The Huge countdown clock on the grounds of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs stood at 424 on Monday, a reminder of how many days remain until the 1996 Summer Games begin. But the lettering on the clock might as well have read 424 DAYS LEFT TO COME UP WITH A NICKNAME FOR THE FIRST STANDING, PROFESSIONAL AMERICAN WOMEN'S NATIONAL BASKETBALL TEAM, WHICH HAS BEEN ASSEMBLED TO KICK INTERNATIONAL DERRIERE IN DREAM-TEAM STYLE, OR AT THE VERY LEAST RECLAIM THE GOLD MEDAL. USA Basketball officials have been auditioning nickname candidates almost as feverishly as they've been considering prospects for the team itself. The Fab Femmes didn't pass muster. Dream Team Too and the Dreamettes were judged too derivative of the men's team. Also gonged: the Liberty Belles, the Hoop Troupe, the '96ers, the Golden Girls and Chicks Who Set Picks.
But one name under consideration gets just right what this entire experiment is about, even though the moniker probably won't be adopted because it lacks pizzazz. The U.S. women's national basketball team, whose members are to be announced Thursday after a seven-day try-out and whose players will form the nucleus of the '96 Olympic squad, is the Home Team. The name fits, and not just because the Games will be in Atlanta. It's felicitous because, for the first time, the American women's hoops diaspora is coming home to play for pay in and for its own country.
Until now, elite American female basketball players who wanted to play and get paid for it after college had only one option: to sign with a club team overseas. The money available to such players in countries like France, Italy, Japan and Spain can be enticing—as much as $200,000 to $300,000 annually. But U.S. players have found that little else abroad is ideal. In Japan, male coaches routinely punch and kick their female players, sometimes during timeouts; American stars such as Katrina McClain, a two-time Olympian, and former Iowa forward Shanda Berry had "no-abuse" clauses written into their contracts. In Italy, where former Stanford guard Jennifer Azzi has played, a married club official who had professed his love for her stood vigil outside her apartment after she spurned his advances. "I remember sitting home crying and wondering, Why am I doing this?" says Azzi, whose Italian teammates would report details of her private life back to the coach. "These people thought they owned me. My life felt so invaded."
Virtually every one of the 24 elite candidates who mustered in Colorado Springs last week at the U.S. National Team Trials had a tale to tell about the travails of the mercenary life. In Italy, Sheryl Swoopes, who led Texas Tech to the '93 NCAA championship, never got paid on time. Before her first game in Spain, Dawn Staley, college player of the year in '91 and '92 while at Virginia, discovered that her surname had been misspelled STANLEY on her uniform. In Hungary, former Auburn guard Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, who grew up with 19 siblings and loves to talk, found the language to be such an inscrutable goulash that she never got past igen (yes) and hello (hello). Forced into exile, the best American women eventually found their sweet regard for basketball curdling into something laced with bitterness. "They develop almost a love-hate relationship with the game," says Home Team coach Tara VanDerveer. "They love basketball, but hate that they have to go away to play it."
Perhaps that's why all but three of the players invited to the trials showed up; why the 18 candidates, all former college stars ranging in age from 21 to 30, who were still in the running as of Monday for the 12 available spots on the team, agreed, if selected, to conditions that include a schedule that will keep the team together for 14 months of steady travel, flogging women's hoops throughout the U.S. with an eye to generating enough interest to make a post-Olympics pro league viable Stateside. That's also why last week even the locks to make the team strained for every rebound and dived for every loose ball.
With the national team contract calling for a nonnegotiable salary of $50,000, most of the players selected will take a pay cut. In the case of McClain, who stood to make five to six times as much in Hungary this season, the disparity caused her to announce on the eve of the trials that she would pass up the invitation. But she was besieged with phone calls from friends and fans urging her to reconsider, and, after talking the matter over with her family, she reversed herself a day later. "I just want to win a gold medal and at the same time give women's basketball in the U.S. a chance," she says now.
Sacrifices will be made all around. VanDerveer has left Stanford to direct the team full time. (USA Basketball is matching her salary of approximately $146,000.) Edna Campbell, a former Texas guard, may have to spend another year away from her 11-year-old son. Bolton-Holifield may have to take a sabbatical from her husband, while Swoopes, former USC All-America Lisa Leslie and former Stanford forward Katy Steding have already planned their weddings around the national team's schedule. Berry will have to take a leave from the Montgomery County, Md., police force if she makes the team, and Val Whiting, a former Stanford All-America, has already deferred plans to go to medical school at UC San Francisco. "Some sacrifices are more financial, others more personal or emotional," says Carol Callan, the team director. "But the prize here is such that you're willing to make that sacrifice."
The team will be chosen by a selection committee comprising 13 high school and college women's basketball coaches. If the committee does its job well, every player selected will become an Olympian. But injuries or attitude problems may crop up. And at least one current college player—someone like rapidly improving Kara Wolters, the 6'7" center who'll be a junior at Connecticut next season, or rugged Katie Smith, a guard who will be a senior at Ohio State—will probably be added to the mix next spring.
Whoever makes the team won't be entitled to take the floor with a swagger. The U.S. has three bronze medals to show for its last three major international appearances: the 1991 Pan Am Games, '92 Olympics and '94 World Championships. Meanwhile, the U.S. placed seventh in the past two Junior Worlds. "If we had won the Worlds, we might not have created a national team," says Lynn Barry, USA Basketball assistant executive director. "But after we lost in the Worlds [to Brazil in the semifinals] and in Barcelona [to the Unified Team, also in the semis], we thought we'd better give ourselves the best chance possible."
VanDerveer sees her task as breaking down each overseas star and rebuilding her into a part of the U.S. team. Thus she will preach fundamentals and team play to players who couldn't pass the ball or play defense for their overseas club teams without infuriating their coaches, who needed them to shoot and stay out of foul trouble. During last Saturday's morning practice session, the candidates formed two lines facing each other and began exchanging...chest passes. Imagine the men on Dream Team III being asked to do the same thing, and two words come to mind. One is player. The other is mutiny.