With selfless style, U.S. nears golden threepeat


ATHENS - It's not a stretch to say that the U.S. women's basketball team took one step closer to its third consecutive Olympic gold medal yesterday. The Americans trounced the Greek women, 102-72.

Now and then, the hometown crowd at the Olympic Indoor Arena got the chance to go nuts over a three-pointer - which would bring the Greeks within 20 points.

That's as much folly as Lisa Leslie and Co. would allow.

"I don't want to lose games to get the taste of competition. We're hawking for 40 minutes. You may be watching the score and you're bored, but we're out there thinking about what we can do better," Leslie said.

To pump themselves up for a tournament in which they are the clear favorites, the U.S. women are not above trumping up a few slights - real or imagined.

Leslie, a model and aspiring actress who plays for the Los Angeles Sparks, knows how to get good ink. She also has the WNBA scoring titles, the bit of dunk history and the league Most Valuable Player awards to carry mondo clout.

If she's creating imaginary foes, you have to at least appreciate her competitive fire. Australia's Lauren Jackson, a WNBA Western Conference foe of Leslie's, has long tried to get under Leslie's skin. But you don't knock the diva off the stage without fur flying - not to mention elbows.

"What satisfies me the most is to hear what other teams are saying," Leslie said. "I've heard it. USA is beatable. If the Russians get the gold medal, their shirts are ready. That's what I've heard. I just like to leave it on the court and not have to talk trash."

The U.S. women have earned this strain of - how shall we say? - cockiness. It wasn't as easy as it now looks to be queens of the hardwood. In fact, it was hard, a point the decorated veterans like to make, in whatever mode it takes to get the newcomers to listen.

As a rookie on the Olympic team, Sue Bird is allowed to laugh at the old war stories. She wasn't around eight years ago to be part of making them, but she hears them.

It's part of the process. The veterans hand down the history. Sometimes it makes for a good laugh.

"They had to work out a lot in '96. That was a bad year," said Bird, the ex-UConn star who was the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick in 2002 by the Seattle Storm.

Bird can play. Dribbling, passing and bouncing around the court are the fluent phrases of her second language: hoops. Watching her in the backcourt with fellow former UConn star Diana Taurasi shows the future of the women's game has arrived in mint condition.

Bird knows why she is as good as she is.

"For me, it's a privilege to be here and play with these guys. If it wasn't for them, I'm not sure I'd be here playing," Bird said.

A lot was on the line in 1996. Atlanta would serve as the gender-equity Olympics. U.S. coach Tara VanDerveer relentlessly drilled the U.S. players, took them on a world tour, forced them to live out of a suitcase for weeks at a time.

The backbreaking pioneering work was a necessary evil.

"That was grueling, but it was perfect timing. We learned what it took to be professional. We needed that," Leslie said.

Which explains why the selfless, cohesive and rowing-in-the-same direction women basketball players are rolling.

Indeed, if there's a Dream Team still alive in these Olympics, it is the U.S. women's team.

To get this group to come to Athens, all it took was a shake of the phone tree. No arm twisting. No last-minute deliberations about security. No cries for a vacation.

In fact, the WNBA season stopped midstream to let these women come. To them, the Olympics are still the ultimate - and also the ultimate platform to prove their skill, their marketability, their power to inspire kids, especially girls, to pick up a basketball.

"I called and asked Sheryl [Swoopes] and Dawn [Staley], 'Well, what are we going to do?' " Leslie said. "We communicate. Dawn wanted to come back. Sheryl did, too. It continues."

It continues, with '96 holdovers Leslie, Swoopes and Staley leading the way.

In fact, Staley led the way for every single U.S. athlete at these Games. The kid out of the housing projects of Philadelphia, Staley is now a three-time Olympian who carried the flag for the U.S. delegation during the opening ceremony.

It's the "innocence" of the Games that made Staley, 34, come back.

"It's playing with these talented players, the selflessness. I can do some things playing on this team that I can't do anywhere else," she said.

"I've been playing with Lisa for 15 years. I can throw her a pass and she won't miss. When I was a kid, I used to throw passes only guys could catch, but with Lisa and Sheryl, they can go get anything I throw. We go by degree of difficulty. They want to score, they're going to go get the ball."

Like the women say: If you focus on how much they're beating their opponents, you're missing the finer things about this Dream Team.

They're committed - to each other, to the team, to the process, to the quest and, best of all, to the extra pass.

Medals leaders

Country G S B Tot

United States 25 29 22 76

Russia 14 19 21 54

China 24 16 12 52

Today in Athens

Women's soccer: United States vs. Brazil in gold-medal match

Track and field: 400-meter hurdles, 200 finals

Men's basketball: United States vs. Spain in quarterfinals

TV schedule: Page 9C

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