Will to Win Drives Women's National Team Veterans
Las Vegas, Nevada
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One night nearly nine years ago still fuels members of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team, because it’s the one that got away.
Over the last 20 years the various players that have earned roster spots have compiled a ridiculous 86-1 record in major international competitions, including gold medals in the last five Olympics, a 2007 title in the FIBA Americas Championship and gold in four of the last five FIBA World Championships. That one blemish, a 75-68 loss to Russia, came in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship, and by the organization’s own absurdly high standards the game still stands out.
“That’s what USA Basketball is at this point,” said guard Sue Bird, who just completed mini-camp in pursuit of her fourth Olympic gold medal. “It’s not a story if we win, it’s a story if we lose.”
Forward/center Candace Parker is one of the veterans now, a player to be leaned on for her experience and success. But back in 2006 she was one of the new players eager for her first taste of major international experience, and after defeating Russia during the preliminary round the rematch, and thus the tournament, didn’t go as planned.
“You don’t want to be on that team,” Parker said. “You view it as a learning experience, but you can’t change it.”
Three players who practiced in this week’s three-day mini-camp at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center — Bird, Parker and guard Seimone Augustus — were on that squad, as were current USA National Team members Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings. Since then they’ve formed the core of a team that responded more motivated than ever.
There have been several close calls and tough games over the years, more than fans probably realize, but that loss obviously stood out. It served as the driving force, Bird said, of a 2008 Olympic gold-medal run that included the largest margin of victory (37.6 points per game) of any of the competitions over the last two decades.
“We were a machine in that Olympics,” Bird said. “Why? Because we had lost two years before. There was another champion and we needed to take that crown back.”
When the goal is not just greatness but perfection, even the smallest blemishes stand out. Parker was disappointed by a bronze medal as her debut but since then she’s grown up fast in the system, helping to win two Olympic golds along the way.
“I came here wide-eyed and now I’m 29,” Parker said. “It’s a unique experience and it goes fast. You turn from a rookie to a vet very quickly.”
That process has featured not only the progression of age but, more importantly, the progression of abilities. Every time the USA Basketball Women’s National Team assembles, there’s a group of young players looking for their chance to break in to the final roster, and along the way players in that core group have fought for their positions and fought off the competition.
“If they had stayed the same as they were seven years ago, some of these guys might have passed them,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “What makes them who they are is they get better.”
It’s a major piece of the teaching philosophy every time a camp roster is assembled. A player doesn’t make the invitation list if they’re not supremely talented, so that ability alone is not enough. It takes an extra amount of commitment to find out what it’s going to take to get to, and then stay, at that top level and then devote yourself to it.
That core group is nearing the end of its run in USA Basketball, but it’s not done yet. They’ve worked too hard to keep themselves near the top of the player pool, and assuming they make the roster once again there’s no reason to expect them to not do anything necessary to bring home another gold medal.
“We know what it’s like to lose,” Bird said, “and we never want to experience that again.”