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The women of the U.S. Olympic basketball team will have traveled
more than 100,000 miles to get to the tip-off of their first
game in Atlanta, against Cuba on July 21. During that rush
toward their twin destinies--to reclaim for the home team the
gold medal and to be present at the birth of a women's pro
league in the U.S.--nothing has succeeded in slowing them down:
They were 51-0 as of the end of June. But on at least one
occasion they slammed on the brakes themselves.

They halted the odometer on May 26 after laying a 106-58 hurt on
Cuba. As the team bus left the Providence Civic Center, several
players noticed that a young girl, near tears at the prospect of
not getting any autographs, had chased their motor coach for two
blocks. The players ordered the bus stopped, piled dutifully out
and didn't resume their trip until this lone supplicant had been
sated with signatures. Says one of the U.S. players, guard
Sheryl Swoopes, "It didn't take but two minutes to turn the
saddest girl in Rhode Island into the happiest."

The team's 14-month journey has been a whirlwind of
preadolescent smiles like that one, passed-around Bebe Moore
Campbell novels, intrasquad clothing drives to benefit the
impecunious Cubans, exclamations of wonder from hotel maids at
the neatness of the players' rooms, after-hours caucuses to
discuss the fledgling American Basketball League (to which nine
of them are committed) and caretaking of a mechanical-pig mascot
that the players have christened Babe. Over the past year
they've journeyed to a court in Siberia so cold that the
players wore down parkas and gloves when they weren't in the
game; to courts near the Great Plains, the Great Wall and the
Great Barrier Reef; even to the highest court in the land--a gym
in the U.S. Supreme Court Building--where they chatted up, and
shot hoops with, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day
O'Connor. No appearance has been too small-time to make, no John
Hancock-hankering too ill-timed to oblige. And it's not only
little girls they're winning over. Wiseass boys, weaned on the
NBA, sometimes ask tauntingly, "Can you dunk?" At which point,
says Teresa Edwards, who starts alongside Swoopes in the
backcourt, "we bring out [6'5" center] Lisa [Leslie], and she
just blows them away."

There is such a you-go-girl spirit to the team that it's only
natural to wonder whether the avowed purpose for assembling more
than a year before the Olympics--to give the U.S. its best
chance to win the gold--might get forgotten in all this
pressure-free bonhomie.

Guarding against that possibility is Tara VanDerveer, the flinty
and fastidious coach who took a leave from Stanford to lead the
effort to recover the title of Olympic champion won by the
Unified Team in Barcelona. Notwithstanding the team's dazzling
record, VanDerveer doesn't pretend to be satisfied with the hand
dealt her by USA Basketball's 13-member player selection
committee--a committee on which she has a voice but no vote.
"Sometimes I think our team has different needs than the
committee thinks," she says. "I've always been very concerned
about size. And performance is the basis for being on this team,
not reputation or who's popular, and at times performance has
concerned me."

Frustrated by the uneven play of the team's two
fresh-from-campus greenhorns, forward Rebecca Lobo and guard
Nikki McCray, VanDerveer made comments in an interview with USA
Today in February that seemed to call upon the committee to
replace the two with post players who had more international

When the national team was named a year ago last May, Lobo had
just led Connecticut to an undefeated season. In the process she
had been named college basketball's player of the year and had
introduced women's hoops to the corporate tastemakers of the
Northeast. There was no way a team bankrolled with $3 million in
sponsorship money largely lassoed by the NBA wasn't going to
include Lobo, who is more marketable than fresh produce. But
while she is a superb passer and an exemplary teammate who's
automatic out to the circle when left open, Lobo can't create
her own shot, and compared with the other players on the team,
she's glacially slow. During training last fall, before the team
was to be given a five-day break, VanDerveer decreed that Lobo
had to run two miles in 16 minutes or less or she would be
locked down in Colorado Springs. It took five attempts, but with
roommate Jennifer Azzi pacing her on every one, Lobo finally did

Lobo suffered more over the following months. At every stop on
the team's tour of college campuses, fans were only
perfunctorily interested in Edwards and forward Katrina McClain,
thirtysomething suffragettes for women's hoops who'll be playing
in their fourth and third Olympics, respectively, and who passed
up opportunities to make four to six times more overseas than
the $50,000 that USA Basketball is paying each national team
member. People wanted to meet Lobo, who had been on Letterman
and had a street named for her in her hometown of Southwick,
Mass. In February, during a stopover in Hawaii en route to
China, Lobo and Azzi rented a Jeep, and while they toured
around, Rebecca spilled out her frustrations. "How would you
feel," she asked Azzi, "if you were playing the worst of any
player on the team and got the most attention?"

"My teammates know I don't go out seeking any of the craziness
that comes along," Lobo says now. "It just happens. You just
want to go up to people and say, 'Watch number 12 [McClain],

As for McCray, she is simply prone to the indiscretions of
youth--errors that when committed by a guard can be glaringly
evident. During a January scrimmage in Russia, after McCray made
two turnovers in a row, VanDerveer called timeout. "Don't throw
the ball to Nikki," she told the players. "She obviously doesn't
know what to do with it." At this McCray broke down in tears,
and her taller teammates formed a human shield for her to hide
behind so VanDerveer wouldn't see her making a puddle of herself.

Even if VanDerveer hasn't entirely made her peace with the
tyros, the rest of the team has, in part by reaching out to them
during their difficult winter. "With Tara giving us such hard
workouts, we had to pick each other up," says Leslie. "We became
so close because, at the beginning, it was the coaches versus
the team."

"A team like this needs a dose of everything--experience, youth,
competitiveness," adds Edwards. "Rebecca and Nikki represent
youth. They only needed time and patience."

Indeed, Lobo played better during the team's tour of China,
while in Australia in May, McCray's defense helped throttle the
Aussies' star point guard, Michele Timms. Today VanDerveer says
she regrets that names were attached to her comments. But she
adds, "Sometimes a newspaper article gets their attention in a
way that's more motivating."

"Tara's known for being outspoken," forward Katy Steding, who
played for VanDerveer in Palo Alto, said last month. "I don't
think [criticizing Lobo and McCray] was the right thing to do.
We have 10 other players with international experience, and
since then Rebecca and Nikki have gotten a lot. We haven't lost.
It ain't broke, so don't fix it. But she's the coach. Her butt's
on the line."

In fact, VanDerveer has reason for concern. There is no gap
between the U.S. women and world champion Brazil, arriviste
Australia and medal contenders Canada, China, Cuba, Russia and
Ukraine that's comparable to the chasm on the men's side between
the Americans and the rest of the world. "Because there are so
many styles internationally, loading up a team with good
athletes isn't enough," says Vanderbilt women's coach Jim
Foster, a selection-committee member who has coached in numerous
international tournaments. "We have to be quick enough to play
Cuba and Brazil, big enough to play Russia and tough enough to
play Australia."

This is no Dream Team. The U.S. is not as good at shooting
three-pointers as most of the teams it plays. And the Americans'
only experienced center, Leslie, is literally runway thin (she
has signed a modeling deal with Wilhelmina) and prone to foul
trouble. "The men have Olajuwon, Shaq and David Robinson," says
VanDerveer. "I'd like two more centers. It looks like I'll only
have one more."

That additional center, former Louisiana Tech standout Venus
Lacy, who was named to the team on June 16, bears the name of
the goddess of love. It's an appropriate appellation given the
atmosphere surrounding the team. There hasn't been a wisp of
envy from other players that Lobo, Swoopes (she of the Nike Air
Swoopes line) and Leslie (check her out in the May Vogue) are
getting the most attention and endorsement lucre. "I would love
to have a contract with Victoria's Secret," says reserve forward
Carla McGhee, "but there's no room for jealousy. It's, 'Girls,
go for it!'"

On the team's last night in China, Azzi flung open her hotel
room door and hung a sign reading JEN CHU'S COFFEE AND ESPRESSO
BAR. People began filtering in--at first because, VanDerveer
says, "the choices on TV were sumo wrestling or cricket." Azzi
then broke out a cache of vanilla macadamia-nut coffee she had
picked up in Hawaii. Soon enough Leslie had cranked up the
music. McClain and Edwards were braiding Lobo's hair; McGhee and
Steding were unbraiding McCray's. Eventually someone remarked
that the entire team was there; a dozen Yank chicks, sittin'
around talkin'.

"We don't always do the right things," says VanDerveer. "There
are rebounds to be gotten and better defense to be played. But
you know the saying, Either you're in or you're out? They're all

So on to Atlanta, final stop. If VanDerveer couldn't distract
them, if 50-plus exhibition games couldn't, if cricket and sumo
wrestling couldn't either, they'll take their chances with
synchronized swimming and modern pentathlon.

COLOR PHOTO: LOIS GREENFIELD COVER PHOTO You Go Girls! The U.S. Women's Basketball Team (From left: Sheryl Swoopes, Katrina McClain, Ruthie Bolton, Lisa Leslie, Teresa Edwards, coach Tara VanDerveer) [Gatefold]