OTHERS MAY have had doubts that the U.S. women's basketball team could gel quickly enough to win a gold medal in Beijing. But 36-year-old center Lisa Leslie didn't. Anticipating a fourth straight trip to the top of the Olympic podium, she stuffed her gold medals from Atlanta, Sydney and Athens into a Chinese satin bag and carried them with her to Beijing. She planned to wear them, along with the 2008 edition, as The Star-Spangled Banner played following the final.
Last Saturday, Leslie's vision came to pass. Despite a mere month of playing together, the collection of offensive stars (former NCAA players of the year Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus and Tamika Catchings were among the scrubs) crystallized into a man-to-man defense-first juggernaut, winning its first six games by a 44.8-point average before dispatching Russia 67--52 in the semifinal. In the 92--65 gold medal win over Australia—which had trained as a team since 2006—the U.S. flaunted its depth. When starters had foul trouble in the first quarter, the subs poured in 30 straight points during a nine-minute stretch. They outscored the first string 59--33. "I don't think we could have played any better," said point guard Sue Bird.
"I've never had a team with 12 players who have been so selfless," said coach Anne Donovan. "Nobody cared about stats; nobody cared about minutes."
Like her teammates, Leslie, who had 14 points and seven rebounds in the final, cared only about winning. With her medal collection complete—she says she won't be back in 2012—Leslie retired 32--0 as an Olympian and became the only basketball player to win four consecutive golds medals. But after the final she noted that there was a downside to so much success. She was going to have to buy a bigger Chinese satin bag, she said, "because now the medals won't all fit."