ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- For the last few days, members of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team could not help but be reminded of what it means to represent Team USA.
Not only have they been wearing their Team USA gear and practicing together in preparation for the upcoming FIBA World Championship in Turkey, but also they have been training at the U.S. Naval Academy, dining with midshipmen and meeting with high-ranking military members. Everywhere you go in the Maryland capital city of Annapolis, there are storefronts with the American flag and people walking around in military uniforms.
As they watched in awe as 4,000 midshipmen filed in formation into Bancroft Hall for their lunch Tuesday, the U.S. women’s team received yet another reminder of the connection they have with the men and women of the U.S. military. Both teams are dedicated to teamwork, discipline and a strong sense of patriotism.
There will be no greater reminder of those qualities than when the U.S. women play in the USA Basketball Showcase Thursday night — the 13th anniversary of 9/11 — at the University of Delaware. Marine Corps Sgt. Major Bryan Battaglia, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, gave the U.S. women a pre-practice talk Tuesday morning at the Naval Academy, and he will be at the game in Delaware. In addition to special halftime activities, Battaglia said there also will be a moment of silence at some point during the evening.
“After watching practice I could see that these women want to win bad,” Battaglia said. “And the American public would expect nothing less. Not only are they representing our country and our nation, but they are bringing home trophies and medals and that means so much to our country and our youth.”
The fact that the game will be played on Sept. 11, U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said, is a small way for the Team USA players to keep the memory of that tragic day alive. Just as many Americans remember where they were when President John F. Kennedy was shot, Auriemma remembers clearly where he was on Sept. 11, 2001. He was in Denver on a recruiting trip and was unaware of the news until he received a phone call with someone urging him to watch the news.
“The unfortunate thing is that as time goes by people tend to forget,” Auriemma said. “I’m sure the families that were affected will never forget but the rest of us have to work to remember and it’s never going to be enough.”
The connection between USA Basketball and the military has been exceptionally strong. Hoops for Troops, an initiative started in 2006, has paired Team USA athletes with military members at a variety of joint activities ranging from meetings at the Pentagon to repairing homes for veterans. The U.S. men’s team, which is vying for a gold medal in the FIBA World Cup, stopped at West Point before heading over to Spain.
On Tuesday, half of the U.S. women’s team (in addition to half of the U.S. Naval Academy’s women’s basketball team) participated in a clinic at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Annapolis & Anne Arundel County while the remainder of the players participated in a clinic with children of U.S. Navy personnel.
“It’s amazing because they all love what we do, and it’s like no, ‘We love what you do,’" said Angel McCoughtry, who helped lead Team USA to a gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games. “It’s kind of like a two-way street.”
Taking timeout to get to mingle with the midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy and other military personnel left a lasting impact on the U.S. women’s players, even for veterans such as Sue Bird, who has witnessed quite a lot since being called up to the national team back in 2002.
“It’s really been a cool experience to get to know some of the troops here,” said Bird, a three-time Olympic champion. “We went to lunch with them and just being able to ask questions and hear some of the kind of day-to-day things they go through, it’s really similar to what an athlete goes through. Mind you, on a much larger scale with much more serious things at stake.
“But, I think that’s why it’s such a perfect union, because there are so many similarities in terms of the discipline and the teamwork, getting to know the people you have to work with and making that work … Obviously I’ve been around and done a lot of things like this, but this is one of the few times I’ve really felt connected to it.”
The main purpose of the training camp, of course, is to prepare for the world championship. Team USA opens its quest for a ninth world championship gold medal Sept. 27 with a game against China in Istanbul. Should the U.S. women, the heavy favorites, win the world title on Oct. 5, they will earn an automatic berth to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
There are 24 players on the roster, which needs to be trimmed to 12. The squad that practiced this week in Annapolis didn’t have several of its stars such as Elene Delle Donne, Diana Taurasi and Sylvia Fowles, who are playing in the WNBA Finals, but still was quite impressive. At several points during the scrimmage Wednesday, the bench looked like an All-Star squad.
Eight players on the roster are Olympic champions and the team is coached by Auriemma, who guided Team USA to gold medals at the last Olympic Games in London and the world championship in 2010.
One of the hardest jobs Auriemma and his staff will have is deciding which players to take to Turkey. Auriemma said his committee will discuss the roster after the scrimmage Thursday and again after the game against Canada Sept. 15 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The team will then head to Paris for its final world championship tune-up.
Nnemkadi “Nneka” Ogwumike, a former star forward at Stanford who is hoping to make her first world championship team at the national team level, said Auriemma passed along this message to the players.
“He said, ‘There is not a reason why players get cut but there is a reason why players stay,’" Ogwumike said. “I hope I give him a reason to stay.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she covered her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.