FOX Sports Exclusive
Women rout field, struggle for respect
One day during these Olympics, members of the U.S. women’s basketball team returned to their rooms to find T-shirts with the words “Road to Respect” laid out for them.
It is true that few, other than fans of the women’s game, shower them with admiration. If the men are revered and the women’s soccer team is adored by Americans, the women’s basketball players have not found a compelling enough formula to capture the imagination of the public.
So the T-shirts were not an inaccurate assessment of where the women stand.
Nevertheless, coach Geno Auriemma thought they were a “dumb” idea.
“We just play basketball,” Auriemma said. “Whether anybody cares or writes about it, there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re not in the PR business. We’re in the basketball business. And we’re pretty darn good at it.”
So they were again Saturday night as the United States, undefeated and unappreciated, rolled to the gold medal with an 86-50 trouncing of France. It was their 41st consecutive Olympic victory and fifth consecutive gold medal.
If the Americans have been numbed by their success, and tired of shouting for respect, then they found satisfaction in playing with each other and appreciation in the details.
Candace Parker held her daughter, dressed in a stars-and-stripes dress and leggings, along with her gold medal. She treasured the road here — returning from knee and shoulder injuries, and her pregnancy — as much as she did the 21 points and 11 rebounds she scored.
“It has been quite a journey,” she said.
Diana Taurasi, who endured troubles off the court, wiped tears from her eyes during the national anthem. Then she got a handshake commitment from Tamika Catchings and Sue Bird to go after a fourth gold medal in Brazil.
Auriemma, the outspoken UConn coach who never thought he’d be politically correct enough for the job, came away with a new appreciation for coaching grown-ups.
“They think they’re smarter than you,” Auriemma said of pros. “That just boggles your mind. If they were, why would USA Basketball have coaches? What’s rewarding for me is that no matter how good that they are, they need coaching, they direction. The great ones want it.”
As star-laden as this team is, it does not resemble a group of individuals, as the men’s team sometimes does. The ball moves on offense, and its all-star cast — none necessarily on the team for her defense — have learned their rotations. They rarely looked like a team that had practiced for three days before convening in Washington, D.C., a month ago.
But many of the players have played with each other over the years, either in college — half the players attended UConn — or in the WNBA or overseas. That, said Bird, created a familiarity with each other so that they did not have as much to learn about one another.
As much as the Americans were expected to stand atop the medals podium, France was a surprise finalist, knocking off Australia in group play, and twice beating Russia on its path to the finals.
But even with noticeable support and French flags being waved throughout the arena, they appeared overwhelmed — either by the moment or the United States’ defense.
France showed determination early, but managed to make just 28 percent of its shots and turned the ball over 21 times. Just as the United States did in the semifinals, when it trailed Australia at halftime, it unleashed a third-quarter blitz, this time a 19-0 run.
“For them, it’s too easy,” said France’s Endene Miyem. “They are quicker, they are stronger, they are higher. When you are best in everything, it is easier.”
That, of course, is at the root of why the team has struggled to find appreciation. Part of the women soccer team’s popularity is because the action is so compelling. And, unlike the men, there is no dunking or spectacular displays of athleticism, though Parker did have a graceful one-handed scoop lay-in, looking somewhat like Julius Erving.
“The challenge is holding up the standard,” said Angel McCoughtry. “Somebody told me if you only win by 10, that’s considered a loss. The bull's-eye is on our back, but we can handle it.”
Taurasi hinted that is what led to her wiping away tears. In the past two years, she was arrested on charges of drunken driving and had a positive drug test that was eventually overturned.
“As you get older, maybe you reflect a little bit more on everything you had to overcome in your career to get here,” she said. “For me, that was the moment I went back and looked at all the things I went through — good, bad, personal, on the court. That’s where I was standing.”
McCaughtry said she expected the team to be on a Wheaties box when they returned home.
That may be a lot to ask, but for a group of exceptional players, they could be secure in being rewarded with a different type of validation, something more meaningful than a T-shirt, as they stood atop the medal podium, "The Star-Spangled Banner" being played.
They were together — and very much alone.
More Stories From Billy Witz