Playing point guard for Team USA? Dream come true for a pass-first PG. Or even a gunner, who looks to get their shot off. So many options. So many players to pass to or to command double-teams. So many shots to be taken.
The Americans have adopted a pace-and-space offense, where passing and getting into the lane is at a premium. Geno Auriemma emphasizes using all of the offensive weapons of mass destruction at his disposal.
For as dominant as the American men have been, the women are chasing their sixth consecutive Gold medal at the Rio Olympics. The team that started the streak was the ’96 group. Lisa Leslie, Teresa Edwards, Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo. That’s some fire power.
The woman in charge of making sure all those superstars were happy was Dawn Staley. Staley, at 5-5 (that’s generous), from North Philadelphia, was a floor general of the highest order. She was loud and competitive. She used her blinding quickness to blitz defenses with passes they had no hope of stopping. She also had no fear, whether it was time to take a hit when she went into the lane or take a big shot when the game was on the line.
While she was at the University of Virginia, she began to stack up a staggering list of accomplishments. She was the two-time National Player of the Year and got the Cavs to three Final Fours. Once she got to the American Basketball League, she led Richmond Rage to the finals in her rookie year.
In 1999 she joined the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting and by 2001, they were in the finals. She wrapped up her career in the W with five All-Star selections in eight years. She was also elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013 and won three Olympic Golds as a player.
Yet again Staley is the future of the National Team, the most likely successor for Auriemma. She’s on the bench this time and is helping to guide the team’s point guards, Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen, in the right direction. Not that they need the help.
“With Sue and Lindsay, they really understand what’s going on,” Coach Staley says. “They have a really good feel for the game. They’ve been around for a long time. They’re really experienced. It’s more of letting them do their thing.”
It’s a stark difference for Staley, who had a reputation as a no-nonsense leader, managing every part of the game. She’s evolved from the best point guard in the country to one of the best young coaches. Pretty good considering she didn’t even wanna sit on the bench.
“I never wanted to be a coach. Ever,” Staley says. “Maybe because some of my coaching friends, they were consumed by it. Every other word, every other sentence was about their team. I know I sound just like that to my friends.
“But this is what I’m supposed to do,” Coach continues. “Basketball and coaching and giving back to the game is a fabric of my life. I owe basketball a debt that I won’t ever be able to repay. But through coaching, through mentoring, I think hopefully I’m giving back in a way that basketball is proud of what I’m doing.”
On the court, for Team USA, whatever she’s giving back to Bird and Whalen is working. Whalen consistently pounds opposing defenses with countless drives to the rim, looking to finish over the top of overmatched international bigs.
“I’ve been getting in there, getting some shots up,” Whalen says. “Looking for the open player when they’re there but one of my jobs is to be aggressive and get in the lane.”
“You’re here for a reason, you’re here to do what you do,” Whalen says. Even though the Minnesota native is third all-time in WNBA assists, she’s best when she puts her head down. Much like her three favorite point guards, Kevin Johnson, John Stockton and Gary Payton, she has the ability to her team involved but also gets to the tin at will.
Now in her second Olympics, Whalen isn’t looking to change up her game all that much just because of that extra scoring punch she has around her.
Coach Staley says she more than happy with how her point guards played during the team’s pre-Rio exhibition tour. The best part of Team USA is that there’s room for different types of playing styles, as long as the team is winning. Which looks to be a foregone conclusion for the women.
Ever the leader, though, Coach Staley drops one more nugget of knowledge. Maybe she picked it up in Philly, or Virginia or with the National Team or with the team she’s currently coaching, the University of South Carolina.
“As a point guard,” she says, “sometimes it’s better to be an observer and a listener, rather than always interjecting.”