LOS ANGELES -- Elena Delle Donne admitted feeling a bit out of her element at the Team USA Media Summit – at least when the element concerned was gold.
The reigning Most Valuable Player in the WNBA shared a stage Wednesday with triple Olympic gold medalists Tamika Catchings and Sue Bird and double gold medalist Candace Parker.
“I’m certainly in awe of these gold medalists,” Delle Donne said. “Last night I was introduced after them (at a media function) – which is embarrassing. You’ve got to introduce me first! These athletes are second to none, not just because of their basketball skills, but how special they are.”
Delle Donne, 26, who plays for the Chicago Sky, has never represented Team USA at a major international tournament, although she played at the World University Games and represented the U.S. on its 2015 European tour. Delle Donne said she has enjoyed being part of the Team USA selection process and getting to know the other players.
“We have to make sure we keep the USA tradition alive,” Catchings said. “Everybody who comes into our family knows what it is to compete on the highest level.”
The USA Basketball Women’s National Team Player Selection Committee is considering 25 players for the Olympic team and will whittle the list to 12 in mid-May. The final roster will be announced on July 5 after the FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
“I always say I do not envy the people on that committee,” Bird said. “From the pool of 25, you could literally pull 12 from a hat and send them to the Olympics and they would have a chance to win a gold medal.”
While the depth of talent in the United States is unparalleled, Bird said that the committee isn’t looking simply for the 12 best or most-talented players, “but a group that comes together as a team and complements each other.
“What can you bring in terms of winning a gold medal that has nothing to do with basketball?” Bird added. “It’s giving 100 percent all the time and being a good teammate. Everyone can shoot, everyone can dribble, what else can you bring?”
University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who guided Team USA to the gold in 2012 in London and was at the helm for world championship gold medals in 2010 and 2014, will be the first two-time Olympic head coach for the women’s team.
The Rio 2016 Olympic Games represents some significant basketball milestones: 80 years since men’s basketball joined the Olympic program, 40 years since women began playing at the Olympic Games and 20 years since the U.S. women began their record streak of five gold medals.
Team USA is 58-3 in Olympic play on the women’s side and has a 41-game winning streak dating to the bronze-medal game in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain.
“Every time we go out, everybody’s gunning for us,” said Catchings, who represented the U.S. for the first time in 1996 on the junior national team and plans to retire at the end of this season. “They all play their best game against us – you want to be the team to take the USA out.”
The last team to take out the USA was Russia in 2006 at the world championships, coincidentally in Brazil. That gave Bird and Catchings a taste of what awaits them in August if they are on the floor for Team USA in Rio.
“There were a lot of people there, and I’m sure a lot of them were Brazilians – and they were cheering against us,” said Bird. “It makes for a really exciting atmosphere.”
The U.S. women have never failed to win a medal at an Olympic Games in which they have competed. Team USA won the silver medal in the first Olympic women’s tournament in 1976, then missed the Moscow 1980 Games due to the boycott. Team USA won two straight gold medals in 1984 and 1988, then faltered to a bronze-medal finish in 1992.
Team USA returned to the gold standard at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, which took place three months after the founding of the WNBA. Both Bird and Catchings remembered the dominant U.S. team which included Teresa Edwards and Dawn Staley.
“I was 15 or 16 years old and that was right around the time when basketball was becoming super important to me,” said Bird, who is now 35. “It was a really pivotal point in our lives in terms of basketball. We were one of the first classes to choose a college knowing there was a professional life in America after it.”
Catchings, 36, whose father Harvey played in the NBA, wanted to play in the same league when she was growing up.
“When the WNBA came, that was even better than the NBA,” she said. “(I thought) ‘I have something I can do. I can play with women who are just like me and inspire me.’ I remember watching the 1996 Olympic team and knowing one day I’m going to be there.”
For her part, Delle Donne said she most vividly remembered the 2008 Olympic Games because they marked Lisa Leslie’s last appearance.
The other three players protested that they were there, too. “You didn’t see us,” Bird teased.
Now she not only sees them, she’s one of them.