The U.S. Women's Basketball Team didn't encourage the comparison, but who could resist making it? Here was a distaff Dream Team, also made up of professionals, plus one mom, point guard Suzie McConnell, whose 22-month-old son, Peter, could say "gold medal." The Americans, who hadn't lost an Olympic game since Gerald Ford was in the White House, were so dominant during their first three games in Barcelona, averaging 33.7 steals and a 45.7-point margin of victory, that they seemed certain to confirm Charles Barkley's assertion that the women were "the second-best team here." With the addition of forwards Clarissa Davis and Medina Dixon to the nucleus of six players who won the gold in Seoul, the Dreamettes would be more than just some girls group singing backup to Michael and the Miracles. "This team wants to leave a legacy," said coach Theresa Grentz. "It wants to be a team of an era."
The Americans just didn't count on another team, one they ran up against in the semifinals, looking to do some legacy-leaving itself. The Unified Team, featuring five Elenas and an Elen, put the Americans through 40 minutes of 'ell, defeating them 79-73, then went on to beat China 76-66 for the gold. The U.S. had to content itself with the bronze after defeating Cuba 88-74. The American team had invested so much in its goal that the disappointment had everyone digging deep for solace. Grentz recounted the time she walked into trigonometry class as a senior at Cardinal O'Hara High School in Philadelphia. "Some of God's greatest gifts," a nun had written on the blackboard, "are his refusals."
Funny how John Thompson had said much the same thing after his U.S. men's team lost to the Soviet Union in Seoul. Funny, too, that the coach of the Unified Team, Yevgeny Gomelski, is the brother of Aleksandr Gomelski, the coach who bested Thompson in 1988. The brothers Gomelski and Alek's son Vladimir, a former player, had hatched a beat-the-press strategy at practice. As the game unfolded, it was eerie how even the smallest details seemed a reprise of the men's championship four years ago: the open shots left to the Gomelski-coached team; the unwillingness of the Americans to call off their ineffectual press; the late-game panic of the favorites as they realized they could, then would, lose.
"Getting steals basically creates our offense," said U.S. guard Teresa Weather-spoon. The Gomelskis knew that. The Unified Team took care of the ball, and the Americans came apart. Ill-conceived drives to the hoop against the Unified Team's zone, the first the U.S. had seen all tournament, wound up as turnovers. On defense the Americans seemed bewildered as the Russian post players, Elena Khoudachova and Natalia Zassoulskaia, moved deftly in and out of the lane.
For the Unified Team the triumph was bittersweet. "This is the biggest win ever for our program," said Gomelski. "And now we will all go our separate ways because of this crazy politics."
Someone suggested to Dixon that the women of the Unified Team might have found extra motivation because they would never be playing together again.
"Is that right?" Dixon replied. "I didn't know that."
Learning about others in this vast and harsh world isn't primarily what the Dreamettes came to Barcelona for. But when you bring home a little knowledge with your bronze, it can't be considered a wasted trip.