Team USA celebrates winning a fifth consecutive gold medal during the London 2012 Games. (Photo courtesy of USA Basketball)
Team USA celebrates winning a fifth consecutive gold medal during the London 2012 Games. (Photo courtesy of USA Basketball)

Shiny gold medals disguise some disturbing trends

August 31, 2012 - 9:36am

The fruit is still delicious.

Imagine a tree, full of your favorite fruit, low-hanging and sweetly ripe.

Let’s use that image as a portrait of women’s basketball in the United States, and that tasty, nutritious fruit is the American domination of the international game.  Not only did Team USA win the Olympic gold, with ease, the Under-17s won a FIBA World Championship, the 3x3s did the same, and the Under-18s rolled to a FIBA Americas title.

In short, when it comes to the rest of the world, the U.S. is dominant, plain and simple, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t stay that way indefinitely. After all, the main competition in the past has come from Australia and Brazil, and at the younger levels, neither can really compete with Team USA – and both national teams are pretty clearly a step behind.

But go back to that fruit tree, and look at the trunk and upper branches, and the picture isn’t quite as pretty. The WNBA has endured a desultory season, in part due to the Olympic break, but in part due to the cycles that affect any sport. There’s not much tension in the playoff push, and there are no compelling superstars.  Diana Taurasi has played only three games this season (though she is thankfully back on the court) and Candace Parker – telegenic and talented – has yet to consistently play with the competitive fire that made players like Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes must-see opponents.

Even worse, some of the other very best players in the league are not on the court. Sylvia Fowles missed a key game for Chicago due to "personal reasons," and the mercurial and wildly talented Angel McCoughtry was suspended by the Atlanta Dream after a huge upheaval that also included the firing of coach Marynell Meadors. And then Liz Cambage, the 6-8 center from Australia, "missed her plane" and then decided to not play at all in the WNBA after saying all year that she would.

It's not surprising, then, that attendance is barely OK, not great, and there are legitimate questions about the future of several franchises.  At best, there’s hope for a continuation of the status quo; at worst, there’s fear of contraction in 2014.

At the college level, too, there’s a lack of drama.  Baylor is coming off a 40-0 season with five returning starters, and though Brittney Griner is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, she’s not particularly media-friendly and she’s drawn more than her share of haters.  The main challenger?  UConn – and forgive fans if they tend to yawn a bit. The Huskies and Geno Auriemma may be familiar, but they are almost too familiar, and lacking in charisma. (Quick, name their best player.)

The other top teams are perennials as well. Duke, Stanford, Notre Dame and so on aren’t teams that anyone is really dying to see, even though they are obviously all very good. Even mid-major darling Delaware is hard to get revved up about because superstar Elena Delle Donne is not only quiet and unassuming, but there are reasonable questions about her passion for the game.

So even though there’s plenty of talent ripening on our allegorical fruit tree, and the harvest should be plentiful enough to keep the United States at the top of the FIBA table, there are genuine concerns about the overall health of the game.  Even the high schools are suffering a bit, as girls in greater and greater numbers are choosing volleyball over basketball.  Volleyball is a non-contact sport, with cuter uniforms and less sweat, and the athletes who could excel in both are more and more moving away from basketball.

At some level, of course, this may just be some older guy harkening back to the imagined halcyon days of yesteryear, but I do believe it’s more than that. The WNBA and the college game are both in a kind of holding pattern, and the roots of the sport are being impacted by increased participation in volleyball, lacrosse, water polo and a host of other options.

So how do we fertilize the tree? Simple: Go to games and watch them on TV. Invest some time and energy in the sport by simply going to watch a few of the best girls' high school games in your area. Pay attention to the WNBA playoffs. Check out some college games. It's one thing to say you love the game, and it's another to translate that love into action. And you know it doesn't take much, but if not us, then who? And if not now, then when?

We need to be mindful that this summer’s fruit – that golden bounty – doesn't mean all is well, and there’s no real need to nurture our basketball tree. The future of the game depends on the roots and branches, and those who care about the sport need to invest in the future as well as glory in the present.