There's guy to her game. It shows when she thunderclaps a free hand to a rebound or drops off a no-look pass to a teammate in traffic, but Teresa Edwards's androgynous brand of basketball can best be seen between the foul lines. That's where she'll pour herself down the floor, rolling her shoulders to deceptive effect, looking off a frozen Pole or Slovak or Aussie, always with the game in front of her.
In fact, basketball is largely behind her now. The gold medal the U.S. women won with a 76-54 defeat of Australia—it came as effortlessly as their 36-year-old floor leader can make the game seem—was Edwards's fourth, to go with a bronze she won in 1992. Afterward she sat alone and still in the center circle of the Sydney Superdome, lingering so long that U.S. guard Dawn Staley, fearing Edwards had lost her mind, came out of the stands, where she was celebrating with family, to look after her. "I was just trying to steal a moment for myself," Edwards explained later. "I kind of wanted to be the last one to walk off the court."
To be the last one off means something in the winners-hold-court precincts where Edwards learned the game, with the guys in a park in Cairo, Ga. "You don't see all of T when she plays with women," says Staley, who has joined Edwards for some of those games. Adds Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, another U.S. teammate, "Her whole game changes when she plays with guys. With guys, she's ballin'."
If you failed to stumble across the 5'11" Edwards in one of the four foreign pro leagues in which she has played, or were never hip to the speakeasies where elite women's college ball could be found during her days at Georgia in the early 1980s, you're not alone in your deprivation. Edwards was rarely seen on TV before the Olympics in Atlanta four years ago, and in the ensuing years could be spotted only during the brief passage of the American Basketball League. Alone among the dozen women on the U.S. team, Edwards has never played in the WNBA, the league that snuffed out the ABL in December 1998. The NBA ladies' auxiliary classified all ABL refugees as rookies and forced them to accept its rookie salary scale. Edwards sat out the '99 WNBA season in protest. A year later she asked for nothing more than what she had received in the ABL—$150,000, according to reports, or $100,000 if she could have a say in where she played. (The highest-paid players in the WNBA last season reportedly earned salaries of $150,000.) "Even what the top 10 percent of the WNBA players make is pennies to my mind," she says, "and I would have taken less. Feeling like I was begging for less. I shouldn't have to beg."
So while her national teammates mustered with their WNBA clubs last spring and summer, Edwards hung with the guys. From April through August she ran the track at Atlanta's Grady High, lifted weights at a downtown fitness club and played pickup with the buppies and former college players, all male, who populate a gym in uptown Buckhead. There, we got next isn't a facile promotional slogan but an invocation that allowed her to keep her game sharp enough to win gold. Indeed, messages piling up from her pickup buddies last week made it clear: A man's ego suffers less from being beaten by a woman when some golden purpose is served by his humiliation.
Last Saturday night, fingering her latest gold medal, Edwards batted away suggestions that she had come along too soon. "I think I was right on time," she said. "I think I've left a mark, etched something somewhere that people will remember me by." She also forswore any bitter feeling toward the WNBA: "You can't miss what you never had. I can stand for the end of something. They can stand for the beginning of something. Whatever that something is, we'll figure out someday."
Call her stubborn, but after five Olympics—no other American basketball player has ever competed in more than three—a headstrong champion has earned the right to be called something else. Better to call her willful. All hail the noble, willful warrior. All hail Elle Syd.