The 12 in ’12 series celebrates the fact that the London 2012 Olympic Games are less than two years away. The series previews 12 athletes who have proven themselves as true competitors in past Games and look to win medals for Team USA in London. The 10th part of the series features the USA Basketball women’s national team, specifically Sue Bird and Tamika Catchings, who earned Olympic gold medals at the Athens and Beijing Olympic Games.
Six Olympic gold medals. Seven FIBA World Championship gold medals.
Team USA has always been dominant internationally in women’s basketball. It is only natural, considering the sport was born and developed in the United States. Since the FIBA World Championship began in 1953, the U.S. has won seven of 15 gold medals, more than any other nation. The women’s national team has been even more successful at the Olympic Games, earning gold at six of the eight Games the team entered. Now that some of the team’s most recognizable players have retired, the current women’s national team is made up of a few veterans and several rookies who will look to uphold the nation’s reputation and earn a fifth consecutive gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
The success that the U.S. women’s national team has found on both the World and Olympic stages is unprecedented.
“I think it just says a lot about the talent level in the U.S. and I think it starts at an early age for us,” said Sue Bird, women’s national team member.
Bird played basketball at a young age because role model and older sister, Jen, was always staying active. Bird started playing Amateur Athletic Union Basketball when she was in the sixth grade. In high school, she was awarded the title of New York State Player of the Year and named a Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-American.
“There’s been so many great youth programs,” Bird said. “So many young girls are playing basketball right now and we just seem to develop really good players.”
She chose the University of Connecticut for college, where she helped her team become the 2000 and 2002 NCAA Division I champions.
After graduating, Bird was selected as the first overall pick of the 2002 WNBA Draft, where she was drafted to the Seattle Storm. She was the first guard to be the top pick in the draft’s history.
“It was a really great day for me, and a great feeling,” Bird said. “My family was there, a lot of my college teammates, my college coach. It was just an honor to be picked number one.”
Like Bird, Tamika Catchings also excelled in the sport at a young age and became involved in the sport thanks to her father: Harvey Catchings, who played for four NBA teams over 11 seasons.
When she was in the seventh grade, she decided she wanted to be a professional basketball player.
“I brought it to my dad, and he was like, ‘I will do whatever I can to help you reach your goal,’ ’’ Catchings said. “It seems like from that day when I made my goals to where I am today, he’s definitely been an instrumental part in keeping me focused.”
Catchings played for the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers, which won the NCAA Division I Championship in her freshman year. She improved her craft at Tennessee and after graduating a semester early in December 2000, was the third overall pick in the WNBA 2001 Draft. A torn ACL kept her sidelined that season, but she came back stronger than ever the next season and was named the 2002 WNBA Rookie of the Year.
Playing for Your Country
Bird and Catchings were named to the women’s national team in 2002 and became rookies on a team that included Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes, among others.
Team USA won gold at the FIBA World Championship that year, which is held every four years. 2002 was the team’s fifth win out of the past seven FIBA World Championship tournaments.
“Representing your country is something that is such an incredible honor and means so much,” Bird said.
Catchings agreed that it is an honor to wear the letters, “USA,” across her chest and pointed out that those letters give the players an extra responsibility.
“People look at us as representing the whole United States of America,” Catchings said. "Wherever we go, it’s like another level of respect. So for me it’s an honor to be able to be classified as one of the best of the best professional basketball players out there.”
Both women continued to play for the women’s national team and were a part of the team that defeated Australia to earn a gold medal at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
“It was definitely a dream of mine growing up to play on the Olympic team,” Bird said. “Every time I get selected and every time I walk out on the court, I take it very seriously, and I know I’m lucky. I want to do my best.”
Most of those players remained on the national team for the 2006 FIBA World Championship, where they took home bronze.
But by the end of that tournament, the team had seen the retirement of some its most important players including three-time Olympians Swoopes and Staley, and two-time Olympian Yolanda Griffith.
Two years later, Bird and Catchings were again named to the Olympic team and won gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. And once again, they played second-string to the team’s veterans. Following those Games, the team lost a few of those legendary veterans to retirement including four-time Olympian Leslie and three-time Olympian Katie Smith.
At a Disadvantage
After playing for the women’s national team for the past eight years, Bird and Catchings have seen what all aspects of playing for USA Basketball entail.
While the positive sides include the honor of representing your nation and gaining instant respect, there are disadvantages as well, including having significantly less practice time with the national team than other countries do.
"They play overseas like us and we all play overseas in the off-season, but we have a WNBA season,” Bird said. “A lot of those players don’t. They train basically the entire summer, building up to a competition.”
According to Bird, training is key for any team, as it is a time to develop the team chemistry needed to win tournaments like the Olympic Games or FIBA World Championship.
Compared to the months that other national teams spend playing together, Team USA had no more than a few weeks to develop its chemistry leading up to the Beijing Games. And in those few weeks, the team just had to take players as they became available and showed up.
That hindrance doesn’t stop Team USA from continuing to dominate, though.
“It’s the commitment to one another and the common goal of winning a championship,” Catchings said. “You have all these players who are the best players on the team and they are the focal point for each [WNBA] team. We’re able to put our egos aside and recognize that we all come together and our common goal is to win a championship.”
The lack of time is felt by all members of the team, especially the coach. Last year, Geno Auriemma, head coach at the University of Connecticut, was chosen as the head coach of the women’s national team and to lead the team through to the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Although the 2010 FIBA World Championship for women is Sept. 23 – Oct. 3, he said he still has no idea if the team is actually ready.
“When we get together in early September for training camp, we’ll have a better idea, but right now everyone’s involved with their own team,” Auriemma said.
He hopes that after a little practice next month, the team will be just as prepared for the World Championship as any other nation is.
“So much of it has to do with the fact that we have the best players,” Auriemma said. “They don’t need a lot of time. They know each other. They’ve spent time together playing on the national team, on the Olympic team, overseas together. There’s a tremendous amount of familiarity there that when we do get together it helps them come together quickly.”
Auriemma already has some Olympic experience of his own, as an assistant coach at the Sydney 2000 Games. But he knows that the current USA Basketball women’s team is at a completely different standpoint than the 2000 team was.
“In Sydney, it was a much more established team – a little bit older, a little bit more experienced,” Auriemma said. “That team had been together for a long, long time. Edwards, Leslie, Swoopes, Staley, Smith – that was a real veteran group of players.
“This particular team is newer, younger, less experienced in the amount of time they’ve spent together. There’s gonna be four to six players who are gonna be playing in their first Olympic Games. That’s exciting but at the same time it’s a changing of the guard and we’re gonna go to London with a new group, with new leadership, but yet at the same time expecting the exact same results.”
Catchings and Bird recognize the changing of the guards that has taken place on the team and know that it is their time to step up as the veterans and role models on the team.
“For me, it’s to try to stand in more of a leadership role with this team and helping everybody realize everybody has to play a certain role in us winning,” Catchings said. “And I think as we start making a transition from the older players to the younger players, somebody has to fill a role of a Leslie. When she left, Sue and Diana [Taurasi] took over that. As players leave, there’s younger players that step in that have to kind of fill that void.”
She has found that she is most useful to her team as a defensive stopper. While there are plenty of players on the team who can score, Catchings realized she can make the biggest difference on defense.
Auriemma hasn’t had too much experience coaching Catchings yet, but he has followed her career since she was at Tennessee and is excited to work with her.
“I don’t know that there’s anyone who competes harder and plays harder day-in and day-out than Tamika does,” Auriemma said. “She’s just an inspiration to everyone use of how hard she competes and the intensity that she plays at. Just from afar, she’s been one of my favorite players ever since I saw her play in college.”
For Bird, on the other hand, having Auriemma as the national team coach is more of a reunion. She was coached by him during her four years in college and is looking forward to playing for him again. Auriemma is just as excited to reunite with Bird after watching her win two Olympic gold medals and a WNBA championship from afar.
“There’s a certain level of confidence that she has as a person and as a player that permeates the rest of the team,” Auriemma said. “Whenever the team is together and Sue’s in the mix and she’s in the huddle, everyone knows that Sue’s gonna be talking and they’re gonna be listening. And the way she controls the game and how she’s able to get everyone involved, I think that’s the maturity she’s gonna bring to this group.”
The FIBA World Championship is going to be vital for this team to regroup and establish new leadership roles in players like Bird and Catchings, if they want to succeed in London two years from now.
“The goals are always the same for USA Basketball – and that’s to win a gold medal,” Bird said.
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