Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird and the rest of the U.S. women’s basketball players couldn’t 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 doesn’t make us mad. We accept it. It was just kind of funny. To be honest, I’m 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. women’s basketball dominance sure would be nice, she conceded.
“In due time, credit will be given,” Catchings said.
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Maybe. Maybe not. If the U.S. women haven’t captivated their nation by now, it’s 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 Saturday’s 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 don’t they get more attention? Why are the U.S. women’s 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 you’re a great women’s basketball player, or a great women’s basketball team, you happen to live in the country where the best basketball players in the world live: the men’s team. So, you’re always going to be compared to that team, those players, and you’re always going to come up short.”
He shrugged, and then continued.
“That’s just the nature of the game. Basketball is the most popular women’s 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, women’s basketball gets just about all the attention of any women’s team sport in America. But when it comes time for the Olympics, it’s like, ‘Yeah, they’re going to win.’ And that’s unfortunate and unfair to these players, and those that came before them and I don’t know there’s anything we can do about that. It is like UConn.
“The only story that’s going to come out of this Olympics is if we lose. And that would be a big story. Then the U.S. women’s 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 men’s team were to ever do that, I don’t think they’d ever call it bad for the sport,” Bird said. “It would be applauded. It’s not something I’m concerned about. I’m not mad. Do I notice it? Yeah, of course.
“And I just don’t really get that. I don’t get how you can’t 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 wasn’t 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 men’s basketball players are the most appreciative of women’s 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. men’s player at the Beijing Olympics. The WNBA was in midseason, took a break for the Olympics, and this player said to her: “ ‘Oh, so you’re second in the West, Phoenix is behind you by two games?’” She replied, “ ‘I don’t even know that. I’m not even watching that close.’ They know. They watch. They’re basketball fans. It’s 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 I’ll say, ‘Oh, tomorrow, 4:45.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, who?’ When I tell them it’s Croatia, they say, ‘Oh, we don’t want to go to that one.’ ” She paused for a moment, and then said, “But hey, it’s their loss.”