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SPORTS EXTRA: SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Basketball

Competition for U.S. Men, Women Appears to Be Marginal Once Again, With the Exception of the Host Teams

September 10, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD

WOMEN

* OVERVIEW--The U.S. team is favored to win the gold, but the Americans are not as dominant as they were in 1996. The rest of the world is catching up--led by Australia, which is aiming for an upset.

The Opals, as the Australian women are called, have a contingent of WNBA players. They also have the anticipated No. 1 pick in the next WNBA draft, 6-foot-6 Lauren Jackson, possibly the best player in the world not playing in the WNBA.

Taking a cue from the strategy that worked so well for the U.S. in 1996, the Australians have tried to keep their team training together leading into the Olympics on their home soil.

However, Michelle Griffiths of the Phoenix Mercury hasn't been with the team for two years after having a baby and playing in the WNBA this season, and Michele Timms, a star guard for the Mercury, is recovering from July knee surgery and won't be 100%.

The Americans remain a deep and veteran team, with six players back from 1996: Lisa Leslie, Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, Teresa Edwards--playing in her fifth Olympics--Nikki McCray, Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes.

Yolanda Griffith, Chamique Holdsclaw, DeLisha Milton, Katie Smith, Natalie Williams and Kara Wolters are the newcomers.

The U.S. team also has to contend with a challenge it hasn't faced before: The players are coming off the WNBA season.

In 1996, their gold-medal run helped launch two pro leagues, the WNBA and the defunct ABL.

With the WNBA's summer schedule in mind, the U.S. strategy this time was to train and tour together from September through April, break for the WNBA season, then gather again in August.

It has been a hectic run for some: Swoopes, the last to arrive, helped lead the Houston Comets to their fourth consecutive WNBA title before joining the Olympic team in Hawaii.

* OTHERS TO WATCH--Russia, as either the Soviet Union or the Unified Team, is the only other country besides the U.S. that has won the gold medal, and should be a factor. Among the Russian players is Svetlana Abrosimova, the first-team All-American who helped Connecticut win the NCAA championship this spring. (When the U.S. and Russia meet Sept. 20, she'll see Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma on the U.S. bench as an assistant to Nell Fortner).

* BEST STORY--It's certainly the Australian bid to threaten U.S. supremacy, with all of Australia pulling for the Opals.

* SOUTHLAND ATHLETES ON U.S. TEAM--Lisa Leslie, 28, Inglewood Morningside High, USC, Sparks; DeLisha Milton, 26, Sparks; Natalie Williams, 29, UCLA.

* KEY DATES--Saturday, U.S. vs. South Korea. Sept. 17, U.S. vs. Cuba. Sept. 19, U.S. vs. Russia. Sept. 21, U.S. vs. New Zealand. Sept. 24, U.S. vs. Poland. Sept. 28, semifinals. Sept. 30, gold medal game.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fast Fact

* The U.S. women's team was 29-2 during its September-to- April exhibition tour, losing by one point to Tennessee and by nine to Brazil in a game in which they shot 38%.

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