By: Jeffrey Newholm
For the 12 gentlemen on the US men’s Olympic basketball team, winning gold brings a welcome rest and respite from the grind of professional basketball. There were even some big names who chose to forgo the Olympics to take a larger break from their hoops responsibilities. For the 12 players on the women’s team, however, life will quickly return to normal as WNBA season starts up again on Friday (the league suspends play for the duration of the Olympics). Those who enjoy the Olympics, but perhaps don’t usually follow women’s basketball, may be wondering what’ll be on the minds of the Olympic champions as they resume their normal routines. To aid such readers, I’ve detailed below the scenarios each player will be facing upon returning to their regular jobs.
Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, and Seimone Augustus: Maintaining a standard
These four players represent the Minnesota Lynx, the defending league champs and second place team in the league this year. Coach Cheryl Reeve not only gambled in allowing so many of her players to join the Olympic team, she saw the gamble through herself by being one of the team’s assistants. But with the Lynx facing an unexpected challenge from the Los Angeles Sparks, fatigue may be a factor as the last few games of the regular season are played. Thankfully for the Lynx, the top two teams now get a bye all the way to the semifinals, so as long as Minnesota stays in the top two, its players should get a well-deserved rest.
Tamika Catchings: Time to figure out how to say, “farewell”
Catchings returned for a final 2016 season specifically to play in one more Olympics. She played limited minutes and was mostly an honorary member of the team, but did get to taste victory one final time. Sadly, the official conclusion of her career may come on a more somber note. Her Indiana Fever are sitting in fifth at 12-12, and would need to make a concerted effort just to get to the semifinals. Even if they got there, a matchup with either the Lynx or Sparks would probably not prove very favorable. The last few regular season games, then, aren’t really about playoff positioning. They’re more for the franchise to savor their final few games with one of the game’s all time greats. With coach Stephanie White also departing after this campaign, Indiana fans should consider this season an end of an era for their franchise.
Tina Charles: Redemption and validation
Charles is well known as one of the most generous and hard-working players in the league. However, last year her New York Liberty were eliminated in humiliating fashion. The team blew a huge lead in a potential close-out semifinal game and was subsequently eliminated. This year the 18-8 Liberty are 3.5 games behind the Lynx in the race for the double-bye. However, they likely would need to just win one playoff game to get back to the semifinals. Charles knows that to redeem herself, her team, and to send retiring teammate Swin Cash out a winner, the next few weeks of readjustment to league play will be critical.
Elena Delle Donne: defining a legacy
The reigning league MVP has thus far not had much success to be defined by. Years ago, her collegiate mid-major Delaware Blue Hens never made it very far in the tournament. Even in her best campaign last year her Chicago Sky were rudely shown the door in the first round. Delle Donne at this point is a well-known public figure (145k Twitter followers), but the best compliment she can seem to get from the trolls is on her good looks. The Sky are drudging through a down 11-13 season, but perhaps a taste of Olympic success will cleanse Delle Donne’s palette and lead to a better destiny in the postseason.
Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi: righting a season’s worth of wrongs
Going into the 2016 season, the Phoenix Mercury figured to be a serious title contender with the return of Taurasi and Penny Taylor from a year off. Shockingly, the team is now sitting at 10-14 and could even be in danger of missing the postseason entirely. From what I’ve seen the Mercury have worked through some serious chemistry issues. Griner and Taurasi even went so far as to be ejected from a game together. Certainly. the Mercury has the talent to go on a Cinderella run if they do make the playoffs. However, they’ll have to see more of the brilliant “good Dee” the world saw in the Olympics and less of the “bad Dee” who’s made numerous poor shots and passes for her professional team this year.
Angel McCoughtry: breaking through mediocrity
The best way to describe McCoughtry is: she’s a talented and interesting player on a rather average and uninteresting team. The Dream didn’t make the playoffs at all last year and in 2016 are sitting in fourth at 13-12. Fourth is actually a decent spot to be in because the third and fourth place teams only have to play one elimination game to get to the semifinals. The semifinals, first of all, offer at least three games of national TV exposure. They would also give the Dream a chance to see how their players measure up against an elite team. If McCoughtry wants to make a bigger name for herself, holding off Catching’s Fever for that fourth spot would be good goal to shoot for this September.
Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart: Icing on the cake
Sue Bird has already accomplished so much in her career, there doesn’t seem much urgency to accomplish more. She’s already won four Olympic golds and two WNBA championships for her Seattle Storm, so perhaps her proper focus for the conclusion of her playing career is that of a mentor. The Storm has a lot of young, impressionable talent, so Bird could be best served by continuing to foster that talent. Stewart has already accomplished more in 2016 than most women in any field ever will. She won a fourth NCAA Championship, a fourth Final Four MOP award, and an Olympic gold medal. And to many it seems all this winning proved to be an immeasurable thrill. After all, her tweet reading simply “GOLD !!!!!!!” had over 500 re-tweets and 2,000 likes. But I think Stewart, like any ambitious professional athlete, will always be fighting for even more. When she was handed her gold medal, she accepted it as if it were a business card. The Storm are currently tied for the eighth and final playoff spot. By this point, perhaps Bird is satiated with success. For Stewart and her young teammates, I think the playoffs are still a compelling goal to fight for.
The sad truth for these 12 Olympians is the WNBA is much less glamorous than the Olympics. Fan support is too often lacking. and players can’t live in a luxury yacht. But for the elite athletes, basketball is more than a game. It’s a profession and way of life. Yes, the Olympics were a memorable and grand success. But life has to go on. For the next four years, basketball will again be an often stressful job for the Olympians who left with stars in their eyes. And that dream won’t again be realized until Tokyo calls in 2020.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsANdBoltsSP.