Ahead of the FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Antwerp, Belgium, the United States women’s basketball team held a training camp in New York City.
Eighteen players varying from veterans like Diana Taurasi to the younger generation of Sabrina Ionescu were invited to the camp, but only twelve will make it to Belgium. Before the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, one more camp will be held in Cleveland.
“We are having discussions about the next camp we’re hosting in April,” said USA Basketball Women’s National Team committee chair Jennifer Rizzotti. “There’s definitely been some consideration about inviting some college kids to that camp.”
It would not be the first time NCAA players made the roster. Stars like Taurasi and Breanna Stewart made their debuts while still playing for UConn.
“If I look back to 2014 when I was in college and my first time with USA basketball I was kind of like ‘Whoa!’” Stewart said. “I think it’s a little bit interesting because it’s going to be very close leading up to the Olympics. But of course, they should be sprinkled in and integrated and help get them ready for the WNBA.
For the first time since 2004, point guard Sue Bird won’t be in the Olympic roster. Bird, who retired in 2022, won five consecutive Olympic gold medals with her team.
Despite no longer having her on the team, head coach Cheryl Reeve is confident in her remaining point and shooting guards.
“I think (the perimeter play) is certainly strong,” Reeve said. “It’s coming on the back of some of the all time greats, so life after these players, it can be a challenge. Obviously Chelsea Gray is a hell of a basketball player, but nobody is Sue Bird and that’s okay. We can look different and still find success. That’s been sort of the name of the game with this team.”
Reeve said sometimes a team has to remake itself, and that’s what she’s working on with her players.
“We don’t look like what we did in Tokyo, or even in Rio when Geno (Auriemma) was coaching, or even in London in 2012,” Reeve said. “And that’s the fun of it.”
Guard Diana Taurasi, now 41 years old, joined Bird in the 2004 Athens Olympics roster, and is still with the team. That same year, she was the number one pick in the WNBA draft.
“(Taurasi) is still with this team trying to go for a six gold medal and making sure we can just put all the pieces together,” Stewart said. “The goal in itself and every time we come to USA Basketball is to win a gold medal and play as best as we can.”
In addition to Taurasi and Stewart, nine other former Olympians were invited to the training camp, but some possible first-timers are also in New York trying to find a spot on the final roster.
Sabrina Ionescu, Alyssa Thomas, Kahleah Copper and Betnijah Laney joined some of the team veterans in the FIBA World Cup in 2022, and some like Aliyah Boston, Arike Ogunbowale and Rhyne Howard have yet to make a major tournament appearance, but have previous USA Basketball experience.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for everyone,” Stewart said. “I will say that in the World Cup, we kind of had already been going through this transition in the changing of the guards, specifically because we had a lot of people that hadn’t had much USA Basketball experience on the national team level and now those players have more experience their belt, they’re still back again and just realizing that obviously expectation are always high.”
Las Vegas Aces back-to-back WNBA Championship winning trio Kelsey Plum, A’ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray also joined the camp while working to get ready for the upcoming season. Gray missed game four of the WNBA finals after suffering a left foot injury on game three.
“I’m feeling good,” Gray said. “I’m in rehab and recovery but getting back and trying to get back on the court to do five on five, I’m doing all the half court stuff. Just going to rehab everyday trying to get back full throttle. So that’s how my offseason has been, just trying to get as healthy as possible before (the) season starts.”
Team USA will be looking to get its eight consecutive Olympic gold medals in the Summer, but despite being dominant in international competitions, the team doesn’t get as much recognition.
“We’re playing on the biggest platform in the world and we’re still asking people to give us attention,” Wilson said. “That just sounds crazy to me. But I feel like the product is there, the talent is there. It’s just the same thing where they’re like ‘How can we grow the (WNBA)?’ Just watch it and I guarantee you’ll be blown away. A lot of people may not watch WNBA basketball, but when it comes to the Olympics, I feel like they watch us.”
Gray said the lack of support and viewership is a societal issue that bleeds into the sport. The most unprotected person in the United States is a Black woman, and in 2022 Black and African American women made up 70 percent of the WNBA.
“Invest in us and pour into us,” Wilson said. “Not just for necessarily the week before the Olympics or Black History Month or whenever. Overall throughout the course of the year in our lives, having ally ships, people that are in those rooms, speak about it and it’s not taboo. It’s not like ‘Oh let’s just start talking about Black people’ no like it’s real. It’s a part of it. It’s our sport. We live it every single day, so how can we continue to invest and lift up each other?”
The national team will face hosts Belgium on Feb. 8, followed by Nigeria and Senegal on Feb. 9 and 11.