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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | DIANE PUCIN

It's a Memorable Moment in Time

October 01, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

SYDNEY, Australia — Lauren Jackson pulled Lisa Leslie's hair extension off. One second Leslie had a ponytail. The next she didn't.

The ponytail was in a photographer's lap. Leslie said Jackson pulled the hair off on purpose. Leslie said that was fine. "I told her she could have the hair and I'll take the gold medal."

Jackson was crying too hard after the U.S. women's basketball team beat Australia, 76-54, in the gold-medal game Saturday to say what happened.

So girls will still be girls, even when they're women. They'll pull hair and sometimes they cry.

And that's fine because women's sports at the Olympics will always mean something a little different. Even when there's a professional basketball league, a professional softball league and, soon, a professional soccer league, the Olympics will probably always offer the biggest stage to women athletes. It is their time to star for the world. It is the best. And it is getting better.

Teresa Edwards sat on the floor, her head bowed, and what thoughts must have gone through her head.

Edwards is a five-time Olympian, a basketball player who has seen her game, the game she loves, come to this:

Alonzo Mourning holding up a hand-lettered sign that said "USA Came Down Under, Got Gold." OK, not the cleverest sign ever concocted, but it was the thought that counted.

Vince Carter with an American flag wrapped around his shoulders, Superman cape style. And it wasn't disrespectful but more in tribute to what he was watching.

Ray Allen with his video camera pointed on the game and then on the postgame celebration.

U.S. versus Australia. Women's basketball gold-medal game. Toughest ticket around.

"They're asking $350 for a ticket, the scalpers are," Tenyl Graves said. Graves was on the train to Olympic Park. He was wearing a kangaroo hat on his head and the Aussie flag made into shorts on his bottom. Graves, a 25-year-old surfer from Bondi Beach, wanted nothing more than to see a women's basketball game. He paid the $350.

The men's Dream Team came to watch too. They weren't dragged there for photo ops. They came voluntarily.

Edwards never thought that would happen. Allan Houston couldn't stay in his seat. He was too excited. Kevin Garnett, wearing a black scarf tied around his head, karate-style, would point to the scoreboard whenever some nearby Aussie athletes taunted him and his teammates.

"Chokers, chokers."

The Aussies were laughing. Garnett and Mourning pointed at the scoreboard again. Yes, they had almost lost to Lithuania. And they still came out, a night later, to cheer for the women.

"This is great," Tim Hardaway said. "I've never seen a gold medal ceremony."

Edwards never thought she'd hear that. An NBA player saying he wanted to watch women get medals.

In Sydney, during the second week of the Olympics, after Australia's new national hero, Cathy Freeman, got her medal, this women's basketball game was the most anticipated event.

The Australian team had talked a little trash. They had said they were ready to beat the U.S. They had said the noise and the passion of the Aussie fans would make the U.S. women fade into the background.

Sure enough, the SuperDome was rocking. The athletes' section was filled with Aussie swimmers, field hockey players, rowers and team handball competitors. The entire U.S. women's soccer team came. They drank beer and cheered, drank more beer, cheered even more. Their triumphant moment had come last summer in the World Cup, and now they wanted to celebrate the basketball players.

Edwards never thought she'd see that. Women athletes who were famous. Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm were asked for autographs and to pose for pictures with the Olympic volunteers as often as the Dream Teamers were.

Just as soon as the U.S. had won, the second the buzzer went off, Yolanda Griffith ran into the stands to hug her 11-year-old daughter.

Edwards never thought she would see that. Women playing sports and being able to support a family. There are college scholarships galore and now the WNBA. You can get educated, then play pro ball and not have to move to Italy or Japan.

Five Olympics, 20 years of international basketball for Edwards. She has seen it all. Edwards used to play these Olympic games in empty gyms at out-of-the-way sites in some suburban town which would be thrown a bone. You know, East Nowhere gets to host Olympic basketball. The women.

Now it's a big deal. Nearly 20,000 came to the SuperDome and all of them yelled their lungs out.

The U.S. women played their best game in two Olympiads. That's what Leslie thought.

"We're a much better team than the one in 1996," Leslie said. "And this is the best game we played in this tournament."

In 1996 the U.S. beat Brazil in the gold medal game. This time it was Australia. The world is getting better because the world wants to keep up with the American women. In soccer, in softball, in water polo, in all the team sports.

We realized it first in the United States, that women playing sports could be just as fun to root for as men playing sports. Now the world is starting to get it too.

Edwards got her fifth medal. Four gold, one bronze. As her teammates frolicked, as they ran and kissed, hugged and cried, preened for the Dream Team and high-fived the women's soccer team, Edwards sat by herself. Coach Nell Fortner came by and caressed Edwards' medal. Co-captain Dawn Staley came over and tried to get Edwards to cry.

But Edwards didn't cry. Why should she? The world was watching. Edwards never thought she'd see that.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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