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Something to Remember? U.S. Women Could Be It

Commentary: With a victory in today's title game against Brazil, the Americans could achieve long-awaited superiority.


ATLANTA — There's no missing the mission at U.S. women's basketball games where the play list includes "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" and "Pretty Woman" and "We Are Family," with its line:

"I've got all my sisters with me."

Before the team takes the floor, Coach Tara VanDerveer, who dressed up as a bear mascot in junior high for boys' games because there was no girls' team, reminds her players that many fans who will be here have never seen a women's game, so give them something to remember.

Tonight she sends them out for the last time, a sad occasion for her but a happy one for the opponents they have overmatched here. They have won their seven games by an average of 29 points, and no one has been closer than 15. Unless the streaky Brazilians, who have less size, depth and definition, make 62% of their shots, as they did when they slew the United States in the '94 World Championships, they're in trouble.

This was what the United States thought was going to happen in the '80s when the women's game cranked up here, producing athletes such as Cheryl Miller, Lynette Woodard and the young Teresa Edwards and won gold medals at Los Angeles and Seoul.

But Brazil upset the American women in the Pan American Games at Havana in 1991. The Unified Team knocked them off at Barcelona in 1992. Brazil got them again in the worlds at Sydney in 1994.

The Americans had a problem, all right. Women may be as athletic as men but, as in tennis where they don't serve with the same power, in basketball, they can't jump as high, making it difficult to "finish"--drive the ball to the basket and score. Foreign teams shot better than the Americans, canceling out U.S. athleticism.

However, this team would be something else. Not only was it the first real American national basketball team, assembled 10 months early to barnstorm the world, it comprised an entire program that included things the men's game had only recently incorporated, such as weightlifting.

In this tournament, no one can do anything with the U.S. tandem of 6-foot-5 Lisa Leslie and 6-2 Katrina McClain, both strong enough to "get the ball up and down," as the coaches say. Domination in the middle plus an edge in athleticism equal superiority.

Not that they ever talked about it. Among the American women, the preferred word is "focus," which they got from VanDerveer, who never let them forget it.

Privately and sometimes publicly, VanDerveer worried. Did they have enough size? Could she get such veteran international stars as Edwards and McClain to go with the program?

Beneath it all was the big one: With two U.S. pro leagues forming and $3 million from USA Basketball to fund this grand experiment, what would they do to the women's game if they fell flat?

"I think there was a lot of skepticism," said reserve forward Carla McGhee last week.

"We did get a bronze in the World Championships and in the last Olympics. I guess we were spoiled before. We dominated before. So when that didn't happen, of course we were worried, like, 'OK, what do we have to do to get the gold medal back?'

"And I think when they brought this team together, a lot of people said, 'OK, let's see what these girls are going to do. Are they going to be the big payoff for all the money that the sponsors and the big corporations have put into it? Or are they going to be like the teams in the past, where you have a lot of talent and don't really gel and play together?'

"And I think a lot of people are going to be surprised. I think we've shown people we're a really good team, and the scary part is that we still have some more to give. I don't think that we've played our very best ball yet."

They're closing in on it, though.

One more game like the others and they will have given America something to remember. No little girl who wants to play will have to dress up as a bear again, and VanDerveer can go back to Stanford, close the door, prop her feet up and sigh the biggest sigh of relief of her life.



Finishes by the U.S. women's basketball before the 1966 Olympics:


YEAR EVENT FINISH 1976 Olympics Silver 1980 Olympics Boycott 1984 Olympics Gold 1987 Worlds, Goodwill Gold, Gold 1988 Pan American Gold 1990 Worlds, Goodwill Gold, Gold 1992 Olympics Bronze 1994 Worlds, Goodwill Bronze, Gold


1995-- went 51-0 on exhibition tour from October 1995 to just before the Olympics.

Source: Times staff

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