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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Basketball : Women

July 14, 1996|MARK HEISLER

Barring one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports, the men are playing to see who will finish second behind the U.S. But the women's competition, with a seasoned U.S. team flush from success in exhibitions, could be wide open.

WHAT WE KNOW

The U.S., which won gold medals in 1984 and 1988, but only bronze at Barcelona and the '94 World Championships, has geared up, assembling its national team a year early under Coach Tara VanDerveer, who took a year off from her job at Stanford.

The team barnstormed for a year, going 51-0 in exhibitions, winning by an average of 31 points a game. U.S. players were paid $50,000 apiece. Marketing was taken over by the NBA, which boosted visibility to new highs. Eleven of the exhibitions were nationally televised. All players got sneaker contracts. Lisa Leslie, the former USC star, who models, got a two-page layout in Vogue.

Until now, U.S. players who wanted to play professionally had to go overseas. After the Olympics, there will be, not one women's league here, but two, the American Basketball League--which has already signed half the members of this team--and an NBA-sponsored league.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW

Who will win.

The U.S. is a solid favorite, playing at home with a cohesive team.

Unlike the men's competition, however, the other top teams may not be pushovers. In the Americans' only meeting with Russia this year, the U.S. won, 80-79, in a game at Chicago.

The Russians finished only No. 3 in the European Zone qualifying tournament. Ukraine, led by former Soviet star Marina Tkatchenko, won the tournament. The last international competition, the '94 World Championships, was won by Brazil.

SOMEONE YOU SHOULD KNOW

Teresa Edwards, a 5-11 guard, is playing in her fourth Olympics, a U.S. record, a homebody from Decatur Ga. who was obliged to pursue her professional career overseas, playing for teams in Italy, Spain, France and Japan.

Until this team was assembled, she hadn't played in front of an American audience since the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis.

SOMETHING YOU SHOULD KNOW

The U.S. women never beat the Soviet Union in basketball.

The women's game didn't become part of the Olympics until 1976. The Soviets won the first two gold medals--the second while the U.S. and other Western nations boycotted the Moscow Games.

U.S. women then won the next two golds--the first in 1984 at Los Angeles, with the Soviets boycotting. The two powers were expected to meet at Seoul in 1988, but Yugoslavia upset the Soviets in the semifinals, before falling to the Americans in the final.

At Barcelona in 1992, playing under the banner of the Unified Team, most of what had been the Soviet team upset the U.S. in the semifinals, 79-73.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

At a Glance

Number of athletes: 144 men (12 teams), 144 women (12 teams).

Change since Barcelona: Four teams added to women's tournament.

Dates: July 20 through Aug. 4

Locations: Georgia Dome, Morehouse College.

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