracuse, New York, native will have to put basketball and schoolwork over sightseeing, despite the fact that it will be her first visit to the City of Lights.
“I see myself in Stewie so much,” says Moore. “I used to be one of the kids doing homework during national team events, saying, ‘Sorry guys, I can’t go out to dinner, I’ve got a quiz.’ She was doing a quiz a few nights ago, and I was smiling, remembering those times. But she’s handling it well, and the next generation she’ll be the one saying, ‘Hey, I was you.’”
Playing senior-level international basketball for the first time can certainly be an education.
“It’s a much more physical game, so you need to be ready for that,” says Sue Bird, who at 33 could become the first American woman to make four World Championship teams. “It wasn’t until I played overseas that I really understood what that was like.”
The American women have dominated at the international level for two decades, posting a 75-1 record in Olympic and World Championship competition since 1996, winning five-straight Olympic golds, and three of the last four editions of the quadrennial global basketball championship.
Eight of the 12 members of the victorious 2010 team are in contention to be named to the roster for this year’s Worlds. The four players missing from the current training camp are three-time Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings, who is out with an injury; two-time Olympic gold medalist Swin Cash and 2012 Olympic champion Asjha Jones, who have retired from national team play; and Jayne Appel, a member of the 2010 USA World Championship Team who wasn’t among the finalists this time around. Candace Parker, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who recently underwent knee surgery, is another notable absence.
Even with players like Parker and Catchings out of the mix, the current depth of talent in U.S. women’s basketball means that the competition to make this year’s team is incredibly fierce. But the 2014 Worlds aren’t the only prize in mind for the young players. With the Rio Games less than two years away, any chance to participate in a national training camp and to perform well in front of the national team coaching staff is welcome.
“Whether we make the team or not, we’re going out there trying to get better playing with all these women who have been in the Olympics,” says 22-year-old Stefanie Dolson, a 6-5 center and one of four American women under the age of 23 who will be playing the pre-World Championship tournament in Paris. “It’s just an awesome opportunity to get better as a player.”
Moore is one of those Olympians with knowledge to impart to her less experienced teammates, like Stewart. And Moore, herself a prodigy and a product of the Connecticut pipeline, can help Stewart navigate the challenges and benefits that come from playing for Geno Auriemma at school and overseas.
“The things Coach yells at her for are the same things he yelled at me for,” she says of Stewart. “She’s gotten some good opportunities here to really get the feel for what the next level is like, and I’m excited to help her grow up as best as she can for the next few years.”
Similarly, Bird’s motivation derives not only from the desire to add another championship to her impressive career haul, but also to support her younger teammates. “First and foremost, we want to win a gold medal,” she says. “But now that I am a little bit older, I know that I want to leave some sort of mark on this USA Basketball program, and hopefully kind of pay it forward.”