How U.S. Women's Basketball Defined Gold Standard in Dominant Run Through Rio
The U.S. women weren't in many close games, but they made their run to gold exciting anyway.
Photo by RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports
The most memorable moments of the 2016 Olympics in Rio centered on varieties of dominance. There was Katie Ledecky's dominance of scale, as she finished races pool-lengths ahead of the competition; Simone Biles' dominance of breadth, as she took gold in three individual events and one group event; and Usain Bolt's dominance of ease, as he grinned and goofed while crossing finish lines in first place. What the United States women's basketball team did in Rio wasn't quite like any of those. Artful and cohesive, singular and pedigreed, they as much as anyone proved the thesis of these Games: that sports don't need to be dramatic, in the traditional sense of close scores and comebacks, to be affecting.
The United States beat Spain on Saturday, 101-72, to win its sixth straight gold medal. Historical resonance and round numbers abounded. It was the fourth gold for the veteran trio of Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and Tamika Catchings; it was the first for the oncoming wave of Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, and Breanna Stewart. It came during the summer marking the 20th year of the WNBA, and on the 40th anniversary of women's basketball's Olympic debut.
With teams this great and representative, it is tempting to let the significances of the accomplishment overtake the thing itself. Team USA's roll through Rio was so expected that, watching it, you could catch yourself missing the actual play, contextualizing in real time. But while this squad was as dominant as any in recent memory, it was also a pure blast. For two weeks, the U.S. women played the rarest kind of basketball: steady, soulful, virtuosic, fiery, total.
The roster alone reads like a cross between poetry and tactical outline. Taurasi has a sharp handle and a mercury-pure stroke and uses a ball-screen at the three-point line the way Wyatt Earp used a hip holster. Maya Moore looks slow until she's by you, and harmless until she's dropped in another jumper. Griner is a human eclipse in the middle. Tina Charles, the post-up maestro leading the WNBA in scoring this season, mostly rebounds and facilitates on Team USA, and the lighter responsibilities show her versatility from a new angle. She spins backdoor passes; she shoulders her defender away for a hook or spins back for a fade. The interplay between muscle and sense is stunning, even in the context of her WNBA dominance; she's a bulldozer equipped with sonar.
Of course, the hyper-talented but clumsy superteam has, historically, been a more reliable basketball archetype than the one that actually makes good on its promise. Aimless passing, clogging cuts, individual brilliance propping up schematic drudgery, ten-point wins that should have had triple the margin—if you watched the U.S. men's team in Rio, you know what this looks like. There's an amusing on-the-fly component to watching a bunch of stars patch it together, but there's also some waste. It's never the opus that it could be.
Or not quite never, because with this team in this tournament, that turn never happened; nothing was wasted. Games held to patterns. The first quarter was for building leads, the second for ensuring them. Third quarters became little trials of focus, announcers begging the team to "play the game, not the score" and cameras finding Geno Auriemma getting extra fist-pumpy on the sideline. Fourth quarters held a sense of appreciation, not suspense.
The team was, for the entire tournament, almost unfathomably locked-in. After Saturday's gold-medal victory, Taurasi called it "the most determined, unselfish team I've ever been on—hands down." The stock sports adjectives were, in this case, well chosen. Team USA played as if in gratitude to one another. Even with 20-point leads, when a pass went awry or a rebound slipped through fingers, hands were clapped in frustration or raised in apology. Every chance was precious, less for competitive reasons than for experiential ones.
A pair of plays sticks out from the final game. The first came in the second quarter. Bird lobbed a pass to a cutting Stewart that looked irresponsible at first glance. Stewart caught it in a crowd with nowhere to go, hemmed in under the rim with arms waving in sightlines. In a smooth motion, though, she flipped it blind across the court to the opposite wing, where Moore's defender had abandoned her in pursuit of the steal. Moore canned the triple, and in retrospect the whole sequence held the cleverness of a chess gambit, momentary sacrifice for final gain.
The second happened in the first half's closing moments. Charles walled off a Spain drive, forcing an errant pass that Moore gathered and turned with down the court. Backup point guard Lindsay Whalen had leaked out ahead, and at full sprint Moore gathered her dribble and sent a one-handed bounce pass whistling through the transition defense. Whalen gathered it and laid it in a second before the buzzer sounded, expanding the lead to 17.
That first play was as handy a representation as any of the United States ethos and shared history: three generations of Connecticut Huskies playing for their old coach in Brazil, unlocking an open look with near-telepathic ease. The second spoke to the team's drive, seconds treasured because they'd all run out soon, even after the inevitable win. Anyone who's ever heard a postgame interview has learned to tune out words like "determined" and "unselfish," but in this case there are no words that work better.
That, more than anything, may be the legacy of the 2016 United States women's basketball team. The rest of the world couldn't force them into any memorable moments, so they created their own. They embodied the ideals of "basketball team" as fully and as often as they could. They won big, and in style, and with grace and meaning. In an Olympics full of blowout brilliance, no show was better.