USA 74, WNBA All-Stars 58
Despite a predictable result in its first exhibition game in nearly four months, the U.S. women's Olympic basketball team revealed something very interesting here Thursday night. When players leave for Athens this week, their goal won't be solely to win gold. Instead, they're shooting much higher -- to dominate opponents so thoroughly that they raise the interest level in their sport in this country.
The Olympic team, a heavy favorite to win gold, drubbed a group of WNBA all-stars at Radio City Music Hall, 74-58. The win provided another confidence boost for the Olympic team, referred to by some of its players as the greatest women's basketball team ever assembled.
"We have a chance to boost the WNBA, to boost the whole women's game," said Sue Bird, a guard on the Olympic team. "The Olympics is just a huge stage for us. We've got a chance [to] get a lot of attention because we win gold medals and, honestly, we're just good."
After this latest result, that was no longer up for debate, least of all by the WNBA all-stars. The Olympic team -- made up of all WNBA players -- toyed with its opponent, grabbing 30 rebounds in the opening half. Fifteen minutes into the game, the Olympic team led by 23 points, forcing the sellout crowd of 5,945 to watch more than a full half of sloppy, garbage-time basketball.
The U.S. team played together from late February to mid-April, winning all 13 games it played. Despite the four-month break, the team still looked polished Thursday. On most possessions, crisp passing resulted in easy layups. Four players scored in double figures, led by Lisa Leslie's 15.
"This team is just so well-rounded," said Van Chancellor, coach of the Olympic team. "We have about a dozen different players, and every one can be a game maker."
And to think, this Olympic team Thursday played against a group of players superior to most teams it will face in Athens. Russia and Australia both present mild threats, largely because each team boasts at least one WNBA player. The Czech team is young and talented.
But in any scenario, it's highly probable the U.S. team will win gold for the third consecutive time.
"I definitely think we'll be able to win it all," U.S. guard Shannon Johnson said. "In terms of talent, nobody is really on par with us. And our chemistry is just great. We seem to have a really perfect mix."
They blend youth with experience. Seven players go to the Olympics for the first time, while three others -- Leslie, Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes -- make their third trip.
They blend graceful shooting with gutsy inside play. Katie Smith and Swoopes, who both sat out Thursday with nagging injuries, are considered two of the WNBA's best three-point shooters. Leslie has led the WNBA in rebounding five times in her seven-year career.
"I've heard some people call us another Dream Team," Chancellor said. "I don't think that's very far off."
And the WNBA plans to capitalize. Each team in the league still plays about eight regular season games after the month-long break for the Olympics. Assuming the U.S. team wins gold, the league will use Olympic highlights to market its games.
"We'll take advantage of what we think will be a great performance with a lot of emotion and so on," WNBA President Val Ackerman said. "We'll capitalize on this team's publicity.
"The [Olympic] team this year is player-for-player better than any women's Olympic basketball team ever fielded. If you look at the second five, that's a startable Olympic team for any country except ours."
Which is why winning gold doesn't quite seem like enough.
"We have a special group of players," Staley said. "And we've got an opportunity to do a lot of good for this game."