U.S. women refuse to lose
BEIJING -- Diplomatic niceties in U.S.-China basketball relations have been scrupulously observed before and during these Olympics, with one notable exception.
The exception -- read on and you'll see that it's an understandable lapse -- occurred in early August in the Chinese city of Haining, where an American women's team met the press in advance of a tune-up tournament. Center Sylvia Fowles, asked which teams she expected to give the U.S. a challenge in the forthcoming Olympics, mentioned Australia and Russia.
"And China?" a Chinese journalist asked.
Befuddlement filled the room. In April, at the Good Luck Beijing Tournament, which baptized the Olympic Basketball Gymnasium, a team featuring most of the current Chinese Olympians had pinned a three-point defeat on a U.S. squad that featured four players now in Beijing. The Chinese had done this after losing to the Americans by 25 points the night before in the conclusion of round-robin pool play.
"They're not going to do that to us again," Fowles elaborated, as U.S. coach Anne Donovan blanched.
On Monday night Fowles and the other three U.S. holdovers from the April event -- Kara Lawson, Lisa Leslie and Katie Smith -- took the very floor on which they had suffered that defeat and made good on the words of their 6-foot-5 defensive prodigy. Unlike the U.S. men, who had permitted China and its fans to hang around for 15 minutes, the women refused to extend to the hosts the same courtesy. A 23-0 run put the Americans up 33-11 after one quarter, and the 108-63 final didn't seem that close.
Forward Tina Thompson led the way with 27 points, but everyone scored, six players blocked shots and the hosts were held to 38 percent shooting. Fowles scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
"We were really disappointed in losing that game in April," Lawson said afterward. She had a particularly personal reason to feel let down: USA Basketball called in March to ask her to make the trip to China. But she was to be married on April 12, and she and fiance Damien Barling had their honeymoon in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, planned for the next day.
In the grand scheme of USA Basketball, Lawson isn't so much of a star that she can leave her status with the national team to whims out of her control. So she and Damien cut short the honeymoon, and Lawson, who also works as a color analyst for the NBA's Sacramento Kings and for ESPN, juggled her broadcast schedule.
"I didn't want another player to have shown more commitment than me," she said, "or look back in 10 years and wonder, 'What if?' Last time we walked off this court, it was with a silver medal around our necks. That's not normal for USA Basketball."
Indeed, the U.S. women have now won 27 Olympic basketball games in a row -- enough to put gold around their necks three times. But if they know anything, it's that pool-play victories aren't the same as wins in the medal round. And the Americans' biggest rivals lurk in the other pool.
Tip of the hat to you, Sylvia. It may not be politically correct, but they are in fact Australia and Russia.