USA Basketball’s announcement of the roster heading to the Tokyo Olympics next month set off a firestorm on social media and beyond about decisions many consider to be dripping in favoritism towards players who came out of the Geno Auriemma’s Connecticut program; Auriemma served as head coach of the USA Basketball women’s national team until 2018, when Dawn Staley took over.
And now, with Sue Bird, 40, and Diana Taurasi, 39, chasing their fifth gold medals dating back to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, USA Basketball and the WNBA are eagerly pushing this narrative while choosing to gloss over the facts of: a) Bird’s and Taurasi’s beat-up, aging bodies and the liabilities they potentially pose for Team USA’s quest for a seventh consecutive gold medal and b) the players not named Bird and Taurasi who yet again have been edged out of an opportunity to represent the U.S. on the world stage.
The complaints are not just about age.
Sylvia Fowles, for example, is 35 and playing some of the best basketball of her career. While she physically is ready to compete for gold in Tokyo, she already has won three Olympic gold medals and her pursuit of a fourth denies another player the chance to pursue even one. It will be the third Olympic Games for Tina Charles (32). Breanna Stewart (26) and Brittney Griner (30) are in pursuit of their second Olympic gold medals to match their two World Cup victories. It will be the first Olympic Games for Jewell Loyd (27) and A’ja Wilson (24), who both helped Team USA win the FIBA World Cup in 2018. Stepping into international competition for the first time are Ariel Atkins (24), Napheesa Collier (24), Skylar Diggins-Smith (30) and Chelsea Gray (28).
But there is the equally-pertinent topic of injuries. Elena Delle Donne (31) helped the U.S. win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But offseason back surgery has kept her sidelined thus far in the 2021 season and she was not chosen for the Olympic team.
So, what about Nneka Ogwumike (31), a nine-year veteran who in the span of an illustrious career won a championship and was voted league MVP in 2016, made six All-Star appearances, was voted Rookie of the Year in 2012 after being drafted as the No. 1 overall pick, made the All-WNBA team four times (including one First Team designation in 2016) and has been a fixture in Olympic training camps, exhibition games and qualifying tournaments?
Ogwumike has been sidelined with a knee injury this WNBA season. By USA Basketball’s own standards, however, this fact alone should not exclude Ogwumike from the team, especially not when Ogwumike has tallied a 54-5 USA Basketball record that includes two FIBA World Cup gold medals (2014, 2018).
But what about her winning record is not good enough for USA Basketball and its selection committee?
USA BASKETBALL IS ‘FRAUDLENT AS HELL’
According to former player Devereaux Peters, USA Basketball and its selection committee have been “fraudulent as hell for eternity because of the BS they spew to players about the process.”
It makes total sense that Peters would go there considering the gauche manner in which Candace Parker was left off the team heading to the 2016 Rio Olympics. In 2018, Parker spoke out in an interview about the reasons USA Basketball’s decision was so hurtful.
Those reasons included:
- sacrificing her body by playing through injuries;
- missing time with her daughter to participate in USA Basketball activities on top of playing in the WNBA and for her Russian team during the WNBA offseason;
- being given no indication she would be cut from the team; and
- having her likeness used to promote Team USA even after she was cut.
As I posited in my prior reporting on Parker’s claims, was the public humiliation of seeing herself in promotions after being cut from the team a result of negligence or cruelty?
Why were these two greats skipped over? The only thing they have in common outside of their respective greatness is their longtime affiliation with the Sparks. Ogwumike played her whole career in LA and Parker, after 13 seasons, signed with the Chicago Sky during free agency in 2021. Parker and Ogwumike waited their turn for the chance to compete for the stars and stripes. They made sacrifices to train with Team USA and Ogwumike, especially, already has helped the team win twice at the second-biggest international basketball tournament.
The slighting of these two players is glaring. Yet, Staley, a winner of three Olympic gold medals as a player and two as an assistant coach, is pleased with the roster she’s taking to Tokyo.
“USA Basketball has never been in a better place,” she said in a USA Basketball press release announcing the roster.
She also is aware of the outrage from fans, media and WNBA players about USA Basketball’s choice to exclude Ogwumike (and others) while granting Bird and Taurasi what amounts to permanent placement on the team.
“I’m honored to be the coach of such an amazing collection of talented women, both those named to the team and those who gave their all the last few years but won’t be with us in Tokyo,” Staley said.
“The fact that some of the players who won’t suit up this summer would start for any other country is a testament to their talent and to what USA Basketball has done to build a program that lifts up our female athletes every single day,” she added. “I’m so proud to be the coach of Team USA and like all of the coaches, support staff, and our players, I can’t wait to make America proud this summer.”
Her words will be little consolation to Parker, who ended her involvement with USA Basketball following snub in 2016, and Ogwumike, who will be 35 when the next Olympics rolls around. And given that Ogwumike was skipped over for younger players from UConn (Collier, Stewart) — and that the team boasts five players from Auriemma’s program — Devereaux’s claims of bias hold significant weight.
The remaining seven players headed to Tokyo are from Texas (Atkins), Notre Dame (Loyd, Diggins-Smith), Louisiana State (Fowles), Duke (Gray), Baylor (Griner) and South Carolina (Wilson), where Staley also is head coach.
The USA Basketball Women’s National Team tips off its battle against the world on July 26. If successful, it will conclude its run on Aug. 8 at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, atop the gold medal stand. If unsuccessful, the committee and its blind loyalty to crumbling veterans and favoritism toward players from UConn will be to blame for Team USA’s failure to win a historic seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal. Either that, or the bad karma incurred from the committee’s mishandling of Parker, Ogwumike and likely others.
But there is still time for the committee to get things right and there is time for players who’ve won multiple gold medals already to step aside and literally share the wealth, and the limelight, and the notoriety and the sponsorship deals with players who also paid their dues, waited their turn and, thus far, have been denied even a crumb of the glory. Augustus exemplified through her retirement the capacity to cultivate humility, even in the realm of sports and competition.
The blueprint is there for anyone not willing to risk a comeuppance of epic proportion — before the eyes of the world, no less.