Thursday, August 26, 2004

U.S. women have best of both games

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ATHENS - In the Olympic spirit of international friendship and good-sportsmanship, the mostly Greek crowd booed the Americans every time they touched the ball.

The Greeks didn't know enough about basketball to boo specifically, so they settled on a general, anti-American boo. Or maybe they were just recognizing the talents of Sheryl Sw-oooo-pes.

The U.S. women took care of that little diversion eventually, the same way they've taken care of everything else: They pounded it into silent submission.

They're not quite the machine the U.S. softball team was - they'd have to be cyborgs - but they're close. The women routed the Greeks 102-72 to move into the semifinals, seeking their third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

Lisa Leslie, center, of the United States drives to the basket past Greece's Maria Samoroukova, left, and Anastasia Kostaki in the second half.
(AP photo)
You can't help but notice how much better they are than they were in 1996, how much smoother they play, how much higher they jump, how much more sophisticated their game has become in just eight years.

How much more like men they play.

Is this a sexist comment? Is it? The women are playing better because they've incorporated the best part of the men's game (the athleticism) and ignored the worst (the individualism, the ignorance of the international game). The women are better than ever because, well, they don't play like women anymore.

As three-time Olympian Lisa Leslie put it, "Our abilities to play above the rim are really starting to evolve."

You see it best from Leslie herself, close to the basket, bumping for position, using spin moves to get around opponents. The Leslie of 1996 scored lots of points but not with the knowledge and grace she has now. "I'm better athletically than I was" in '96, she said, "and I'm smarter about the game."

The women play like the men. Spin moves, no-look passes. Jump steps (Diana Taurasi). Crossover dribbling (Dawn Staley), height on their jump shots. No more two-hand, semi-set shots. The women elevate.

It's more than that. It's the way they move that gives them away. Even in '96, there was a certain mechanical quality to it, as if it were all learned and not instinctive. We praised the '96 team for its unselfish nature and the pure, fundamental way it played the game. But you could look at that team and think: A very good boys' high school team would give them a game.

No more.

They dismantled a decent Greek team. The Greeks could shoot and handle the ball, although they had no idea how to rebound or defend. Perhaps there is no Greek translation for "box out." An early push got them to within two, 19-17. Then the U.S. team went on a press-induced 22-4 tear and it was all over but the booing.

"We never give them a chance to breathe," was Taurasi's explanation. "That's the way we like to play."

The women can press because they have the mindset to rip out an opponent's throat. "We're (ball)hawkin' for 40 minutes," was how Leslie put it. But they also have the quick feet and agility we never used to see.

There are reasons. The WNBA has become another option for girls dreaming to play basketball. The opportunities are expanding to play in international leagues after college. The '96 team got lots of little girls - Taurasi among them - dreaming about playing basketball.

"We have better athletes, because they have something to look forward to," said Staley, another member of the '96 team.

Right now, they're playing against themselves, against the standard they set every time they go on the court. When the U.S. women are playing well, no one can beat them. "We are our biggest challenge," Leslie said.

If the U.S. men played with the passion and the understanding with which the women play, they might actually give the women a game.



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