LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- Christmas came early this year for a half dozen of women’s college basketball’s elite players.
Picture yourself at age 19, preparing to embark on your sophomore college season. Unexpectedly, you get the phone call you’ve been dreaming of for most of your life – except you never imagined it would come this soon.
It’s Carol Callan from U.S.A. Basketball on the line, and she’s offering to fly you out for an all-expense-paid weekend in Las Vegas, where you’ll be staying at the Wynn, a five-star luxury resort right on the strip. There you’ll be joining the world’s top women professional basketball players -- many of them athletes you’ve looked up to since you first picked up a ball -- on the court. The roster reads like a Who’s Who of the sport. You’ll be playing alongside four of the last five WNBA MVPs (Tina Charles, Tamika Catchings, Diana Taurasi and two-time winner Candace Parker), six Olympic gold-medalists, six of the WNBA’s No. 1 draft picks, and 16 WNBA All Stars, including two-thirds of the 2013 WNBA All-Star roster.
But that’s not all. Callan explains that she’d hoped Seimone Augustus, Angel McCoughtry, Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Monica Wright would be there too (raising the head-count of Olympic gold-medalists to 10, top draft picks to eight, and All Stars to 20), but they’d had to send their regrets as they were busy playing for the WNBA Championship that weekend. (Eight of the weekend invitees already owned WNBA Championship rings.) Making up for that, though, you’ll be coached by a stable of proven winners, including three Women’s Basketball Hall of Famers (head coach Geno Auriemma and assistant coaches Dawn Staley and Jen Rizzotti) and three more who seem destined for induction if there’s any justice in the universe (Doug Bruno, Pokey Chatman and Cheryl Reeve – the last of whom is also tied up in the quest for her second WNBA Championship as a head coach).
And by the way? Do just well enough and you just might get another phone call asking you to join the troupe of basketball virtuosos that is the U.S. Senior Women’s National Team at next year’s FIBA World Championships in Turkey or the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
That, in essence, is exactly the call 19-year-old Breanna Stewart, the sophomore center for the University of Connecticut who dazzled in last spring’s NCAA Tournament championship game, received from USA Basketball this fall. And though Stewart was the youngest of the college players to attend last month’s Senior National Team mini-cap in Vegas – and for that matter, the youngest to try out for a senior team roster berth in modern U.S. National Team history – she was not the only collegian to receive an invitation to this fantasy camp.
In all, a total of seven college wunderkinds received invitations to October’s national team mini-camp, including four from Connecticut (Stewart, junior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and seniors Stefanie Dolson, a center, and Bria Hartley, a guard who was unable to attend due to an injury sustained at a college practice) and one apiece from Baylor (senior point guard Odyssey Sims), Notre Dame (senior guard Kayla McBride) and Maryland (senior forward Alyssa Thomas).
In its earliest years, well before the WNBA came into existence, the national team often drew its roster from the ranks of current, or more frequently, recently graduated collegians. The first U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team (Montreal 1976) had two teenagers on its roster -- Nancy Lieberman, 18, who had not yet started college, and Cindy Brogdan, 19, from the University of Tennessee. The 1980 Olympic team never got to play due to the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics, but its roster featured 18-year-old Anne Donovan (Old Dominion) and two 19-year-olds, Debra Miller (Boston University) and LaTaunya Pollard (Long Beach State). For trivia buffs, the oldest player on either squad was 24-year-old Pat Head of Tennessee-Martin, who went on to coaching fame under her married name, Pat Summitt.
Early women’s World Championship teams also “robbed the cradle” when it came to enlisting young talent. “Kara Wolters was 18 when she played on the 1994 USA World Championship Team,” according to Caroline Williams, USA Basketball’s Director of Communications. “The 1986, 1983, 1979 and 1975 USA World Championship teams all had teenagers on the roster also.”
But 1996 witnessed two pivotal events that marked the beginning of the modern era in terms of how selection of the national team is handled. One, of course, was the year-long training camp assembled in the run-up to the Atlanta Olympics in which USA Basketball brought together the “best of the best” in hopes of recapturing the gold on home soil after a semifinal loss to the Soviet Unified Team and a demoralizing (not to mention, narrow) third-place finish in Barcelona four years previously. The second was the creation of the now-defunct American Basketball League, and a year later, the WNBA, which has given rise to a talented pool of women’s professional players, most of whom play year-round, garnering considerable international experience.
Since then, U.S. women’s Olympic and World Championship team players have come predominantly – indeed, one might say nearly exclusively – from the ranks of the pros. The occasional, and exceptionally talented, collegian might land an invitation to participate in a training camp or in a qualifying or preparatory exhibition tournament. Thus, Chamique Holdsclaw had just finished her sophomore year of college when she played with the Senior Women’s National Team in the 1997 FIBA Americas Championship, Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles had finished their sophomore seasons in college when they participated in the April 2006 Opals World Challenge in Australia, and Courtney Paris had just finished her sophomore year when she attended the April 2007 national team training camp. Maya Moore was a junior and Tina Charles a senior when they earned invites to the 2009 fall training camp.
Moore broke the all-pro barrier when she played in the 2010 World Championships as a college senior, becoming the first collegian since Wolters did so nearly 20 years ago, to make the final roster for a U.S. World Championship team in the modern era. To date, no collegian has made the final cut for an Olympic team since the reorganization in 1995-96.
There has certainly never been a time in this modern national team era when a half-dozen college “kids” have joined the pros on the floor for the same senior national team training camp. “That’s cool,” said McBride of being one of the seven college players invited to the camp. “It’s an honor, honestly. Just to be out here playing with the players that you grew up watching, you know, like Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Candace Parker. You know? And just to be around them and see what it’s like, ... see what’s ahead. And just to learn, and talk to them. And just to get better. I think it’s just a great experience for us, because sometimes we get so focused on just, like, where we are right now, you know, instead of looking ahead and I just think it’s a great experience for all of us.”
“Honored” and “excited” were common refrains among the six collegians at the camp. Sims admitted to a brief case of nerves: “I didn’t feel any pressure,” she told Full Court. “I just always go out and do my best. I was very nervous; there were a lot of WNBA players there that I look up to.” And Dolson described the experience as “intimidating.”
|Baylor senior Odyssey Sims gets the fast break started at the U.S. Senior Women's National Team Las Vegas training camp in October. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)|
All six evidently did a good job of concealing whatever anxieties they might have felt, however. “You know, the thing that impressed me about all of them was their competitiveness and their almost complete lack of, you know, that feeling of ‘I don’t belong here.” I never saw that,” said University of Connecticut and U.S. Senior Women’s National Team head coach Geno Auriemma They came in and acted like, ‘I have every right to be here, ‘cause I was invited to be here, and so they must think I’m pretty good.’ And they acted like it.”
All six said that the nervousness wore off quickly once they got out on the court, thanks in large part to the kindness of the veterans who made a point of reaching out to the youngsters.
“My nerves wore off on the second day and by the third day I was in my comfort zone,” said Sims.
“I think all the older girls have done such a good job of making us feel comfortable and really teaching us and helping us through all the drills and the offense and when we’re playing,” said Dolson. “It’s just been a lot more comfortable than I thought, than I expected, and I’m just excited to be here and it’s a great opportunity.”
"I think that leading up to it, I was kind of nervous, ‘cause you don’t know what’s going to happen – you’ve never played with these type of players, older players," added Stewart. "But like Stef [Dolson] said, once we got here, I mean we’re all playing on the same floor, we’re all playing basketball, and everyone was really helpful. All the veterans were really helpful, making you feel comfortable, and practice has been really good the past two days.”
With national team workouts taking up just two hours each day, plus an hour or so more for those who needed the services of the trainers, there was plenty of time for the collegians to get to know the pros off, as well as on the court, as well as to avail themselves of the vast array of entertainment options that is Vegas.
“Unlike all the professionals, I still have homework,” said McBride of how she spent her free time. “So, I did some homework, you know. But I definitely did some sightseeing, last night, Caesar’s Palace, … Bellagio, I went to a show, the Cirque de Soleil, … some little things. But, you know, I try to stay as focused as possible.”
On the floor of the UNLV practice gym that played host to the camp, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, both of them three-time Olympic gold-medalists, patrolled the sidelines, helping coach the newcomers. Bird, who has undergone three surgeries in the past two years, missing the 2013 WNBA season with a knee injury, said she was “feeling good. Back to normal. Pretty much 100 percent,” and expected to work her way back into practices and eventually games after she returns to Russia for the European season. Taurasi, describing herself as “a little bit nicked up, right now,” from the WNBA playoffs, said she was just resting her body a bit before she, too, heads off for Russia. But both felt it was important for them to be there for the 2014/2016 team’s first training camp and to help out in any way they could, even if it wasn’t on the floor.
“Obviously, this is a training camp, where we’re trying to get together, and kind of get a chemistry going,” Bird explained. “And so even though I couldn’t play, I knew it was important for me to be here – for me – you know, to kind of meet everybody and get to know everybody. And then it’s hard to stay on the sideline and not do anything, so why not try to help?”
Now two of the most senior leaders on the team – “We’re not old. We’re grizzled,” Taurasi quipped – both readily recalled their own early days as the youngest players at the national team training camps, straight out of college.
Taurasi joined the team in Denver in 2004 as they readied themselves for the Athens Olympics. “I think I just got done [at the University of Connecticut] and I went to school for 14 hours of packing, and then I met with the national team,” Taurasi recalled. “You know, when you’re in college, you’re used to playing with your college team; then past that, when you’re in the WNBA, you’re used to playing with your WNBA team. Being a college kid and coming to a camp like this where you’re playing against, you know, the best WNBA players, it’s a little different and it takes you a little bit to get used to it.”
Bird made her own debut with the senior national team two years earlier in the run up to the 2002 World Championships in China, but she, too, was fresh from her senior year with the Huskies. Asked whether she had trained with the team while still in school, Bird was quick to answer:
“No, no, no. I had just graduated. So, yeah, it’s a unique spot that these girls are in, or women are in. You know, they’re the future – and you can see it. They’re very talented, you know, and pretty soon, the way USA Basketball is, time just gets the best of some of us, you know? Eventually. So it’s like when Di [Taurasi] and I and Tamika Catchings were the youngest ones on the team, as it goes on, you are the future. And the future’s bright when you look around this room.”
With eight UConn students or graduates on the training camp roster and the Husky head coach at the helm of the U.S. national team, there was the potential for the players from Baylor, Maryland and Notre Dame to feel isolated. But that was not the case, all three insisted.
“No, I don’t think I was at a disadvantage,” due to not being a member of the “Connecticut mafia,” said McBride. “I think that being able to play against them for the past three years kind of helped a lot. … I’ve played with them, I’ve played against them. So I knew the offense, it’s just something that was very familiar to me. So I didn’t feel I was at any disadvantage.
“[J]ust knowing UConn, and knowing what they stand for, is championships,” McBride continued. “ And Geno, he’s a great coach and what he does and the players he brings in, they’re great. … I think it makes you take it up a level. It makes you better to be around them and play with them and learn with them. They’re great players and they’re here for a reason.”
Maryland’s Thomas agreed. “Just, credit to their program and what they’re doing there. UConn has a lot of great players, and I don’t think I feel like an outcast at all.”
As for the UConn contingent, far from getting an automatic pass due to their Husky connections, they said it was the Connecticut alums who gave them the hardest time over the course of the weekend. But most of them also said that Taurasi was the nicest to them.
“Diana, even though she’s not playing, definitely she’s been on the sidelines the whole time, just giving us encouragement, telling us the first day, ‘Take it all in and just get used to it and you guys are doing fine. Just keep working hard and as long as you do that, you’ll be good,’” said Mosqueda-Lewis.
“Diana’s a bad ass,” threw in Dolson, who was standing nearby.
“Diana is a bad ass,” replied Mosqueda-Lewis.
“Put ‘BA.’ A Bad Mama,” said Dolson.
“In a good way,” added Mosqueda-Lewis.
Is that “kinder, gentler” Diana out of character for the 31-year-old guard who is widely known for her wisecracking and occasionally biting sarcasm
“Aw, no,” Taurasi answered. “I mean, that’s just a public perception. I mean, I’m not always an asshole. You know, a kind-hearted asshole, that’s what I am.”
Then she turned serious. “I remember when I was, you know, when it was my first time,” recalled Taurasi. “And … Dawn [Staley] and Lisa [Leslie], like, they really took us in when we were younger, and you know, that means a lot that they respect what you do and when they try to help you. I mean, the last thing you want to do is come to a camp like this, not know what to do, and not have anyone try to help you. So Catch [Tamika Catchings] and I, being the older ones, you know, that’s as much a part of the job as being on the court.”
In 2002, Bird was not just the youngest player on the national team but the only rookie in the group. She easily empathized with the emotional ride the college players at the training camp were going through:
“I don’t think there’s any pressure. If anything, if you’re Breanna Stewart, you’re probably a little nervous, a little anxious, you know, not really sure what it’s going to be like and kind of can’t wait to figure out or can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like,” said Bird. “But it’s also an opportunity, and I’m sure she knows that. But more than anything, you know, it’s a chance for her to see kind of, you know, where she stocks up compared to some of the best players, you know, in the world, to be honest. And obviously, for her in particular, she did a great job.”
Bird wasn’t the only one Stewart impressed. The 2014 Women’s World Championships tip off on Sept. 27 in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey, nearly 11 months from now. There’s nearly two years more until the torch is lit at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. USA Basketball typically waits until the last possible moment before finalizing its official 12-player roster for either event. So understandably, no one was eager to raise false hopes nor to offer any predictions as to who will ultimately make the cut.
Asked who had stood out to her over the three-day camp, Taurasi diplomatically replied, “I mean, everyone. Everyone’s so good here, it’s kind of hard to see anyone standing out, you know.”
But then she added, “But out of the college kids, probably, Stewart – I mean, she’s a handful; she’s really, really good. I mean, you know when you see somebody play on TV you don’t get – she’s really good, and you don’t get how big and long she is. She’s good.” Remarking on a couple of veterans who had seen their buckets denied by Stewart’s monster swats, Taurasi went on, “Oh no, she’s tough! … Whenever you’re 6-5 and you can shoot, you’re going to be okay.”
Stewart brings an unusual skill set to the table. She is dominant inside but also owns good range; she is an aggressive rebounder and defender. But unlike many traditional posts, she can also put the ball on the floor without making you wince, an ability she exercised more often in high school where she was plainly the best player – at any position -- on her Cicero-North Syracuse High team, than at UConn, where she has the luxury of being surrounded by great guards. “She can play,” Taurasi exclaimed. “The kid can play. And there’s no age on being good. If you’re good, you’re good. And she’s just good. Really good.”
Bird was looking out attention for her possible successors at the point, where among the newcomers Courtney Vandersloot (Gonzaga, Class of 2011) – no longer a collegian but one of the youngsters among the pros at the camp – caught her eye. “I think from the younger group, … I thought Courtney Vandersloot -- she was, ironically, one of the more veteran, you know, point guards out of the group, in terms of USA Basketball experience. She was in the last camp we had here in Vegas, and I thought she just took everything in stride and played well.”
“I think in their own way, everybody had an impact and stood out at different times in various ways,” Auriemma summed up. But the head coach also had rave reviews for a collegian from former Big East opponent Notre Dame. “[Y]ou know, somebody like Kayla McBride, who, I’m sure, a lot of the players here and a lot of the committee maybe didn’t know, they certainly know who she is today. You know guys like Stewie [Breanna Stewart], because everybody knows her because of what happened in the NCAA Tournament, and … she certainly didn’t disappoint anybody. But somebody like Kayla, … I think opened a lot of eyes, ‘cause it’s her first time on this stage. And you know, when you see that, I think it’s very rewarding to be a part of that.”
For their part, the collegians were uniformly impressed by the pros. Asked what they would take back to their college teams from their fantasy weekend, nearly everyone mentioned the work ethic demonstrated by the pros.
“You know, just the work ethic that these pros have, and how hard they’re working. You know, how they took time out of their schedule, a lot of them going overseas to play, so you know, just to always work and out-work your opponents,” said Maryland’s Thomas.
In that regard, the standout for most of the collegians was Catchings, who at 34 is the oldest of the players on the training camp roster and who also drew praise for going out of her way to put the newcomers at ease. In one of the 30-minute segments open to the media, I counted four steals and at least three deflections for Catchings, who played with the pedal to the metal the entire time she was on the floor.
“Tamika Catchings. She’s been somebody that I’ve looked up to forever, just her style of play and her determination, her perseverance,” said McBride. “Just the way she plays and carries herself is something that I admire. She’s definitely a role model in my eyes, and that was probably the most inspirational person to be around.”
“My example is Tamika,” Dolson agreed. “I mean, you just see how much energy they put into everything they do, whether it’s just stretching in the beginning, and the back-door drills, or whatever drill we’re running, they just put so much energy and they talk so much that, you know, I’m definitely going to take that back to our team .…”
“She was diving on the floor in our shooting drills,” exclaimed Stewart, describing Catchings’ full-out play. “A ball dropped and was bouncing on the ground, and she dove, grabbed the ball, saved it, and passed it to the line. I was like, ‘This is a shooting drill!’”
|UConn senior center Stefanie Dolson (No. 50) dishes out to 2011 WNBA MVP Tamika Catchings, the oldest player at the training camp, who impressed all present with her energy and work ethic. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)|
“That’s what makes her great,” said Taurasi of her Olympic teammate. “She’s on the court …”
“I’m gonna be there,” finished Catchings, mopping the sweat off her face with a towel as she walked by.
“That’s what makes her great,” Taurasi repeated.
McBride was also impressed by the pace of play at the Olympic level. “Definitely … the next level is a lot faster. … I think that playing at Notre Dame, and playing with Sky [Skylar Diggins], and under Coach McGraw, we’re always talking about transition, you know, running the ball. But this is a whole other level, … and I think that just being in shape and having the mentality of getting up and down the court – ‘cause the big girls are running, … the point guards, everybody, one through five, is running up and down the court. So that’s just something that I’ve learned.”
So, bottom line, were the college kids just there as the basketball equivalent of sparring partners for their seniors – perhaps with an eye toward mining talent for 2020 and beyond – or are they legitimate contenders for a spot on the 2014 Worlds and 2016 Olympic squads?
Perhaps a little bit of both. On the one hand, all present were realistic about the odds of making the Olympic team. Callan did the math for the assembled masses at the end of one of the workouts. With 10 of the 12 veterans of the 2012 London Olympics squad either present in camp or invited to be there, there aren’t a whole lot of conspicuous vacancies available. And with 27 elite players present in camp, six more invited but unable to be there and the possibility of invitations being extended to others over the next two to four years, Callan will be making a whole lot of those “thanks, but no thanks” phone calls she’s come to regard as the worst part of her job.
Callan vowed that there will be no politics played in the selection process, and Auriemma repeatedly observed that even for the former Olympians, no one’s spot on the 2014 and 2016 teams is “automatic, unless they come out here and make it automatic [with their play on the court.”
“There are five former Olympians from 2012 that weren’t here, ‘cause they’re in the WNBA Finals,” said Auriemma. “And, if they read this, they’re going to be upset with me, and I don’t mean it that way, but we didn’t miss them. And the reason I say we didn’t miss them is, four years ago, when we were doing some of these training camps and we were going on some of these trips, and if we didn’t have five former Olympians, we were in deep doo-doo. … So what I mean by, ‘We didn’t miss them” – there are enough good players this year to make you think that, ‘You know what? If something were to happen, and we had to go play, I’m not saying we would be as good, but we would be a lot better than we thought we would be four years ago.’ Now, obviously, when those five players some on board, whenever that is, that just takes it to a whole other level.”
Of the three oldest returning 2012 Olympians – Catchings, Bird and Taurasi -- none is showing any indications of planning to hang up her high-tops. Jennifer Gillom was still playing for USA Basketball at age 38. None of the three vets will be that old in 2016, when they would have the chance to equal the four Olympic gold medals owned by Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie.
“Absolutely! Absolutely!” said Bird when asked if she was looking forward to 2016. “You know, the way I feel is, if I’m capable and healthy and I feel as if I can help the team in the way I have in the past, I would love to play. And I’m definitely going to try and stay in the best shape I can and stay healthy and try to do the things I need to do to be able to help that team. ‘Cause that’s definitely something that’s definitely a goal of mine, to be on that team.”
|Three-time Olympic gold-medalist Sue Bird, still recuperating from knee surgery, was unable to work out with the team, so took to the sidelines to help out the coaching staff. Bird "absolutely" wants to play through the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)|
It would have to be an exceptional collegian to bump a Sue Bird – or any of the national team veterans – off the 2014 or 2016 rosters. But then again, a spot on the Olympic team is a goal of the youngsters as well.
“I think every kid [dreams of playing in the Olympics],” said Thomas. You know, we all grow up watching the Olympics, so to try to be part of that and to actually have an opportunity, you know, well, it’s a blessing.”
What’s more, these youngsters are certainly not lacking in confidence, a quality Auriemma said might just be the biggest take-away from their experience at the camp.
“I don’t think they would have invited us here if they didn’t think we could contend with the other players here,” said Stewart. “I think they’re looking for this World Championship team and the Olympic team, but also you can’t just fill the roster full of older players, because then you’re going to have to start over [when they retire], and I don’t think they want to start over for the following Olympics. … We need to mix a little bit.”
“If not this time, when I’m 26 – 2020,” Stewart added.
“I’ll be 29!” gasped Dolson, in a tone that suggested that was old enough to have one foot in the grave.
“I’ll still be young,” Stewart teased.
“I will be a young 29-year-old,” Dolson fired back.
“I think it depends on the individuals,” said Auriemma of whether any of the collegians at camp is a serious prospect for the 2014 World Championship roster. “You know, some of it is the returning players from the Olympics in London, what’s their physical status, just in terms of 2014? So that might have something to do with it. [The college seniors’] experience level after maybe a year in the WNBA, that might change, and a year overseas, maybe, that might change. And some of the real young college players, you know, an experience like this is invaluable to them. I think you could say it’s a stretch to think that they could compete at the pro level in 2014. Now 2016 is a whole other story, ‘cause you’re talking three years down the road and a lot can happen in three years. And certainly, in 2020, you’re talking about the new core of this Olympic team. And, you know, what a great way to start identifying who those players are.”