Even if VanDerveer hasn't entirely made her peace with the tyros, the rest of the team has, in part by reaching out to them during their difficult winter. "With Tara giving us such hard workouts, we had to pick each other up," says Leslie. "We became so close because, at the beginning, it was the coaches versus the team."
"A team like this needs a dose of everything—experience, youth, competitiveness," adds Edwards. "Rebecca and Nikki represent youth. They only needed time and patience."
Indeed, Lobo played better during the team's tour of China, while in Australia in May, McCray's defense helped throttle the Aussies' star point guard, Michele Timms. Today VanDerveer says she regrets that names were attached to her comments. But she adds, "Sometimes a newspaper article gets their attention in a way that's more motivating."
"Tara's known for being outspoken," forward Katy Steding, who played for VanDerveer in Palo Alto, said last month. "I don't think [criticizing Lobo and McCray] was the right thing to do. We have 10 other players with international experience, and since then Rebecca and Nikki have gotten a lot. We haven't lost. It ain't broke, so don't fix it. But she's the coach. Her butt's on the line."
In fact, VanDerveer has reason for concern. There is no gap between the U.S. women and world champion Brazil, arriviste Australia and medal contenders Canada, China, Cuba, Russia and Ukraine that's comparable to the chasm on the men's side between the Americans and the rest of the world. "Because there are so many styles internationally, loading up a team with good athletes isn't enough," says Vanderbilt women's coach Jim Foster, a selection-committee member who has coached in numerous international tournaments. "We have to be quick enough to play Cuba and Brazil, big enough to play Russia and tough enough to play Australia."
This is no Dream Team. The U.S. is not as good at shooting three-pointers as most of the teams it plays. And the Americans' only experienced center, Leslie, is literally runway thin (she has signed a modeling deal with Wilhelmina) and prone to foul trouble. "The men have Olajuwon, Shaq and David Robinson," says VanDerveer. "I'd like two more centers. It looks like I'll only have one more."
That additional center, former Louisiana Tech standout Venus Lacy, who was named to the team on June 16, bears the name of the goddess of love. It's an appropriate appellation given the atmosphere surrounding the team. There hasn't been a wisp of envy from other players that Lobo, Swoopes (she of the Nike Air Swoopes line) and Leslie (check her out in the May Vogue) are getting the most attention and endorsement lucre. "I would love to have a contract with Victoria's Secret," says reserve forward Carla McGhee, "but there's no room for jealousy. It's, 'Girls, go for it!' "
On the team's last night in China, Azzi flung open her hotel room door and hung a sign reading JEN CHU'S COFFEE AND ESPRESSO BAR. People began filtering in—at first because, VanDerveer says, "the choices on TV were sumo wrestling or cricket." Azzi then broke out a cache of vanilla macadamia-nut coffee she had picked up in Hawaii. Soon enough Leslie had cranked up the music. McClain and Edwards were braiding Lobo's hair; McGhee and Steding were unbraiding McCray's. Eventually someone remarked that the entire team was there; a dozen Yank chicks, sittin' around talkin'.
"We don't always do the right things," says VanDerveer. "There are rebounds to be gotten and better defense to be played. But you know the saying, Either you're in or you're out? They're all in."
So on to Atlanta, final stop. If VanDerveer couldn't distract them, if 50-plus exhibition games couldn't, if cricket and sumo wrestling-couldn't either, they'll take their chances with synchronized, swimming and modern pentathlon.