The women of the U.S. Olympic basketball team will have traveled more than 100,000 miles to get to the tip-off of their first game in Atlanta, against Cuba on July 21. During that rush toward their twin destinies—to reclaim for the home team the gold medal and to be present at the birth of a women's pro league in the U.S.—nothing has succeeded in slowing them down: They were 51-0 as of the end of June. But on at least one occasion they slammed on the brakes themselves.
They halted the odometer on May 26 after laying a 106-58 hurt on Cuba. As the team bus left the Providence Civic Center, several players noticed that a young girl, near tears at the prospect of not getting any autographs, had chased their motor coach for two blocks. The players ordered the bus stopped, piled dutifully out and didn't resume their trip until this lone supplicant had been sated with signatures. Says one of the U.S. players, guard Sheryl Swoopes, "It didn't take but two minutes to turn the saddest girl in Rhode Island into the happiest."
The team's 14-month journey has been a whirlwind of preadolescent smiles like that one, passed-around Bebe Moore Campbell novels, intrasquad clothing drives to benefit the impecunious Cubans, exclamations of wonder from hotel maids at the neatness of the players' rooms, after-hours caucuses to discuss the fledgling American Basketball League (to which nine of them are committed) and caretaking of a mechanical-pig mascot that the players have christened Babe. Over the past year they've journeyed to a court in Siberia so cold that the players wore down parkas and gloves when they weren't in the game; to courts near the Great Plains, the Great Wall and the Great Barrier Reef; even to the highest court in the land—a gym in the U.S. Supreme Court Building—where they chatted up, and shot hoops with, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor. No appearance has been too small-time to make, no John Hancock-hankering too ill-timed to oblige. And it's not only little girls they're winning over. Wiseass boys, weaned on the NBA, sometimes ask tauntingly, "Can you dunk?" At which point, says Teresa Edwards, who starts alongside Swoopes in the back-court, "we bring out [6'5" center] Lisa [Leslie], and she just blows them away."
There is such a you-go-girl spirit to the team that it's only natural to wonder whether the avowed purpose for assembling more than a year before the Olympics—to give the U.S. its best chance to win the gold—might get forgotten in all this pressure-free bonhomie.
Guarding against that possibility is Tara VanDerveer, the flinty and fastidious coach who took a leave from Stanford to lead the effort to recover the title of Olympic champion won by the Unified Team in Barcelona. Notwithstanding the team's dazzling record, VanDerveer doesn't pretend to be satisfied with the hand dealt her by USA Basketball's 13-member player selection committee—a committee on which she has a voice but no vote. "Sometimes I think our team has different needs than the committee thinks," she says. "I've always been very concerned about size. And performance is the basis for being on this team, not reputation or who's popular, and at times performance has concerned me."
Frustrated by the uneven play of the team's two fresh-from-campus greenhorns, forward Rebecca Lobo and guard Nikki McCray, VanDerveer made comments in an interview with USA Today in February that seemed to call upon the committee to replace the two with post players who had more international experience.
When the national team was named a year ago last May, Lobo had just led Connecticut to an undefeated season. In the process she had been named college basketball's player of the year and had introduced women's hoops to the corporate tastemakers of the Northeast. There was no way a team bankrolled with $3 million in sponsorship money largely lassoed by the NBA wasn't going to include Lobo, who is more marketable than fresh produce. But while she is a superb passer and an exemplary teammate who's automatic out to the circle when left open, Lobo can't create her own shot, and compared with the other players on the team, she's glacially slow. During training last fall, before the team was to be given a five-day break, VanDerveer decreed that Lobo had to run two miles in 16 minutes or less or she would be locked down in Colorado Springs. It took five attempts, but with roommate Jennifer Azzi pacing her on every one, Lobo finally did it.
Lobo suffered more over the following months. At every stop on the team's tour of college campuses, fans were only perfunctorily interested in Edwards and forward Katrina McClain, thirtysomething suffragettes for women's hoops who'll be playing in their fourth and third Olympics, respectively, and who passed up opportunities to make four to six times more overseas than the $50,000 that USA Basketball is paying each national team member. People wanted to meet Lobo, who had been on Letterman and had a street named for her in her hometown of Southwick, Mass. In February, during a stopover in Hawaii en route to China, Lobo and Azzi rented a Jeep, and while they toured around, Rebecca spilled out her frustrations. "How would you feel," she asked Azzi, "if" you were playing the worst of any player on the team and got the most attention?"
"My teammates know I don't go out seeking any of the craziness that comes along," Lobo says now. "It just happens. You just want to go up to people and say, 'Watch number 12 [ McClain], O.K.?' "
As for McCray, she is simply prone to the indiscretions of youth—errors that when committed by a guard can be glaringly evident. During a January scrimmage in Russia, after McCray made two turnovers in a row, VanDerveer called timeout. "Don't throw the ball to Nikki," she told the players. "She obviously doesn't know what to do with it." At this McCray broke down in tears, and her taller teammates formed a human shield for her to hide behind so VanDerveer wouldn't see her making a puddle of herself.