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On a Tuesday in late October, Tara VanDerveer stared impassively out a hotel window at the Georgia Dome. In the drab autumn light, the building appeared almost menacingly impersonala white, oval-shaped structure made of mostly concrete and glittering glass with a white circus-tent top that rose to a girdered point in the middlea grand-scale postmodern cupcake set down in the center of Atlanta. This was where, nine months from then, the final games of the Olympics would be played. For VanDerveer it was where the full pressure of her life as a coach would come to bear, where she and her team would distinguish themselves either as winners or losers.
After dominating the international game in the eighties, the American women, and their gamean exuberant run-and-gun brand of basketballhad been ransacked by the competition, chewed up by the Chinese and the Russians and even the Australians in the last few years. Losing to Brazil in the semifinals at the 1994 World Championships in Sydney hurt perhaps the worst. The next day, when Brazil beat China to win the gold medal, the Brazilian players had all but rioted on the bus back to the hotel, dancing and singing and hanging out the windows. Eventually the women had worked themselves into such a frenzy that when somebody produced a pair of scissors, taking turns, egged on by chants of "Vivß Brasil!," they'd gleefully chopped off the hair of their male coach. Unfortunately, as it was common for teams to share transportation at international tournaments, the Americans had been on that same bus, having won the bronze medal game earlier that evening. VanDerveer remembered sitting up front, her back to her own team, all of them muted and glum in the twilight as the new world champions carried on boisterously behind them.
She did not want to lose again.
Though USA Basketball paid only for basic hotel rooms, the PR people at the Westin Hotel had put VanDerveer in the Presidential Suite for no charge, a two-story affair complete with spiral staircase, a baby grand piano, and a whirlpool. "I could have a party in there," she joked with the players, something that was funny only because they understood that VanDerveer was as equally ill at ease at parties as she was surrounded by opulence. In the suite she unpacked her things and kept them piled neatly in one corner, spreading only her paperwork out over the sleek coffee table in the living room. The whirlpool went unused.
For her, the highlight of the $1,450-a-night accommodations was the view from the 69th floor, looking out over Atlanta's downtown sprawl and toward the Georgia Dome, which from above looked flat and utterly conquerable. A lover of symbols and portents, VanDerveer was making a point to glance over at the Dome every chance she got during the team's stopover in Atlanta. On her morning runs with the team's administrative director, she jogged a slow circle around it, trying to view it from every angle, squinting at it front and back. In their several days there she would try to see the building in every light, gilded in the morning, milky and ominous against the nighttime streetlights, as if trying to establish herself in relation to it, as if to assert that whatever the Georgia Dome came to represent in her life, it would never catch her by surprise.
Training camp had ended a week earlier with a series of short scrimmages against teams from South Korea and Ukraine, which the U.S. Olympic Committee had imported to Colorado Springs for ten days. VanDerveer had given the players a few days off, then they'd kicked off the road tour with little fanfare, meeting up in Cincinnati to play Athletes in Action, a women's team fielded by a Christian organization. In a high school gym before a small but enthused crowd, the national team had won the game 83-57. Still, they played sloppy, lackluster basketball with too many turnovers and too many forced shots. It had been, to VanDerveer's mind, a terrible start, one that confirmed her worst insecurities. Her team seemed unsynchronized, too lax on defense, and more troubling, too weak in the middle. Lisa Leslie was getting pushed around. What VanDerveer needed was some heft underneath, a banger.
Now in Georgia, she wanted them to see the Dome. She wanted to plant a seed: It could happen here.
With the Georgia Tech football season in full swing, the floor of the stadium was padded with thick grass and striped with yellow and white yard lines. The smell of stale beer hung faintly in the air, and 36,000 empty seats rose up around them. As they filed onto the field, joking with each other, their voices seemed to float rather than echo as they would on a basketball court. The moment felt distinctly uninspired: They were a bunch of women standing around a football field.
VanDerveer gathered them together then and asked them to imagine a court and two nets and a game that unfolded flawlessly. Could they hear the crowd? How did the floor feel beneath their feet? Soon, transfixed, they were running the fast break seamlessly, hawking the ball on defense until their defense became an offense, wrenching down rebounds, looping full-court passes on the break. They imagined the red-lit numbers on the scoreboard ticking upward in their favor, the Brazilians or Russians or Chinese, whoever, frozen like pillars in their wake. The cheering of 30,000 fans rose up and crashed over them.
When they focused again, they saw only a short woman with a blunt haircut and a far-off expression, Tara VanDerveer on the 60-yard line. Marching them to some imagined midcourt line, she dug two objects out of her pocketglinting and unfamiliar, discs too big to be a silver dollar and the wrong color too. She'd borrowed two gold medals from Teresa, from 1984 and 1988. The medals were heavier than most of the women had imagined, a quarter-inch of solid gold on a satin ribbon. As they took turns hanging the medals around their necks, VanDerveer had them pose individually for a photothe athlete, the medal, and the Georgia Domea reminder for when they doubted themselves or each other or her at points along the way, about what this was all for.
They would carry these photos, plus another close-up of the medal alone, taped to a page in the notebooks they brought with them everywhere, simple black ring binders that would soon swell with flight schedules and hotel names and media obligations and page after page of VanDerveer's diagrammed plays.
It was going to be a long haul. This was something that VanDerveer seemed to understand more than anyone else. Less than a week into the tour, newspapers across the country were using phrases like "best in the world" and "women's Dream Team" to describe her players. The attention was good, but the optimism, the kind generated so glibly and so often by a national media quick to find heroes before actual battle, was dangerous; it could steamroll them if they weren't careful. The media would try to fit them into so many boxes, pumping out as-yet-unearned superlatives as the team jumped from city to city. They were beautiful (a new definition of American beauty!), they were all about togetherness (blacks and whites in a perfect microcosm of American racial harmony!), they had manners and humility and a deep-seated respect for the opportunity now afforded them (the antithesis of the NBA crybabies and buffoons!) and most significantly, they were going to win it all.
For her part, VanDerveer would discourage the hype as much as she could. It was one thing to appreciate the way her team played, what good people her players were, but it was quite another to predict victory nine months in advance. The reality was that China had a six-foot-eight center who hit eighty percent of her shots; that Russia had big, hungry players who were six nine and six seven; and the Brazilian team was full of fiery veterans who could pass the ball in their sleep. And all of them, she couldn't help reminding herselfno, obsessing onhad thumped the Americans at one time or another in the last five years.
Later, talking with an Atlanta reporter at the hotel, with the Dome looming again in the distance, she tried to be realistic. "There's a misconception out there that because we invented the game of basketball, it's a U.S. right to claim the medal," she said. When she gave interviews she rarely smiled, but she did give the most honest answers she could. She wanted the press to understand. "In order to win that gold medal in that building right over there, on August fourth at about two o'clock in the afternoon," she said, eyeing the Dome, drawing her breath in lightly, "we have a tremendous amount of work ahead."