By Jeffrey Newholm
Hoops fans may be going through a bit of a withdrawal with the NBA not started yet and WNBA concluded, with Breanna Stewart’s Seattle Storm claiming the title. But not to worry as World Cup play begins Saturday afternoon in Tenerife, Spain with Stewart leading a list of 13 aspiring players . The winner of the World Cup automatically qualifies for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It’s important, then, that the US gathers strength to face off a fiercely competitive field (although the Americans are certainly the favorite).
South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley tuned the USA roster with a series of exhibition games during training camp. While the US won every game, several tense contests indicated the road to gold won’t be made of it. US trailed Canada by 16 in the first contest and later was behind Japan entering the fourth. America certainly has no monopoly on talent or WNBA skill. Longtime national player Kia Nurse is building a strong Canadian program. Previous unknown Liz Cambage, and now the WNBA single game high scorer, heads a stacked Australian squad. And France has greatly improved its team as evidenced by its close semifinal affair against the US in the Olympics. But for American fans, the biggest names are still all on the home roster.
Former college teammates Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi were gentlewomanly competitive in the WNBA semifinals and now can again play on the same side. Both pros are four time Olympic gold winners and helped instill a concentrated, workwoman-like culture for the nationals. But Bird and Stewart are the most interesting players to watch this fall. (Most games stream on ESPN+ and the final is on ESPN September 30th). There was no rest for the successful after clinching the league title last Wednesday. Sue and Stewie must wipe their grins off their faces and go back to intense competitive determination. (Well, Stewart never seems to have much of a grin anyways). The US has never won three straight golds in the Worlds but can do so this month. While the nationals do sport a 103-21 all-time record, each game will be the Super Bowl for each opponent, so no win can be prematurely assumed.
While the women’s Olympic team is less heralded than the men’s, this seems strangely more appropriate. The men earn the flashbulbs, but their dominance receives yawns. Also, by now many top players aren’t interested in playing. But the women’s team is focused purely on process and outcome and not meaningless outside hoopla, or lack thereof. No Olympic team has ever won seven straight golds in a sport, a feat the US women can impressively claim in two summers. But nothing must be taken for granted in the hypercompetitive world of sports. So the world’s most talented lady hoopers must fulfill usually high expectations and claim gold. It’s tough to declare “#1 or nothing” in any competitive endeavor. But for the US women, it’s a reasonable bar that the country’s 12 best players must jump and shoot over for the glory of their selves, their country, and their nation’s most entertaining sport.