WASHINGTON – Sue Bird remembers taking a road trip with some of her AAU basketball teammates to Philadelphia to watch the U.S. women’s basketball team play an exhibition game as part of its tune-up tour leading up to the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games.
Bird wanted to watch stars Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Teresa Edwards, Dawn Staley and, of course, Jennifer Azzi, whom Bird looked up to as a fellow point guard. The 1996 team was especially dominant, winning 52 games leading up to the Games and never being seriously challenged en route to winning the gold medal. The performance by those women, as well as from the U.S. women’s soccer, softball and gymnastics teams that summer, prompted many in the media to deem those Games as the “Year of the Woman.”
Azzi is long retired and now Bird, 31, is the star point guard. And next week in London, Bird will be making her third trip to the Olympic Games.
“Now we’re those old players,” said Bird.
This year, which marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, several of the women athletes who will compete in London beginning next week are thinking this year might actually be the Year of the Woman. After all, as many of the women’s basketball team players were keenly aware of, the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team is composed of more women athletes than men for the first time. Of the 529 members of the U.S. Olympic Team, 268 are women and 261 are men.
Bird was reminiscing about the 1996 team during a practice with the 2012 team this past weekend at American University’s Bender Arena.
“I think I was about 15 when I went to see that team play,” said Bird, as she grabbed a pen to sign a young fan’s T-shirt. “Now you’re seeing girls much younger playing basketball and following women’s basketball.”
Bird looked at one of the young autograph seekers and asked, “How old are you?” The girl replied, “I’m 8.”
“See? That’s my point. I think this all really speaks to Title IX and we are really just seeing the effects of all of this now.”
Bird looked at the young girl again and asked, “So you’re here to take my spot, huh?”
The girl smiled, and as she walked away, Bird added, “She probably will.”
Such has been the cycle in the world of U.S. women’s basketball. The team has won the gold medal at every Olympic Games dating back to 1996. The only time the Americans have not earned a medal in Olympic women’s basketball was in 1980, when the United States boycotted the Games in Moscow. The last time the United States came home without the gold was in 1992 when it earned the bronze. None of the Olympic veterans on the 2012 roster know anything but winning gold.
Every member of the U.S. team was born after the passage of Title IX, including Bird, who was born in 1980 — eight years after the legislation from the Education Amendments banned discrimination on the basis of sex from participating in, among other things, sports, at federally funded educational institutions. Title IX was well into effect by the time the youngest player on the team, Maya Moore, was born in 1989. And all of them have had the opportunity to play in a women’s pro league in the United States, the WNBA, and many of them also play professionally overseas.
And they will have 8-year-old fans, some of whom got a chance to watch the 2012 team practice and some who had the chance a to watch them play in an exhibition game Monday night.
Fittingly, there was another fan who attended practice Sunday: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In fact, the former Harvard hoopster didn’t just show up at practice, he sported a Team USA jersey and bright yellow basketball shoes as he scrimmaged with the team.
Duncan got to see firsthand how well these women play on the court, but he’s seen the impact of this team in his own home.
"My daughter’s a huge fan,” Duncan said. “My son’s a huge fan. The impact they have on kids, both boys and girls, across the country is just amazing. They’re legends. They’re like kids. They’re working so hard, no egos, no selfishness. It’s really fun to see. I hope kids know what a special team this is.”
There is a distinct feeling of respect between the generations of women’s basketball players. Just as Bird looked up to Azzi, Angel McCoughtry knows how lucky she was to have had Lisa Leslie before her. The young players want to make sure they make the older generations proud.
“We want to pay homage to them,” said McCoughtry, a forward who will make her Olympic debut in London. “Before, for little girls it was, ‘I want to be like Michael Jordan.’ The WNBA came around when I was about 10. That’s when I knew, and other young girls knew, ‘I could be like Lisa Leslie.’“
Tamika Catchings, who turns 33 on Saturday and is making her third trip to the Olympic Games in London, claimed that these Games will be her last. “Unless I’m really, really healthy,” she said.
Her imminent departure, known to most of her teammates, made the players all the more focused on winning for her.
“I just hope we can send her off right,” said center Sylvia Fowles, who helped lead the United States to a gold medal four years ago in Beijing. “We need to send these guys off with a bang.”
When Bird went to the University of Connecticut, she felt the same pride and pressure. She followed Azzi’s basketball shoes when she became a Huskie, and Bird was well aware of how much winning meant to the UConn program. It’s really no different with the U.S. team. In fact, this year’s squad is even coached by UConn’s Geno Auriemma.
To outsiders, it might appear as if all the U.S. women’s team needs to do is suit up in London to win another gold medal.
“Unless you’re in this circle, you have no idea what it means and what we have to take on to win a gold medal,” Fowles said. “It’s very intense and we have high expectations.”
Bird is keenly aware of this. She has won two NCAA titles (the Huskies were 114-4 in games she played in college), two WNBA titles and two Olympic gold medals.
But she also remembers the rare losses well, like the one to Russia in 2006 at the FIBA World Championship in Brazil.
“That was awful,” Bird said. “But some of the best lessons you learn are from your losses.”
Bird knows how tough some of the other contenders will be in London, especially Australia and Russia. One of Bird’s teammates with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm is Australian star Lauren Jackson, a three-time Olympic silver medalist and member of the 2006 world championship squad. Another teammate is Svetlana Abrosimova, a bronze medalist on the Russian Olympic team in Beijing.
“This is not easy at all,” Bird said. “All of these countries have been training for months and we’ve got two weeks. And they all want to play their best game against us. We know that all it takes is one bad game. I remember in 2004 when Dawn Staley pulled us into a meeting after pool play and said, ‘OK, this is a three-game season. All that matters are these three games.’ We have to play with that mentality.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.