Geno Auriemma and Diana Taurasi drove to Seattle last week, by way of Portland. The pavement along Interstate 5 afforded some catch-up time for the coach, who helped mold the player into a star, and the star, whose success reflects brightly on the coach. The whirlwind schedule for female players — the WNBA, the international season, and national commitments — does not allow much time for reunions. Coach and player relished the drive, where they finally had the time to reminisce about their time together at Connecticut.
The fact that Auriemma, a coach whose name is synonymous with women's basketball, would pick the brain of Taurasi, a two-time gold medalist, might seem overly studious. The U.S. women's team has won four consecutive gold medals and is riding a 33-game win streak. Auriemma and Taurasi are both defined by winning, even more so when paired together. Auriemma will conduct an abbreviated training camp in Seattle before his players return to their WNBA teams. Other countries will have months to prepare for the games. The U.S. team will have played about 15 games together by the medal round. Other national teams will play as many as 30 games before they even arrive in London. Auriemma anticipates that it will be the "most pressure-packed situation that I've ever found myself in. If you lose at Connecticut, everybody at Connecticut has a heart attack. If you lose with the U.S. national team, the whole country that follows women's basketball wants to kill me."
It makes for a good sound bite. Auriemma knows the U.S. women's basketball team is as safe a bet to capture gold as any U.S. sport in London. "The U.S., we could probably have a second national team and they would probably be our toughest competition," says Sue Bird, another Auriemma protégé. "I mean no disrespect with that. It just speaks to the level of talent and the volume of talent that the U.S. has."
This team is filled with Auriemma protégés. Swin Cash and Ashja Jones, two of Bird's former roommates at Connecticut, are also on the team. Jones became the 12th member of the team when Brittney Griner withdrew herself from consideration. Half of the team played under Auriemma in college: Taurasi, Bird, Cash, Jones, Maya Moore, and Tina Charles. But Charles will not participate in the camp because of a groin pull. "Veterans usually get those in training camp, so they don't have to spend all their time doing all that stuff," Auriemma jokes. "I'm surprised that she picked up on it that quickly after only being in the league a couple years, so I'm glad I taught her well at Connecticut." The Connecticut-heavy roster is a quick source of skepticism. But Auriemma's counterpoint of "Who would you remove from the team?" is valid. Most of the Connecticut players were part of the record 90-game win streak. All won college championships and went on to prosper professionally.
Auriemma gathers the players at midcourt of Seattle University's gym. Elgin Baylor's retired jersey hangs in one corner. Advertisements for MAD Pizza and IHOP hang in another. He tells the players with one gold medal to listen to the players with two and the ones with no gold medals to listen to everyone. "We need you to do all the things you're great at," Auriemma says, "and someone else can do the stuff you're not great at."
Auriemma's deference to Olympic pedigree shouldn't be surprising. The 1996 U.S. Olympics team established the game's viability and paved a route for the WNBA. The early part of the century provided another wave of players like Taurasi and Bird. The U.S. then added dynamic players like Moore, the first female basketball player to sign an endorsement deal with the Jordan brand, and Angel McCoughtry, who already established a WNBA playoff record with 42 points in a game against the New York Liberty. It is impossible to say which Olympic team has had the best players, only that the game is evolving and growing. How do you measure perfection against perfection?
"It's a progression like any sport that is developing and getting better," Taurasi says. "The process takes a while. But in the last four or five years, you've seen the level of play go to a different level, and it starts with players getting better at an early age. It's about better coaches in college. Better coaches in the pro game, actually having something to play for, to get better for, to actually make a living off of it, to making a career. That all changes the seriousness of you playing basketball."
Auriemma is the dominant figure at the practice. He holds a cup of coffee in his left hand and is always kidding and encouraging, encouraging and kidding. When Tamika Catchings's shot bounces off the rim, over the backboard, and nails Auriemma in the head, he pokes fun at the rivalry between Connecticut and Tennessee: "See? That's Tennessee shooting. You did that on purpose." When McCoughtry messes up a drill and shoots instead of passing, he says: "This is the West Coast. You've got to pass every once in a while."
McCoughtry is a step behind most of her teammates at the practice. It could be because of the amount of talent she is surrounded by or because she is one of the few players unfamiliar with Auriemma's system (McCoughtry's Louisville Cardinals lost the 2009 championship to Connecticut). Auriemma attempts to restore her confidence when she misses a layup. "Every time you do that, that's a good move," he says. "You're either going to score or get fouled."
"I have two problems," he continues, gaining the attention of the whole team. "Number one is everybody wants to shoot and they're selfish. Number two is nobody wants to shoot and you're not selfish enough. When you're open and you get the shot that you normally take, take it. Don't ever pass up on an open shot, ever."
Taurasi, meanwhile, asks questions constantly: what cut to make, whether to go under or over the pick, who to pass it to. Auriemma is convinced that she knows the answers to everything she asks. It is just her sly way of leading him down the path of agreeing with her. "Right now, all we are are a lot of good players put together," Taurasi says. "When we go to London, we'll see if we're going to be a great team. I feel like we have that personality. We have the talent and we have the camaraderie to do that."
A team of men in USA jerseys surrounds the court as the women practice. They are former college players from schools in the Pacific Northwest and usually convene as a practice squad against the WNBA's Seattle Storm. They are called on to run some offensive and defensive sets against the women. "The first time I played against them, I thought I could do whatever," says Marlon Bailey, a 6-foot-5 guard who played at Edmonds Community College. "Nope. They're that good." To drive the point home, all 6-foot-6 of Sylvia Fowles nearly eviscerates one of the men on the first possession with a hearty, solid screen.
Auriemma rounds up the team again and dismisses them. The rest of the weekend flies by. Not much can be accomplished in a couple of days. If nothing else, the women reconfirm that they are as strong as predicted. They trample China in an exhibition on Saturday and thrash Japan the following day.
The Japanese and U.S. teams shook hands once the scrimmage ended on Sunday. One Japanese player, Yuka Mamiya, asked Taurasi for her jersey. Taurasi smiled, signed it, and handed it over. Soon, most of the U.S. team had handed their jerseys over to their counterparts. The Japanese players smiled and jumped up and down in delight.
They look to Taurasi and the others not as competitors, but as role models, much like how the world viewed the 1992 Dream Team. This is the greatest contribution the U.S. women's team makes globally. They spread the game, nurture it, and grow it. Just as the luster of the men's team eventually faded, there will come a day when the U.S. women will be tested. Auriemma knows that. He will do everything he can to make sure that moment does not arrive this summer in London.