Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird and the rest of the U.S. womens basketball players couldnt help but notice how NBA stars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant were treated as they marched together in the Olympics Opening Ceremonies on Friday night.
We were joking about it, how all the other athletes were flocking to those guys, Catchings said. Everywhere they went, a trail of people followed. It doesnt make us mad. We accept it. It was just kind of funny. To be honest, Im not sure I want to be that famous. I like to be able to live a somewhat normal life, go to the movies, to eat, and be recognized here and there.
But a little more recognition for the U.S. womens basketball dominance sure would be nice, she conceded.
In due time, credit will be given, Catchings said.
Maybe. Maybe not. If the U.S. women havent captivated their nation by now, its hard to imagine what they could do that would make them more popular.
Consider: The U.S. women have won the past four Olympic gold medals (the men settled for bronze in 2004). After Saturdays 81-56 opening victory over Croatia, they extended their win streak to 34 consecutive Olympic games since 1992. Repeat: They have not lost an Olympic game in 20 years.
Only one team has come within single digits of the Americans since 1996. They have won their Olympic games by an average of 29 points, and four years ago in Beijing, they won their games by an average margin of 37.6 points.
And yet, the average American sports fan would have a hard time naming five players on the current Olympic roster.
Why is that? Why dont they get more attention? Why are the U.S. womens soccer players more popular than they are despite having lost the World Cup final last summer and played for a league that folded?
I have my theories, U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said, breaking into a grin. I think when you live in the United States and youre a great womens basketball player, or a great womens basketball team, you happen to live in the country where the best basketball players in the world live: the mens team. So, youre always going to be compared to that team, those players, and youre always going to come up short.
He shrugged, and then continued.
Thats just the nature of the game. Basketball is the most popular womens team sport in America, he said. Yes, the soccer team gets a lot of attention, once every four years. During the regular year, all the other times, womens basketball gets just about all the attention of any womens team sport in America. But when it comes time for the Olympics, its like, Yeah, theyre going to win. And thats unfortunate and unfair to these players, and those that came before them and I dont know theres anything we can do about that. It is like UConn.
The only story thats going to come out of this Olympics is if we lose. And that would be a big story. Then the U.S. womens basketball team would be very, very popular.
Team captain Sue Bird played for Auriemma at UConn. She knows from domination. And she remembers a few years ago when the Huskies won a record 90 consecutive games, and critics said it was bad for the sport.
If a mens team were to ever do that, I dont think theyd ever call it bad for the sport, Bird said. It would be applauded. Its not something Im concerned about. Im not mad. Do I notice it? Yeah, of course.
And I just dont really get that. I dont get how you cant applaud dominance and consistency.
Croatia, a team the United States beat by 54 points in a warm-up match, was tied with the United States early in the second half before the Americans turned it up a notch and wound up winning big with 14 points by Tina Charles, 13 from Angel McCoughtry and 11 from Candace Parker. But it wasnt easy.
Ana Lelas, a Croatian player, said she felt honored to open the Games against the best team in the world. She said that although fans might not appreciate the U.S. dominance, their opponents do.
They have the best girls, the best league, the most experience, and it is hard to compete, she said. They are unbelievable players, they understand the game, and it would be kind of easy to coach them.
Catchings and Bird both said their biggest fans (literally and figuratively) are NBA players.
To be honest, I think mens basketball players are the most appreciative of womens basketball players in the world. I can tell what they say, what they know, Catchings said.
Bird recalled a conversation she had with a U.S. mens player at the Beijing Olympics. The WNBA was in midseason, took a break for the Olympics, and this player said to her: Oh, so youre second in the West, Phoenix is behind you by two games? She replied, I dont even know that. Im not even watching that close. They know. They watch. Theyre basketball fans. Its cool.
As for the rest of the world, the U.S. women believe they take their team for granted.
Said Bird: People ask, Oh, when are you guys playing? And Ill say, Oh, tomorrow, 4:45. And theyll say, Oh, who? When I tell them its Croatia, they say, Oh, we dont want to go to that one. She paused for a moment, and then said, But hey, its their loss.