THE U.S. WOMEN ARE UNSTOPPABLE—AND UNAPOLOGETIC
THE U.S. WOMEN'S basketball team worked out last week at a gym in Rio's Lagoa district, 2,300 feet beneath the statue of Christ the Redeemer, which looms so large that Cariocas call the neighborhood Christ's Armpit. Yet if the players smelled something rank, it was more likely a couple of narratives pushed by reporters who had crashed practice.
One story line was the reflexive comparison of the U.S. women to their male counterparts, flattering though it may be. To preserve their perfect record in group play, the U.S. men first struggled to beat Australia and then narrowly slipped past Serbia and France. The women handled their business with much more authority, never trailing after the first quarter of any of five games to stretch their Olympic winning streak to 46 and stay on track for a sixth straight gold medal. And they did all of this far from the main action, in the far western neighborhood of Deodoro—and that made it difficult for reporters to assess the women on their own terms.
The other narrative—are the U.S. women too good?—might be called the Connecticut Conundrum. It's painfully familiar to U.S. coach Geno Auriemma, whose reward for building the most successful collegiate women's program is to hear debate over whether UConn's dominance is bad for the game. Former Husky Sue Bird wonders why this line of inquiry always seems to surface. "We've been together only a month, and we're getting the question," she says with a shake of her head.
Tamika Catchings, who with Bird and Diana Taurasi is one of three players shooting for a fourth gold, takes up both narratives at once. "Go back to the men—Kentucky, UCLA with John Wooden, North Carolina—they won over and over," she says. "But we never talk about that. What, should we roll over and not dominate?"
Can the U.S. sustain its run after Rio? As impressive as frontline first-timers Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner (below) and Breanna Stewart have been in Rio, the U.S. has few elite guards in the pipeline. Half the current team is 30 or older. And last year the U.S. collected only a bronze medal at the FIBA Americas U-16 championship, losing to Brazil in the semifinals.
But this group's moment is now. "If you like basketball, you enjoy watching good basketball," Taurasi says, her reasoning as sound as her mechanics from beyond the arc. "And if you don't like watching good basketball, go watch rowing."