Normally at this point of the WNBA season, teams would be taking a five-day break for the All-Star game, allowing many athletes to recharge their batteries and gear for the second half of the year, and possible playoff pushes.
But this is an Olympic year, and for the fifth time in the league’s 20-year history, they will take a month-long hiatus to allow some players to represent the United States at the Games. Until Aug. 26, when play resumes, WNBA arenas are empty.
The WNBA and the NHL are both unique in this regard, in that they are the only professional sports leagues who pause for the Olympic games, whether that be in the Summer or Winter. The NBA is in its off-season, while baseball and football are not Olympic events.
However, instead of frowning upon their situation, WNBA coaches and players have chosen to embrace it. Those not participating in the Games use the break not only to rest, but to conduct a second training camp of sorts.
Chicago Sky head coach and General Manager Pokey Chatman said the next few weeks is an opportunity for her team to improve, both as a team and as individuals.
“It’s a month break for the league, but not the teams”, Chatman said. “There’s still work to do. I think it’s a really good time, as individuals, to get better. We don’t always have time for individual development during the season and that’s how you benefit from it.”
With the youngest team in the league, and with no Olympians, Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller relishes the extra practice time. He said he is excited about the way his team has picked up their play the last few weeks after a slow start.
“After a little bit of a break we’ll start working on our fundamentals,” Miller said. “The hardest thing about the WNBA is finding time to practice, and finding the balance between rest and practice. So we’ll treat it like training camp, and we’ll get back to fundamentals, work on some things that we need to work on. With such a young team I think that’s important.”
The Sun, Mystics, Wings, Stars and Sparks aren’t sending any athletes to the Olympics, and will remain intact in coming weeks. Other teams will be missing key players.
The Minnesota Lynx will send four players to Rio de Janeiro, with Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles, Lindsay Whalen, and Maya Moore all suiting up for Team USA coach Geno Auriemma. Not to mention Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve is an assistant coach for Auriemma, which will leave assistant coaches Shelley Patterson and Jim Petersen in charge in Minneapolis.
Fowles said she is excited that Reeve is on the Olympic coaching staff.
“It’s different but I’m looking forward to seeing her in that red, white and blue instead of these Lynx colors,” Fowles said. “Hopefully not too much will be changing when we get out there.”
Auriemma is well-aware that players are coming in with half of a season still to play.
“Believe me, the players have let me know in their own way that, hey, you know, we’re playing, and you need to take that into consideration”, he said. “Hint-hint, meaning how about we just don’t practice and we just go play in the games”.
Auriemma said he will work with athletes.
“We’re going to find a way, like we always do, of managing whatever it is that the players are dealing with, and I’m sure that everybody has got some (injury) that’s nagging,” he said. “But once they get with us and once the practices begin and once the games begin, all that has a habit of going away.”
For Olympic team members it is not their second season, but their third, as most go overseas to play in the winter. These opportunities can afford a player nearly six times their WNBA salary, with the downside being a grueling year-round schedule.
Yet for these players, the decision to play in the Olympics and represent the United States is a no-brainer because they are representing their country.
“It’s so hard to even put it into words”, Sky forward Elena Delle Donne said. “(Being selected) was emotional. Just to think this entire basketball journey I’ve been on has been absolutely incredible, but this has been by far the pinnacle of my career and the best news I’ve ever heard. It’s absolutely a dream come true. I’ve just been soaking it up, and it’s amazing and a humbling experience as well, with how special and talented this pool of players is.”
Team USA members came of age during the historic women’s basketball gold medal run at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The 1996 team still holds many Olympic records to this day, and they helped inspire the formation of the WNBA.
Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings was a member of the 1996 USA Women’s Junior World Championship Qualifying Team, and said that that year’s Olympic squad inspired her to elevate her game. This year Catchings will play in her fourth Olympics, and will retire at the end of the season as one of the league’s greats.
“It’s absolutely amazing and definitely an honor to be able to represent the USA one last time”, Catchings said. “Especially knowing from the beginning, where I started on the junior team, and my goal of being an Olympian. Now here I am with the opportunity of being on a fourth Olympic team. I definitely would never have dreamed that, but it is definitely so rewarding, and I’m just honored. I truly am honored.”
Catchings said being an Olympic team member carries much responsibility.
“Being professional, representing the USA, the way we carry ourselves and the way we act, every single thing about us plays into, whether we’re with the USA team or whether we are with our own WNBA teams or overseas or whatever the case may be, I’ve always told our Olympians and I’ve always told our players, once you’re on this Olympic team you represent the USA no matter where you are,” Catchings said.
Besides her record-setting play in the WNBA, the Olympics are part of Catchings’ legacy.
“For me when I walk away, the way that I played and the way that I worked with every single player who’s come through that USA Basketball family, I just want to be known as a great leader as far as caring about everybody and doing what I’m supposed to do on the court and off the court as well,” Catchings said.
Team USA will scrimmage against the USA Select Team on Monday July 25 before playing an exhibition versus France two days later. Their first contest in Rio pits them against Senegal Sunday, Aug. 7 from the Deodoro Youth Arena.