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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

U.S. Women Win, Diplomatically

Basketball: Americans play ambassador to enthusiastic home crowd in 101-84 rout of Cuba.

July 22, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Celebrities in the stands, American flags in the breeze, when was the last time U.S. women basketball players saw anything like Sunday?

Oh, yeah. Never.

Before Sunday, when they routed Cuba, 101-84, Teresa Edwards, the first four-time Olympian in U.S. basketball history, hadn't played an actual game before a home crowd since the 1987 Pan American Games. Lisa Leslie, the former USC star, hadn't played anything but exhibitions in this country since leaving school.

Sunday there was a sellout crowd of 4,869 in the little Morehouse College gym. There were stars and stripes and celebs whose presence was considered so significant, they were listed in the post-game notes: Chelsea Clinton, George Steinbrenner, Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen.

It may not have matched the A list at the Dream Team opener, Arnold Schwarzenegger et al., but the women were thrilled and grateful.

"There's so many people here," said Leslie, the game's leading scorer with 24 points, "it's so exciting because you know that they want us to win and they're cheering for us. . . .

"It's a dream come true, really. I mean, who would have ever thought that you would get to this point after just picking up a basketball and going to play consistently as a kid?"

Little boys grow up with such dreams, but such appreciation and opportunity--the corporate push behind their Olympic team, two domestic pro leagues forming--is new for the women, who feel obliged to act as pioneers, saleswomen and members of a basketball team at once.

Their anxiety to please peppers their conversation: Coach Tara VanDerveer, praising backup point guard Dawn Staley, said her flashy passes "really made some fans of women's basketball today." When the interview session was over, Leslie, the most outgoing and exuberant of the women, thanked the press for coming, calling out:

"Thank you so much for the support! Get those women's stories out there!"

They're not eager to acknowledge disappointments, such as at the beginning of this game. In exhibitions, the United States went 6-0 against Cuba, winning by an average of 24 points. Sunday the Americans came out tight--even this was difficult for them to admit--and the Cubans, from whom nothing was expected, made six of their first eight shots and jumped to a 14-7 lead.

After that, VanDerveer had to send in a second unit, led improbably enough by Rebecca Lobo, to get control of the boards, after which the Americans finally started to run the Cubans off.

Lobo, the star of Connecticut's 1995 NCAA champions whose surprising TV ratings set the stage for what is happening, is one of the most famous U.S. players and one of the least accomplished. As an Olympic rookie, she has struggled so badly, the hard-driving VanDerveer seemed to question her selection.

In nine minutes of Sunday's first half, Lobo scored six points with six rebounds as the Americans took over. They were ahead, 54-44, by halftime, after which Leslie, benched after getting hit in the head in the first half, scored 17 points as the U.S. team eased away.

"I'm so happy to be here," gushed Leslie through her headache. "I'm so excited. I haven't been asleep much. Last night I tried to go to bed at 12 o'clock, and that didn't really work out."

Leslie had her own personal celebrity: Johnson, whose touring team she worked out with. He paid her the compliment of making her work as hard as the men and promised that when the big day came, he'd be there to see her.

"To have Earvin here is an honor to me," Leslie said. ". . . I think it's great for women's basketball as well."

It's a burden and a privilege the women are shouldering, having to worry about their own team and women's basketball as well, with their fans expecting them to lay everyone out by 20 points. But if that's pressure, it's what they've always wanted.

"A lot of people on our team," Lobo says, "see ourselves as a beginning. And the future of women's basketball--we're going to be a part of it, but the most exciting part is going to happen when we're done playing."

VanDerveer excused herself from the interview session "to go scout." The Russians were playing. The players could handle sales; she had to put on her coach hat.

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