ATHENS — ATHENS - It's not Bird vs. Magic, but Lauren Jackson vs. Lisa Leslie usually makes for pretty good copy.
Australia and the United States will play a rematch today of their gold-medal game showdown at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The Aussies were routed, 76-54, but not before Jackson served notice she was heir apparent to Leslie as queen of women's hoops.
Jackson was only 19 in Sydney, but she showed why the Seattle Storm made her the undisputed No. 1 pick in the 2001 WNBA draft. She scored 20 points and grabbed 13 rebounds for the Australians.
Then, in what has served as an unfortunate metaphor for a young player clawing to dethrone the queen, Jackson yanked out Leslie's hair extension.
It was an apparent accident. Nonetheless, the incident added zest and zip to a rivalry that the two women and their teammates attempt to explain as "respectful," but is really quite raw.
"I don't think there's any love lost between them," said Jackson's Seattle teammate, Sue Bird, who plays with Leslie on the U.S. basketball team.
"You need rivalries in sports. I take it like the old and the new. Lisa's won gold medals, a WNBA championship. Lauren wants to do those things, too. She's competitive," Bird said.
Scratch just below the surface of this gold-medal game, and it's not difficult to find Leslie and Jackson playing a game within the game.
U.S. coach Van Chancellor has made no secret he wants the U.S. offense to go through Leslie, a 6-foot-5 center who can dominate on the low block.
Leslie scored 11 points yesterday, when the United States fought off Russia, 66-62. Leslie called the game hard-fought but clean, with the Russians engaging the United States in a "chess match."
Luckily for the U.S. squad, it has a roster filled with 12 WNBA players. That includes Sheryl Swoopes, who overcame a tournament shooting slump to hit two jumpers late in the game to push the United States to victory.
Meanwhile, in Australia's 88-75 win over Brazil yesterday, Jackson scored a game-high 26 points. She shot 73 percent, including five of eight three-pointers. No wonder she leads the WNBA in three-point shooting.
Jackson, who won the 2003 WNBA Most Valuable Player award and is likely to win it again this season, is the biggest reason the Australians believe they have closed the gap with the United States.
"We do have Lauren Jackson, the best player in the world," said Sandra Brondello, Australia's four-time Olympian. "You never go into a game thinking you can't win, and we just think if there's a time to beat them, this is it. We have the best player."