ATHENS -- There are those who see the Olympics as an obligation, and there are those who see the Olympics as the opportunity for which they've worked for years, and when Dawn Staley and her U.S. women's basketball team clutched at their gold medals with their veteran eyes welling and the tears running down their necks into their jerseys, you understood which sort they were. Some gold medals gleam with more meaning.
Staley, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes have played for their country year in and year out for roughly a decade and a half now, and when they won their third consecutive Olympic gold medal for the United States with a 74-63 victory over Australia on Saturday night, those shiny pieces of jewelry and the glistening tears were the emblem of an ethic. They reflected all the tiresome tours of Asia and Europe, the drudgery of early-morning breakdown drills, the vacations denied, time away from families and children, a divorce or two, second jobs, and the constant effort of scratching out a living and begging for a chance to play for pay. No wonder they cried. The last time Stephon Marbury cried? Maybe when his headphones pinched his ears.
If you worry the Olympics have been overcommercialized or devalued, just think of them. Think of them wrapping themselves around their 34-year-old, 5-foot-6 point guard Staley like a single but many-armed creature in red, white and blue, and lifting her, because it was her 205th -- and last -- game of international play, after 16 years and, count them, 10 gold medals of various types for the United States.
"They seem to think I'm some kind of lightweight," Staley says. "They like to throw me up in the air."
Staley played her first game for the United States when she was a schoolgirl from the blighted inner city of Philadelphia back in 1989. She became so respected by the USOC that she was chosen to be the U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremonies two weeks ago, and so revered back home there's a seven-story mural of her looming over her old neighborhood in Philly.
"It's a beautiful thing," she said, fingering her medal, "and it goes out to all people from humble beginnings."
Now she'll resume her day job as the head coach at Temple University, and the only playing she will do is as a moonlighter for the Charlotte Sting in the WNBA. "I carried the flag in, and the gold out," she said. "Actually, it's a storybook ending."
More than any other player, Staley has been the soul of the team, and she personifies the important distinction between the U.S. women's program and the men's, and why the women were able to win gold, and why the bronze medalist men were not.
First of all, Staley is as pure a point guard and as commanding a floor leader as has ever played, and the entire roster bends to her will. "For the ultimate, ultimate team game, which is what basketball is, she's the ultimate point guard," her coach, Van Chancellor, said. When some players wanted to see the U.S. women's soccer team play in the gold medal match, Staley forbade it. "Watch it on TV, off your feet," she ordered. Center Lisa Leslie, at 6 feet 5, obeys her every word. "I can talk to Lisa in any kind of way," Staley says, "and not always appropriately."
Staley has written the blueprint for how to win gold medals, and the men's team could learn a few things from it, starting with a new definition of commitment.
Staley and her compatriots have committed to the Olympics in four-year chunks. When she said yes to Team USA, as she has so consistently, she did so knowing it would mean European tours in the fall, training camps, international tournaments on far flung continents. In 1996, for instance, the United States played 60 international games, and went 60-0.
Most of the members of this 2004 team committed to winning an Olympic gold back in 2002 when they went to the world championships in China. They've spent 2 1/2 years together and won 40 games and traveled from Cuba to Poland. "All these players, they gave up their lives," Chancellor said. Asked to sum up his players, Chancellor did so emphatically, and feelingly, in just two barked words.
"Team first," Chancellor said.
The result has been a slot-machine-like outpouring of gold medals. "Motivate?" Leslie said, earlier in the week. "Those other gold medals are at home. Plus, I have a gold outfit I want to wear. I didn't bring anything silver or bronze. . . . Everyone talks about age, but it's not about age. It's about work ethic. Winning never gets old."
But players do, regrettably. The USA team will suffer an incalculable loss without Staley, who still plays like a slightly pigeon-toed and ponytailed sprite. When Staley picked up two quick fouls midway through the first quarter, Chancellor was forced to bring her to the bench, and the play of the U.S. team markedly deteriorated. It ended the half with three straight turnovers, and a seven-point lead became just three, 29-26. It was Staley who tossed in the game-clinching free throw against Australia, with 1 minute 37 seconds left for a 70-59 lead. And it was Staley who made the driving layup with 32 seconds left that started a line of wild celebratory towel waving jumping jacks on the sidelines, and brought the American supporters in the stands to their feet as time expired. Among those who joined the standing ovation were four men in about the 10th row, behind the USA bench: men's coach Larry Brown and his assistants. As the buzzer sounded, they stood and applauded with their hands over their head.
If the U.S. team has a single most important quality other than work ethic, it's continuity. Staley is most representative of it, and for that reason USA basketball should think seriously about granting her wish to return to the Olympics some day as head coach of the team. Van Chancellor suggested that if the federation is smart, it will make Staley an assistant coach on the 2008 team that goes to Beijing. For one thing, Staley's presence as a coach might be a lure to persuade the aging Leslie and Swoopes, who are 32, to play again. "It's hard for me to suit up without Dawn," Leslie said. The three are fairly inseparable and like to joke that they don't leave the country without each other.
Why do they keep coming back? Why suffer all the practices, and the wearying road trips, and the work for comparatively small recompense? Especially now that they have WNBA contracts and some of theme even have endorsement deals that have made them, if not rich, at least comfortable?
"It's the camaraderie," Staley says. "It's the innocence of the basketball played on this team. For us, we've always come back because it's great basketball played the way it should be, very selfless. It almost takes you back to your childhood when you played for your pride. That's the way we feel about playing for our country."