Two scenarios floated around Atlanta on the eve of Sunday's gold medal women's basketball game. One came from Tara VanDerveer, the coach who had guided the U.S. team over the preceding 14 months. "I can't believe we would come this far and not play our best game," she said.
The other lake on how the final would play mil came from Brazil's Marta de Souza Sobral, who, like Atlanta's public transportation system, is known simply as Marta. "We're going to steal the gold medal right in their home." said the 6'2" center for the world champions.
If there's one axiom that emerged from these Games, it's that Marta is unreliable. The U.S. Olympic team didn't merely play its finest game in schooling Brazil 111-87 to run its record to 60-0 and win the gold; on Sunday night all the American players scored. Together they shot 66% from the field, five delicious percentage points better than Brazil had shot in a 110-107 defeat of the U.S. in Sydney in the semifinals of the 1994 world championships. After that game the winners staged a raucous celebration during the bus ride back to the players' hotel that VanDerveer and two thirds of the members of this American Olympic team happened to share. In Sunday's final the American women parceled out 30 assists and mounted the medal stand holding hands, a gesture of togetherness that evidently hadn't crossed the minds of their male counterparts the night before. Gilt, you could say, by association.
In the end VanDerveer did not have to alter her belief. "This," she said afterward, "was our best whole game."
The first inkling of what her players had in store for her came to VanDerveer a year ago through the mail: She had prescribed individual workouts for team members during a break in formal training last summer, and signed worksheets sent weekly to VanDerveer testified to how closely each player was abiding by her regimen. From her home in Menlo Park, Calif., where she monitored the times run and the poundage lifted, VanDerveer could see that seven players weren't meeting their targets and would thus be conscripted into a remedial "breakfast club" when the team mustered for camp that fall. But VanDerveer's two finest performers, guard Teresa Edwards and power forward Katrina McClain—known as T and Tree, respectively—were meeting every bench-press benchmark, every mile-run milestone, every last goal VanDerveer had set.
VanDerveer had had her doubts about both. She had wondered if Edwards and McClain would buy into a program that demanded weight work three days a week, video sessions at least thrice weekly and a numbing 102,245 miles of travel before the journey was over. In their 30s now, with seven Olympic appearances between them, both players had been party to dispiriting third-place finishes at the 1991 Pan American Games and the '92 Olympics, as well as that loss to Brazil in the '94 worlds. Years of the have-jump-shot-will-travel life overseas, where club teams expect their American mercenaries to play no defense lest foul trouble keep them from gathering their requisite 40 points a game, had left bad habits ingrained in both.
In fact, Edwards and McClain, each a former All-America at Georgia, were very nearly not members of the Olympic Team. On the eve of the trials in May 1995, McClain had decided to accept a $300,000 offer from a club team in Hungary. The U.S. federation was offering $50,000, take it or leave it, with no guarantee that an Olympic roster spot would be held open if she lit out for Budapest. A shoe deal with Nike would have made up some of that gap, but, at 30, McClain had to consider her financial security. "I knew it was going to be all or nothing," she says now. "And I didn't think I was up for the whole year, for that kind of intensity."
Two hours before USA Basketball's deadline for returning a signed player contract, McClain called her brother, Troy. "She had supposedly already made her decision, and here she was calling me at that late hour, asking advice, second-guessing herself," he says. "I knew then what she really wanted to do." The Hungarians would have to find themselves another power forward.
Edwards's problem was different. In that loss to Brazil at the worlds she shot the U.S. out of the game, going 5 for 18 from the field, and over the seven games she played in the competition she dished out a miserly 21 assists. Would VanDerveer even want her? "[Edwards] got into a Teresa-versus-[Brazil's star guard] Hortência thing," says Lynn Barry, who supervises the women's program for USA Basketball. "T wants to win so badly, she felt she needed to take it all on her shoulders." When the selection committee included her on the team—thus making it possible for her to become the only basketball player of either sex to win three Olympic golds—Edwards broke down in tears of relief.
"I may have been a little skeptical at first," says VanDerveer. "I didn't want to get into a yearlong fight with a player who was bucking the system. And this system wasn't for everybody. But T and Tree bought into it. And if they were going to buy into it, it was going to work.