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U.S. women’s basketball will face challenges to its run of Olympic dominance

The U.S. women's basketball team.
The U.S. women’s basketball team will be going for its 50th consecutive victory at the Olympics on Tuesday when it plays Nigeria.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

You can find the history in the details, the design stitched into the collars on their red uniforms, the six stars cascading down each side of the U.S. women’s basketball jerseys.

It’s an homage to the 12 players on the team in 1996 — and the U.S. response to bronze in the previous Games — when women who would become icons in their sport recaptured gold. Lisa Leslie. Rebecca Lobo. Sheryl Swoopes. Dawn Staley.

Since losing in the quarterfinals of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the U.S. women have dominated. Forty-nine times, they’ve taken the court as Olympians. Forty-nine times, they’ve left as winners.

While the world’s biggest sporting event is being carried out before empty seats, elsewhere in Tokyo, enthusiastic fans are enjoying live sporting events.

Tuesday when they try to win their 50th straight, they’ll do so with a pair of players set to one day have their legacies sewn onto the uniforms of future generations. For the fifth time, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, two of women’s basketball’s most recognizable ambassadors, will try to win gold.

And pulling it off seems like it’ll be harder than ever.

The U.S. women enter Olympic play on a two-game losing streak, having been beaten in exhibitions by a group of WNBA All-Stars and the Australian national team.

“This isn’t rocket science,” said Staley, now the national team coach. “You have to give the players space to be great and make plays, and not get in the way — but also get in the way when it’s time for you as coach to make decisions out there on the floor.”

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While Bird, who was a flag bearer for the U.S., is still a key piece, the U.S. is led by center Britney Griner and reigning WNBA most valuable player A’ja Wilson. The team’s size and depth are its most pronounced strengths.

Just as the U.S. men’s dominance with an iconic group spawned the global growth of the game, so did the ’96 women. Their gold helped propel the WNBA during its inaugural season, and this year women from the WNBA are on eight of the 12 teams in the tournament.

And just like in the men’s competition, Australia could be the biggest obstacle.

“What makes Australia so tough is the fact that they’re a team that’s super-disciplined, they have so much chemistry, they’ve been playing with one another for a while. And obviously their skill set,” forward Breanna Stewart said. “So, we have a ton of respect for Australia. It was great to match up with them before we got to Tokyo and hopefully if all goes well on both sides, we’ll match up with them later on. I’m sure we’re going to see them.”

The past legacies of the U.S. women’s team won’t help; it’s just detailing on a uniform. To cap Bird’s and Taurasi’s international careers, this team will have to create its own story.


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