USA National Team Notebook: Staley Begins, Bird and Stewart Add Veteran Leadership
USA Women's National Team Day One Debut
Day one of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team training camp is officially in the books. Evident was the sense of refuge the bouncing of basketballs, practicing of fundamental drills, and playing of 5-on-5 scrimmages brought to the national team players.
Excitement and anticipation filled Westmont College’s (Sanata Barbara, Calif.) Murchison Gym as head coach Dawn Staley prepared to lead the nation’s team on the court. After helping demonstrate and evaluate various drills throughout the day, Staley expressed similar sentiments in regards to the return to the court.
“It feels natural,” she said. “For me, I don’t change my approach because what it is [USA national team training camp]. I look at it as basketball. Some [players] I’ve played with, a lot of them I’ve coached in some capacity. It’s just like putting on an old shoe. We’re going to coach up the players that are here. I like to dwell on who’s here and concentrate on them and not worry about who or what is not here.”
Just a day prior to the camp’s start, Staley expressed the significance of building chemistry and how its organic development would be due to the competitive nature of each player. As the up-tempo pace this coaching staff hopes to sustain in the future was exhibited by players already in the first day, also showcased was the expectation of natural comradery as players rhythmically clapped as they huddled up and were simply having fun.
“It’s instant chemistry,” Staley said. “USA Basketball creates that type of thing. You have older players who are pretty much running the practices, running the drills, and helping communicate. They do it for you because they have a standard of play and how they want to play. They communicate that throughout the practices. We must continue and we must get better, and we will as the training camp continues.”
The youthful nucleus of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team is one of its most notable features at face value. Made up of five collegiate All-Americans and a host of other first-time invitees, the majority of the team’s players don’t have much international playing experience with USA Basketball. With events such as the WNBA Finals, overseas commitments and other obligations preventing some of the nation’s most elite talent from participating in this year’s training camp, emerging as the team’s primary leaders are two USA Basketball veterans, 36-year old and four-time Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird and 23-year old Breanna Stewart.
While the duo have further developed their relationship and familiarity on the court with one another as teammates on the Seattle Storm since Stewart was drafted in 2016, the foundation connecting the two begins with USA Basketball.
Both Bird and Stewart are the only two players on the current national team roster with experiences of participating on the 2014 FIBA World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympic gold medal teams. Their ties to USA Basketball run deep, beginning with Bird, who became the first U.S. player to compete on four USA World Championship teams in 2014 and is currently tied with women’s basketball legend Teresa Edwards for the most medals in major international play (FIBA World Cup & Olympic competition) with eight.
While the narrative of Bird being the team’s oldest player remains relevant, the soon to be 15-year WNBA vet continues to tune out the age conversation and let her play on the court speak for itself.
Following opening day of training camp, it is evident that Bird’s motor and savviness have not declined.
“There’s an evolution that happens in a player’s career. As you get older, you have to look in the mirror and decide what you want things to look like and how you want to go out,” Bird explained. “There were things that I needed to change from a workout and nutrition standpoint. The best way to sum it up is that as you get older, you can’t just rely on your youth and physical attributes. You have to dot every I, cross every T, and control everything you can. I just try to control all that I can control and just see how it goes.”
As for Stewart, also known as ‘Stewie,’ the USA Basketball experience has been one similar to a snowball effect in which she has gradually improved both on and off the court as a player and team leader. Once the youngest player on the national team in the 2014 FIBA World Cup at 20, Stewart is now a cornerstone to it having another source of consistent leadership.
“A leadership role is expected of me, especially with this camp because we have so many younger or less experienced players as far as the national team goes,” Stewart said. “Just being someone that they can look to for guidance, for help, or for confidence. Obviously it’s a quick training camp but [here with] USA Basketball] these [practices] mean a lot to us because we don’t get that many before the World Cup or Olympics.”
Still, while Stewart is embracing her role and will rely on herself to lead by example, she understands that there is more to be learned at the international level of play and is motivated by both coach Staley’s rise to head coach and her expectations for herself.
“Being a sponge [and learning more]. Dawn was the assistant [in the past] and I just want to be a sponge to her and whatever she’s trying to teach us and relaying that to everyone else,” she said. “In 2014, I was there [FIBA World Cup], I was still young and developing into the professional level because I was still in college. [I’m looking forward to] showing people how much I’ve gotten better since the Olympics.”
The ceiling for Stewart seems never-ending as she prepares to take the next step in her career on the international level. Meanwhile, Bird will continue to set the standard for others to follow as the ultimate veteran on this team.
Women in the Game
Discipline. Valuable. Honest. ‘Oddsbeater.’ These are the characteristics USA head coach Dawn Staley used to describe herself when speaking Saturday as one of 11 panelists at the USA Basketball ‘Women in the Game’ conference in front of an audience of high school female students and media members.
Her topic of discussion revolved around “The impact of a good coach.” Currently leading the USA Women’s National Team, a 17-time gold medalist as a USA Basketball player and coach, and coach of the 2017 NCAA national champion University of South Carolina women’s team, Staley admitted that when her first ever head coaching opportunity presented itself at Temple University, she was quick to deny the chance and remained adamant about her decision before finally accepting the head coach position. While she shared further details about her coaching experiences at both Temple University and presently at South Carolina, Staley’s message had more of an emphasis that went well beyond the court. Shared were life lessons about “humility” being the answer to her figuring out how to understand her players and allowing them to have a voice as well, in addition to “never being afraid of a challenge” that were most significant.
She provided a glimpse into the life of a girl from the North Philly projects who was once told that she would not win a national championship or be a gold medal Olympian. It’s a success story that hasn’t reached its peak but continues with her role as the head coach of the USA National Team.
Also speaking at the day-long Women in the Game Conference were Carol Callan, USA Basketball Women’s National Team director; Ilene Hauser, Nike, manager, women’s pro basketball; Kelly Krauskopf, Indiana Fever, president and general manager; Lani Lawrence, PsyD, University of Southern California, sport and clinical psychologist; Kristine Leahy, Fox Sports and NBC TV host Ohemaa Nyanin, USA Basketball, Women’s National Team ssistant director; Violet Palmer, PAC-12 Conference, Coordinator of Women’s Basketball Officiating and the first female official in NBA history; Katie Smith, New York Liberty, associate head coach; and Dr. Jen Welter, the first female NFL coach, Pro Football Hall of Fame advisory board member, and Game for Life Academy motivational speaker.