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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BASKETBALL

U.S. Women Get 31,320 Extra Reasons to Celebrate Basketball Rout

July 26, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — The women's team, already the happy half of American basketball, moved into the big top Thursday and life got even better.

Before 31,320, the biggest crowd to see a women's basketball game anywhere, the Americans plowed under Zaire, 107-47, the biggest margin of victory in the history of U.S. women's Olympic ball. How much better does it get than that?

The Americans (3-0) played their first two games at little Morehouse College, where sellout crowds were raucous but less than 5,000. Thursday, they moved to the mammoth Georgia Dome where they will play from now on and, to their surprise and delight, found it jammed to the sky boxes.

"I might have lost a bet on that one," said Coach Tara VanDerveer, trying to keep from dancing and singing in the interview room.

"I was over here the other night to see South Korea and Australia and was really impressed with the crowd. [All basketball night sessions, three for men, two for women, have drawn 30,000.] I didn't expect that kind of crowd at noon on--what day is today?--a weekday. It was really special."

Said Rebecca Lobo, "It is pretty amazing to look up and keep looking up and people never end. I've never played where there's sky boxes, either, so it's a different experience.

"We're excited to move into this gym because we know if we win a gold medal, it's going to be on this floor. It kind of keeps us pumped up."

Their chances of winning the gold, after third-place finishes in the '92 Games and the '94 World Championships, are looking better by the moment. Counting exhibitions, they're 55-0, and only five teams have been within 10 points at the end of the game. In games here, their victory margins have been 17, 33 and 60.

Russia, which got closest last year, losing by one point at Chicago, has already lost here, by 14 points to Brazil. The Brazilians, '94 world titlists, who knocked off the United States in the semifinals, can't match the Americans' size or depth.

Of course, there remains the task of getting it done. At Barcelona, the U.S. team beat opponents by 46 points a game before falling to the Unified Team, a gathering of leftovers from the Soviet Union, in the semifinals.

Zaire, a small nation in its first women's basketball Olympics competition, wasn't even a speed bump. More like an insect spattered on the Americans' windshield. Unlike the American men who have had to wear down all three opponents in second halves, the American women took charge again from the opening tip, running up a 29-7 lead and getting an early jump on garbage time.

Zaire did what it could, under the eye of its own proud Olympic sponsor, Dikembe Mutombo, who outfitted the players and is now working on their morale. After losses by 16, 46 and 60 points, morale could be better, but Mutombo visited them afterward to remind them of the big picture.

"I just want to let them know I still love them and I'm still supporting them because they seem a little bit disappointed in the locker room," he said. "Some of the girls, they thought maybe a rock fall onto their heads so they can't get up.

"I told them, 'You have four more games to play. You can win maybe two of these last four games and you just need to keep your head up and just play the game. Enjoy yourself. Be happy for making the Olympics, but don't be sad if you don't win the gold or because you didn't win the game. Be happy that you're here because this is a big event."

Mutombo just signed a $55-million, five-year contract with the Atlanta Hawks, but his charitable efforts in his native Zaire and throughout Africa date back years. He sponsors a summer tournament at home and, last summer, promised the national committee he would take care of the team's uniforms and equipment.

When he saw the team practice here, in worn sweats and sneakers, he discovered what that entailed.

"I just couldn't believe it," Mutombo said. "I was like, 'What's going on here?' I thought all I have to buy is the game uniform and the game tennis shoes. But some of the girls came with shoes they been playing on for two years.

"I said, 'No. In the NBA I change about 120 pair a year.'

"And I went downtown and got the shoes the following day. Now they have shoes and uniforms, everything new. I told them to burn everything they brought with them.

"Being rich and making the money I'm making, definitely I had to give something out to those who need it."

Mutombo doesn't want to say what he spent.

"It's just a little piece of cake for me," he said.

For the Americans, Thursday was a big piece of cake. Right now, theirs is a sweet life, indeed, angel food with lots of icing.

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