When Team USA entered Saitama Super Arena one last time to accept its gold medal following a 90-75 victory over host country Japan, the players carried a lot on their shoulders before receiving an impenetrable badge of honor, their gold medal, on their necks. To be exact, this group of 12 carried the weight of a 54-game win streak and the pressure leading up to finally taking that seventh straight gold medal.
When the clock ticked down during the final minutes of the fourth quarter, color commentator Kara Lawson said this victory would be not relief, but rather pure joy. Tears of both joy and relief streamed down now three-time gold medalist Tina Charles' face. The strife and the pressure had finally reached its end.
Jackie Powell @ClassicJpow
Watching Tina Charles’ tears literally rain down her face underneath her mask was something truly beautiful. I bet this is an emotional moment for the entire team. There’s always so much pressure on their backs each #Olympics. The vulnerability here is beyond moving. https://t.co/TFBAVPH6hW
"Well, what could you say, 20 years of sacrifice of putting everything aside and just wanting to win," Diana Taurasi said following the victory. "You know, it's never easy playing on this team. The pressure. But this group found a way to win, and I'm just happy this group got to enjoy it."
But let's flash forward three years. The 2024 Olympics in Paris will present a new set of challenges for USA Basketball. It could be the first Olympic Games in 20 years without Sue Bird and Taurasi (although after the win against Japan, Taurasi joked: "See you in Paris").
The U.S. women's national team leaves Tokyo with a gold medal, but there's an uncertain feeling of what the future holds for the landscape of international women's basketball. How quickly is the rest of the world catching up to the dominance of the United States and what's different about the next generation of players that could accelerate the gap? Also, what does USA Basketball need post-Bird and Taurasi to continue the program and culture that the two future Hall of Famers built?
During the gold-medal game Sunday local time, Saturday night in the States., Lawson was asked about the quality of play that teams besides the U.S. were able to exude and how the level of talent around the world is rapidly expanding.
"It goes back to when we were doing the games in pool play and you said to me, 'Hey, you know, who can challenge us or who are metal contenders, and I felt like I almost named the whole tournament," she said in response to play-by-play announcer Bob Fitzgerald.
Baylor head coach Nicki Collen has watched Team USA throughout these Games, and she noticed the United States wasn't dominating opponents as expected. It's clear to her that the future of the women's national team is in the hands of a younger frontcourt rather than the backcourt, but a basketball team can't thrive on the shoulders of a dominant frontcourt.
"We're starting to see that Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson might be the future, but I don't know if we know who the guards are [for the future] of USA Basketball," she told B/R.
Jewell Loyd averaged 20.5 minutes coming off the bench in the Tokyo Games, but she's most comfortable and effective playing the 2-guard. More natural combo guards Chelsea Gray and Skylar Diggins-Smith have averaged less playing time. Gray played 17.8 minutes per game, and Diggins-Smith, who battled an injury in the game against Japan, has played even less, at three minutes per game. Ariel Atkins, who was added to the USA roster for her three-and-D style of play, averaged 6.7 minutes per contest in Tokyo.
For the 25-year-old Atkins, the youngest of the newer guard crop, she and versatile small forward Napheesa Collier have unofficially been designated to wait their turn. Unlike in the 2004 Games, when it was known that Bird would succeed a 34-year-old Dawn Staley, Bird and Taurasi's obvious successors haven't fully been established.
Collen noticed the potential vulnerabilities for Team USA were exposed in how some of the younger, quicker guards such as Rui Machida and Marine Johannes of Japan and France, respectively, charged through the lane and permeated a frontcourt that has slower rim protectors in Brittney Griner and Sylvia Fowles.
These quicker international guards took advantage of slower post players because of how the USA backcourt of 40-year-old Bird and 39-year-old Taurasi struggled to contain their defensive assignments. That's why any team that played a five- or four-out system like Japan could execute against Team USA.
"If those guys on the perimeter can't contain theirs, and then you get your bigs, who are now being stretched out of the lane because they're guarding players who can shoot it a little better, now it's further for them to help," Collen said. "And now if they do get there in time to help and they do a good job moving the basketball, they kick it, make an extra [pass], and you're going to get threes against the United States."
While the USA proved to be successful against Japan twice mainly because of a discrepancy in size, Collen cites Belgium and China as two programs that have dedicated to development and training together to build the chemistry necessary for a deep Olympic run. Coming off a strong third-place finish in the 2021 EuroBasket Championships, the Belgian Cats will need to continue to develop their role players around their two WNBAers in power forward Emma Meesseman and young, dynamic point guard in Julie Allemand, 25.
The Chinese have a program similar to USAB that "wants them to be the best in the world." That culture and level of expectation is simultaneously developing alongside their talent. China remains dangerous, not only because of height and length, but also age. Its most coveted prospects, Han Xu and Yueru Li, are both under 23 years old and over 6'6".
Other teams might reap the benefits of the United States' talent pool, which only continues to grow and saturate the international stage. Gabby Williams, a 24-year-old guard-forward for the L.A. Sparks, won't play in the WNBA this season because of her French national team commitments. Williams took herself out of the USA pool to dedicate herself to the French national team as its one naturalized citizen.
Elizabeth Williams and Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike attempted to play for Team Nigeria in this Olympic cycle and will continue to pursue joining the D'Tigress in future international competition. It's not hard to imagine future players rescinding their rights from USAB in similar fashion.
And Collen agrees that in the future, this might happen not only sooner but also more frequently. This is becoming par for the course, where players are motivated by experiences like the Olympics.
"I think you can say generationally, players are way less willing to wait their turn," she said.
"If they hit a point very early on where they feel like, 'Man, I'm never gonna make this team,' which sometimes is really obvious, it might be position-based. They may be position- and age-based; there may be a lot of reasons that you realize it sooner. But I just think there could be a moment where people just say, 'You know what, I'm going to step outside the norm and I'm going to do this sooner.'"
WNBA MVP hopeful and Bosnia and Herzegovina team member Jonquel Jones recently declared that she has set her sights on the Olympics; her team, which finished fifth in EuroBasket, could be aiming for Olympic qualification for Paris 2024.
But amid these potential shifts in the international landscape of women's basketball, for now the world is still playing for silver. When Collen watched the United States take on Nigeria, Japan, Australia, France and Serbia, she could still see the routine fluctuation of confidence. Even if the opponent played hard for a quarter or two, once the Americans went on their run, the mental fortitude of the opponent faltered. Moving forward, if teams are going to have a shot at beating the United States, they'll have to believe it and reject the notion that they are just playing for second place.
Where did this idea of it being easy for the USA women to win gold even come from? And where did that USA swagger originate anyway? That was the culture that head coach Dawn Staley, Bird and Taurasi have all built.
After the game, Staley announced this would be her last Olympics. In addition to Loyd, Gray and Diggins-Smith, Arike Ogunbowale and Sabrina Ionescu could emerge as key cogs in the USA machine. But, Team USA's culture is one that demands that each player put the name on the front of their chest before the name on the back.
And since 1996, the women's team has consistently upheld that standard, making sure that the best of the best suit up for Team USA, something that isn't always a consistent expectation on the men's side. "I just think the world knows, you know, we have the best players, and they always want to play," Collen observed.
But that doesn't mean the United States doesn't know about the developing international talent around it. Another component of Team USA's culture, in addition to its level of focus and preparation, is its respect for the rest of the world and how it plays the game.
"And I think that's the core piece to why this team has had success is they understand how talented they are," said Lawson, who won a gold with USA in 2008. "But they have a great deal of respect for everyone that they play. ... Diana Taurasi talked about in her postgame interview after she talked about 20 years of focusing and how much time it takes and how much sacrifice it takes to be at this level."
But now with the team potentially becoming Wilson and Stewart's, they will have to help mold the next generation of guards and impart on them the standards Bird and Taurasi upheld for almost 20 years.
As Lawson said, it's a commitment "that's not for the meek."