Australians consider egalitarianism to be their secular faith. Mates are mates, sheilas are sheilas, and woe unto those who style themselves tall poppies. Yet the entire point of an Olympics is to finger and fete the elite, and if someone's got to stand out, the sports-besotted Aussies figure, "Mayt as well be us."
The tallest poppies in this Olympic field were the stuff-strutting members of the U.S. men's basketball team. No one—and the Lithuanians surely tried—had been able to put the scythe to them. But the penultimate night of the Games brought a rare opportunity: The NBA stars' distaff counterparts, the defending Olympic and world champion U.S. women, appeared ripe for lopping in the gold medal game, and by the hosts, no less.
For two weeks the Australian Opals had played splendidly. They had taken out all seven of their opponents, playing the stingiest defense in the tournament and showcasing 6'4" post prodigy Lauren Jackson, who, though only 19 years old, "talks more trash than I do," according to U.S. center Lisa Leslie, "but I don't understand everything she says."
The advantages working in the Americans' favor in Atlanta four years earlier—a home crowd and many dedicated months together in preparation—now accrued to the Aussies. Nine had played pro ball in the States, and that WNBA experience demystified their more highly touted opponents. How badly did the team's captain, guard Michele Timms, want the gold? "Probably more than anything I've ever wanted in my life," said the 35-year-old Timms, who would be playing in the green and gold for the final time.
Moreover, by the final week a vapor cloud of anti-Americanism had settled over these Games, swollen by the news of C.J. Hunter's positive drug tests and the whinging of the NBA contingent about the officiating in the Americans' near-loss to Lithuania in the men's semifinals. What's more, since the 4 X 100 men's swimming relay on the first night of the Games, the Aussie-U.S. rivalry had come to a sharper point, and the best of these battles had involved women: a heart-stopping water polo final, decided by Yvette Higgins's goal in the final seconds; Stacy Dragila's back-and-forth with Tatiana Grigorieva in the pole vault; Peta Edebone's walk-off homer that beat the U.S. softball team. Only one derby remained unjoined.
It would be settled soon after tip-off. Every loose ball, every steal, every errant Opals shot (and there were many) seemed to lead to a U.S. fast break, most of which terminated with forward Sheryl Swoopes high-stepping her way to the basket. In the stands the U.S. men took seats adjacent to a brace of Australian athletes who, in pointed allusion to the Lithuania game, flashed them the choke sign. The Americans responded with fingers pointed at the scoreboard, where their countrywomen were busy writing the last word of a 76-54 victory. In 1996, after her team had routed Brazil for the gold, U.S. coach Tara VanDerveer said she couldn't imagine that her players would come so far and fail to play their best game in the final. After this game, VanDerveer's successor, Nell Fortner, would say much the same thing.
With five minutes left in the game, and the Opals' standing more and more desperate, Jackson had come away from a battle under the boards not with a rebound, but with something that Timms would describe as looking like "a dead rat." It was Leslie's hair extension. When lopping a poppy, it's best to go for the base of the stalk; the Opals had grabbed only a fistful of petals. "You can have the hair," Leslie told Jackson. "We'll take the gold."
After the victory, each U.S. player reacted in her own fashion. Guard Teresa Edwards, a five-time Olympian, took a seat alone in the center circle to drink in the moment. Dawn Staley, Edwards's back-court mate and co-captain, spied the U.S. women's soccer team in the stands and made a pantomime of removing her jersey. Leslie figured it was time to cover up her half-naked hairdo. Old Glory, she found, makes a sweet head scarf.