Superpower Showdown?

By John McGrath
Updated: August 20, 2008

BEIJING — She’s made a trek to the Great Wall, and has seen Usain Bolt win the Great Race, and cheered on her “Redeem Team” compatriots.

It’s been a fun three weeks for Sue Bird, on leave from the Seattle Storm in an attempt to help the USA win its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in women’s basketball.

But now it gets serious. The Russians are coming.

No matter that a 20-year thawing of cold war tensions, along with a breakup of the Soviet empire, has turned the ultimate collision-course rivalry into just a couple of teams that don’t like each other.

The American women won their five preliminary round games by an average of 43 points. Then on Tuesday, facing a South Korean team ranked seventh in the world, they won by 44.

Team USA needs an opponent to remind it that nothing’s supposed to be as easy as Anne Donovan’s team has made it look. The Russian Federation, which two years ago stunned the USA by winning in the semifinals of the world championships, figures to be game for the task.

Down 21-10 to Spain in the second quarterfinal at Olympic Basketball Gymnasium, Russia went on the kind of run after halftime that should discourage any inclination the Americans might have toward overconfidence.

Virtually half the players on the USA Olympic team can share their experience of losing to the Russians. And the other half, Bird figures, probably watched on TV.

“We always know every team has a bull’s-eye on us,” Bird said a few minutes after the Americans beat Korea, 104-60. “I don’t know how many games Russia lost in that 2006 tournament, but it didn’t matter. That made beating us their souvenir. It didn’t even matter to them that they came in second.

“They beat us, and that was it. We knew that. But to actually experience it — to hear the entire gym, including the Australian players in the stands, cheer for Russia — to actually experience that is different than knowing it, or being aware of it.”

It’s indicative of the Americans’ appetite for Russia that few players on Tuesday even mentioned the possibility of facing Spain, which took an early lead over Russia in the quarterfinal game and briefly appeared to be the more likely opponent for the U.S.

Then the Russians asserted their physical advantage, and before long the hottest rivalry of a cold war none of Donovan’s players can remember was bracing for a turn-back-the-clock renewal.

As if the stakes weren’t already intriguing enough, Bird’s friend Becky Hammon recently signed up to play for the Russian Olympic team. Not invited to participate in the U.S. selection process, Hammon decided to play with the Russians (she plays for a Russian team during the WNBA offseason).

She had a big night offensively Tuesday against Spain, finishing with 17 points. But what’s that worth?

“We know she’s gonna be there, you guys know she’s gonna be there. She’s playing for Russia now. Just like the rest of this team, that makes her the enemy,” Bird said.

“This is a friend of mine. But when we step on the court, and she’s got the Russian colors on like the rest of ‘em …We go to war.”

Donavan, the USA coach who used to call the shots for the Seattle Storm, has been equally uncompromising of Hammon.

“If you play in this country, live in this country and you grew up in the heartland — and you put on a Russian uniform — you are not patriotic person, in my mind,” Donovan recently said.

Patriotic? Unpatriotic? The distinctions blur.

“To be honest with you, when I look over there, I see Russia on 12 players’ jerseys,” U.S. guard Kara Larson said. “When the ball goes up, we’re playing Russia. I don’t worry about the names or numbers … because it’s a chance for us to advance to a gold-medal game. We’re two wins away.”