RIO de JANEIRO — Think about this for a moment: Forty years ago, the United States Olympic Committee did not even expect the women’s basketball team to QUALIFY for the Games. When they won the qualifying tournament, there was a mad effort just to get the team accommodations in Montreal.
That was the first Olympic women’s basketball tournament, forty years ago, and the United States played in the first game, against Japan.
The headline in one American newspaper after that game:
“Japan Downs United States Gal Cagers.”
And the lede:
“It took the American men 36 years to lose their first Olympic basketball game. It took the American women just one day.”
The U.S. lost convincingly to Japan that day, 84-71, and it was no surprise because women had not yet convinced American they could play team sports. Title IX had only just begun, and it was controversial. The “women don’t even WANT to play sports” columns were American newspaper staples. On the Olympic front, the U.S. women’s volleyball team had not qualified for the Olympics in eight years.
Nobody expected much from the U.S. women’s basketball team even if basketball was sup-posed to be America’s sport. In addition to losing to Japan, the U.S. lost by 35 to the Soviet Un-ion. The Soviets scored the first 17 points of the game — that was the gap between the two countries. The U.S. did manage to win a silver medal based almost entirely on their scrappiness. It was considered a magnificent triumph for American women.
That was just 40 years ago.
So, yes, now, as you know, the U.S. women’s basketball team is probably the most dominant team in the world, any Olympic sport. When the U.S. beat France in the semifinal on Thursday, it was their 24th consecutive DOUBLE-DIGIT victory at the Olympics. The 19-point win was also one of their closest; over those 24 games the U.S. average margin of victory has been 36 points.
In all — including a couple of close ones more than a decade ago — the U.S. has won 48 Olympic games in a row. Here’s how long it has been since the U.S. women last lost an Olympic basketball game: That loss was to the Unified team, the odd conglomerate of countries thrown together in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse way back in 1992.
So how does this happen? How does the U.S. become so overwhelming in women’s basket-ball. It’s not like this was a given. The U.S. women’s volleyball team lost on Thursday, just a couple of hours before the basketball team took the floor, and that means that the United States women still have not won an Olympic gold medal in the event. There have been many, many great women’s volleyball players in the U.S. — the sport thrives in colleges across the country — but still zero gold medals. Why has basketball been so different?
I’ll give you my theory: It’s the WNBA. The WNBA is almost 20 years old, and the U.S. has never lost an Olympic basketball game since it began. The team on the floor on Friday included WNBA megastars like Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Tamika Catchings and Brittney Griner. And in truth, two WNBA players who did not even make the Olympic team — Candace Parker and Nneke Ogwumike — are probably better than any player on any of the other teams.
That’s the depth the WNBA has created. It has given girls a dream. It has given young wom-en a goal. And perhaps most directly, it has given great American basketball players a home so that they don’t burn themselves out playing overseas. You look at this team, and Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi are all going for their FOURTH Olympic gold medals. That’s 12 years of staying on top of the world. That’s the WNBA.
When you think back 40 years, you see that there were few obvious athletic goals for American women to aspire to. There was figure skating, swimming, it was a pretty limited field. That year, 1976, Nadia Comaneci gave young girls a dream to become gymnasts, and eight years later Mary Lou Retton emerged, another decade or so and America has the best gymnastics team in the world.
Not long after, a man named Richard Williams in Los Angeles was watching a women’s tennis match on television, saw a Romanian named Virginia Ruzici cash a nice check, and he determined that he would raise his daughters, the newborn Venus and the soon to be born Serena, into the best tennis players on earth.
And so on — every few years, a new sports dream came along. Jackie Joyner Kersee opened up a new world. Nancy Lopez opened up a new world. The U.S. women’s soccer team opened up a new world.
Most of all, women’s basketball — first the growth of the college game at Tennessee and later Connecticut and other places, then the WNBA — created the greatest flood of women’s basketball talent in the history of the game. There is little question that this team right here is the best of all time. The 2012 team was probably the best of all time (and the 2008 team before that). Now the team adds Griner and WNBA MVP Elena Della Donne and the game’s next superstar Breanna Stewart. It’s extraordinary.
Put it this way: The U.S. will play Spain in the final. They have already beaten Spain at this tournament by 40 points. Anything can happen, of course, and you never count victory before it happens. But let’s be realistic. Almost 20 years ago the WNBA came along. And even though some people mocked it, and some people questioned it, and some of that still happens, the WNBA changed the sports landscape in America. Among other things, it gave America one invincible basketball team.