Off Court With the US Women's Basketball Team

Venus to the Hoop:

A Gold-Medal Year in Women's Basketball

by Sara Corbett

Doubleday

342 pp., $23.95

About nine months before last summer's Centennial Olympics, the United States women's basketball team visited Atlanta. There, in the Georgia Dome, coach Tara VanDerveer reached into her pocket and pulled out two Olympic gold medals borrowed from Teresa Edwards, a member of the victorious 1984 and 1988 US squads.

VanDerveer wanted each player to take a turn wearing a medal, then pose for a picture that would burn the object of their athletic desire in memory. The snapshots were carried in the team notebook each player kept.

This vignette is one of many shared by author Sara Corbett, who chronicles the results of her travels with the Olympic champions in "Venus to the Hoop: a Gold Medal Year in Women's Basketball." Venus Lacy was a rugged reserve on the US team.

Corbett was offered exclusive behind-the-scenes access to a group of women who knew they were on the spot. First they had to restore the lost stature of US women's basketball. Beyond that they were saddled with furthering the cause of female athletes everywhere and igniting professional opportunities at home.

"If we don't win, the whole year has been a waste," forward Katrina McClain said in summarizing their burden.

The Americans eventually did collect gold medals, beating Brazil in a final played before the closing ceremonies, a slot assured of attracting a large TV audience for NBC, which is now telecasting Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) games.

Many of the women selected for the US national team had spent their post-college careers playing professionally overseas. Now they were eager to see the interest generated by the Olympics kick-start an American pro league. Edwards, who was preparing to play in her fourth Olympics, and Jennifer Azzi sided strongly with the ABL. A number of teammates followed their lead, but others began to listen to the NBA's siren song.

Although media members sensed an approaching storm, the players wisely headed it off, refusing to make the choice of new leagues an issue. "Nothing could touch us when we were playing basketball," is how Edwards put it. Still, Edwards found VanDerveer's reservations about the ABL as unsettling as their coach-player relationship sometimes was.

VanDerveer seemed to hold Edwards in lower esteem than the veteran star was accustomed to. Edwards even began to wonder if the coach faulted her for the US loss at the 1994 world championship. (She was also on the '92 US Olympic squad that finished a disappointing third.)

Rebecca Lobo, the 1996 College Player of the Year, was another team member faced with mental hurdles. She lacked the speed and savvy of many of her more internationally experienced teammates. Playing alongside so many superstars, she was subject to self-doubts, but they couldn't weaken her resolve. Only recently was her personal winning streak snapped at 102 games. Until then, she had contributed to 35 straight college wins at the University of Connecticut and 60 more playing for her country.

A championship team must of necessity become a family. How it accomplished this makes an interesting study of 12 goal-driven, world-class athletes.

* Ross Atkin is a sportswriter for the Monitor.

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