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1984 OLYMPICS / THE LEGACY

Twin Peaks

Pam McGee earned the gold medal on the court, but she was quick to share it with her sister, who was one of the last two players cut from the team

August 01, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

Looking back 20 years later, Pam McGee still considers her Olympic gold medal the crowning achievement of a basketball career noted for its multilevel excellence.

She was on championship teams at many levels:

* Her Flint Northern team was a two-time high school state champion in Michigan and a winner of 75 consecutive games.

* With McGee on the roster, USC won NCAA championships in 1983 and 1984.

* She won championships as a member of pro teams in Spain, Italy and Brazil.

* McGee spent last season working as an assistant under Detroit Shock Coach Bill Laimbeer as the Shock won its first WNBA title.

McGee also spent two seasons as a player in the WNBA, with the Sacramento Monarchs and the Sparks. But it is her championship with the U.S. Olympic team in 1984 -- a team coached by Pat Summit and led by Cheryl Miller -- that McGee values most.

And to think it was the championship least likely to happen for her. Because when McGee was informed she had made the Olympic squad, her initial reaction was to turn down the offer.

It wasn't that she didn't want to be on the team. It was just that she didn't want be there without her other half, her twin sister, Paula, who had shared the court and the glory with her at Flint Northern and USC.

"I was devastated when she wasn't picked," Pam, 41, said from her Detroit home. "I thought the process was unfair. We both won national championships at SC. We were both All-Americans.

"There is something about twins in basketball that seems to trouble people. They always seem to want to separate them instead of keeping them both on the floor. I think people don't know what to do with twins. They are freaks of nature.

"But twins have a tendency to play better with one another than with others. They are hard to defend because you can't tell them apart. I think it's an asset to have twins on your team rather than a detriment."

McGee believes the fact both she and Miller made the Olympic team hurt her twin's chances. Paula was one of the last two players cut.

"Schools use Olympic selections as a recruiting tool," Pam said. "And that Olympic team already had two players from USC."

The subject was painful for the twins. For the first time since they began bouncing a basketball as youngsters, conversations about the sport between them were off limits after Paula was cut.

Ultimately, Pam accepted the Olympic challenge. "It was important to my family," she said.

The results were historic. And long overdue from the U.S. point of view. In a sport invented in this country and dominated by the U.S. men at the Olympic level, U.S. women had yet to win gold by 1984. The women of the Soviet Union had won in 1976 and 1980, the first two Olympics for women's basketball. The U.S. women didn't compete in 1980, the Olympics their country boycotted, but they finally took the top spot on the victory stand four years later, rolling over South Korea in the gold-medal game, 85-55.

Miller led the U.S. in that final game at the Forum with 16 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. But the moment that still stands out decades later was McGee's gesture after the victory ceremony.

Spotting her sister in the audience, McGee pointed to her medal and then to her sister as if to say, this is for you. When the playing of the national anthems was over, McGee waded into the audience, took the gold medal from around her own neck and placed it around the neck of her twin.

"I had looked at her crying," Pam said. "She was so happy, but I felt she should have been with me. So I came down and told her, 'You know, this is for both of us. We both paid the price. When I was out there playing, you were right there with me.' "

There have been more tears in the McGee family since that moment, but not of a joyous nature. Pam McGee has spent years fighting her ex-husband in court over custody of their daughter, Imani. She even spent two days in a Sacramento jail for refusing to reveal Imani's whereabouts.

When charges of sexual abuse of the child surfaced, it created a split between Pam and Paula that has since been resolved.

Pam also underwent a mastectomy three years ago after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Today, she helps students entering college meet academic requirements and is an assistant coach for a boys' high school basketball team in the Detroit area.

But none of her struggles have dimmed the glow of that L.A. gold. Her gold medal is in a safe-deposit box of another sister, Alayna Gilbert. And her memories remain fresh.

"It's the highlight of my basketball career," McGee said. "That medal symbolizes this country and that you are one of the best players in the world. It validates who you are. You have a gold medal for that Olympics and there are only 12 basketball players in the world who can say that."

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