SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Dawn Staley knows exactly what’s expected of her as coach of the U.S. women’s basketball team.
“I just want to win,” Staley said during her first training camp, which wrapped up Monday in Santa Barbara, California. “We’ve had some great coaches, and I just want to follow suit.”
Staley won three Olympic gold medals as a player, starting in 1996 when the U.S. women began their streak of six consecutive championships, before contributing as an assistant coach during the team’s triumphs at Beijing in 2008 and Rio last year. In the near term, she has her sights on the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Spain, but ultimately the goal is a seventh straight Olympic gold medal at Tokyo in 2020.
On paper, the U.S. women could have a wealth of experience going into those Games. The only player from 2016 who’s retired is Tamika Catchings. The remaining 11 have collected a combined 25 gold medals. Two of them, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, have a shot at an unprecedented five individual golds.
But on the court, Bird and Breanna Stewart were the only Olympians to participate in the three-day camp at Westmont College and UC Santa Barbara. Several veteran players were nursing injuries, and others were involved in the WNBA playoffs. Joining Bird and Stewart were 10 pros and five collegiate players. Most of them wore the red colors of the senior national team for the first time.
“In a lot of ways, it was a unique training camp, because it’s such a young group” Bird said after team’s final workout, which consisted of fast-paced drills and a full-court scrimmage. “It was really competitive out there. There was a lot of focus; everybody was locked in. You could tell these are people who really want that experience.”
The energy put forth by the younger players was unmistakable.
“They all had a great camp,” Staley said. “When you’re around these top-level players, you either sink or swim, and I thought they all swam. The 17 players had a great try-out. They gave the committee something to start with in formulating the type of team we can have.”
Among the pros in camp was Skylar Diggins-Smith, who was back in a U.S. training camp for the first time since an ACL injury in 2015.
“It’s definitely an aspiration of mine to be an Olympian,” said the Dallas Wings guard. “To compete for Team USA gives you a sense of pride. I’m just trying to get better and continue to be a part of it.”
Bird, who turns 37 this month, said she feels “good enough and healthy enough” to make the roster in 2020. The Seattle Storm guard no longer plays overseas, assuring less wear and tear on her body.
“It’s enjoyable to be selected as one of 12 best U.S. players, the patriotism of it,” Bird said. “On our WNBA teams, on our overseas teams, we’re the go-to players, we’re the players who have to carry a lot of the weight. On the USA team, you can just have fun and go out there and play. There’s 12 of us sharing the weight. Once you’ve tasted it, you want to come back for more.”
Staley explained, “The culture of USA Basketball is like no other, no WNBA teams, no college teams, because you’re playing with the very best — not only with the very best, but against the very best across the world. If you’re a competitor, there’s no better competition than to play against the world.”
In addition to Bird and Stewart, there were four other former UConn players in the camp — Stefanie Dolson, Tiffany Hayes, Kiah Stokes and Morgan Tuck — as well as Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, who will be juniors with the Huskies in 2017-18.
Stewart, 23, could be considered the leader of the up-and-coming generation of players. She was the youngest of the 2016 gold medalists.
“I’m trying to build relationships with these players,” she said. “We had a lot to get done in these three days, and we got after it.”
In addition to playing together at UConn, Collier and Samuelson won gold medals at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, as members of the USA 3x3 basketball team. The three-on-three game will be introduced to the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“It’s cool — really quick games,” Collier said.
Samuelson added, “It’s a really fun game. You can’t hide. You and your teammates have to come together and play as hard as you can, or else you’ll lose.”
But Samuelson conceded she’d never take the new event over the opportunity to be one of the 12 playing for Staley at the Olympics.
“It’s awesome being around these players I’ve looked up to forever and competing against them in practice,” the UConn swing player said. “Growing up, this is what everyone who plays basketball wants to do. In the future, maybe some other girls growing up and seeing three-on-three would want to do that.”
Other college players at the camp were Asia Durr (Louisville), Kelsey Mitchell (Ohio State) and A’ja Wilson (South Carolina). Rounding out the roster were WNBA players Jewell Loyd, Kayla McBride, Layshia Clarendon, Kelsey Plum and Courtney Williams.
Staley is heading into her 10th season as women’s basketball coach at South Carolina. Wilson remembered going to the press conference last March when Staley’s appointment to head Team USA was announced.
“We were all there in our 2020 shirts,” Wilson said. “It’s great. This is something coach has been working toward since she was young. She’s given so much to USA Basketball. This is the most they can do to repay her.”
A month later, the Gamecocks won the NCAA championship for the first time.
“It’s crazy, right?” Staley said. “It’s been a great year in my basketball career.”
But something could top it in three years.