By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

The 1996 U.S. Olympic women's basketball team was, in short, a machine. The numbers spoke for themselves: 60 games, 60 wins, one gold medal.

Team members like Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, and Nikki McCray became household names. Players from that group of 12 were able to help populate not one, but two women's professional baseball league, one of which has not only survived, but has become a model of growth in a crowded sports marketplace.

What makes Nell Fortner's job as coach for the 2000 Olympic Team so difficult is that much of the direction that women's basketball -- and women's sports -- takes in the 21st Century is tied to what she does as head coach. Too, Fortner will have a direct hand in the pro game, as she will take the head coaching position of the as-yet unnamed Indiana WNBA franchise in 2001.

Fortner has been focused on directing the members of the Olympic team pool in pre-Olympic competitions. All the while, one considerable shadow accompanies her: the shadow of 1996 coach Tara VanDerveer. The job that Tara VanDerveer did as Olympic coach for the Atlanta Games set a very, very high standard that is going to be almost impossible to match.

But Fortner feels that the 2000 Olympic team, as well as its coach, needs to be evaluated with the same standards as its 1996 counterpart. And Fortner does not plan to deviate from the winning strategies developed as VanDeveer's assistant coach in 1996.

"As a coach, it's an everyday thing, whether your team is working hard, doing well, and doing what is necessary to win," Fortner said. "I'm just going to continue, getting up every day, thinking about how to get better. That's a good method."

One thing that will make Fortner's job easier for the Olympic team is the new thinking at USA Basketball. The national governing body had realized that it would be impossible to train one national team with the existence of two professional leagues, necessitating the creation of an ongoing program to allow players from both the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the American Basketball League (ABL) to gain international experience.

The 1998 folding of the ABL did not affect the actual execution of the program, though some personnel changed. It was always assumed that national teams playing in the winter would be populated with WNBA personnel, and summer national-team duty would entail the use of ABL pros.

The 1999 Pan-American Games roster was bereft of its WNBA stars, leaving ex-ABLers like Michelle Marciniak (Nashville), Sylvia Crawley (Portland), and Katryna Gaither (San Jose), alongside a young group of free agents and college stars to compete against full national squads in Winnipeg. Team USA finished third in that outing.

"Now, I can feel 2000 heating up," Fortner said. "I've been waiting for this moment for more than two years, and I look forward to the opportunity to train for the six months leading up to the WNBA season."

Over this time, the 2000 Olympic team will not have the same preparation from which its 1996 counterpart benefitted. It is believed that there will be only about 30 to 35 games that Team USA will play in the run-up to Sydney. The rest of the players' physical training will occur during the WNBA season.

"We'll make it work," Fortner said. "We like the opportunity to train for the extended period that we'll have, and we'll be ready. We'll be in good shape."

In August 1999, the first 10 players in the national-team program were chosen. All were WNBA luminaries such as Leslie (Los Angeles), Chamique Holdsclaw (Washington), and Cynthia Cooper (Houston). This core group is expected to make up the bulk of the 2000 Olympic team, though there are at least two players who can be added to the pool, depending on injuries, illness, or the needs of the team. These needs will depend on the styles of play of rivals like Russia, Yugoslavia, China, and host Australia.

If the United States needs more height, for example, it may have to call on the likes of Lobo (New York), Kara Wolters (Houston), or either one of the Gillingham sisters for the last two roster spots. If the team needs extra scoring, Swoopes (Houston) may be called back into the national-team picture along with Jennifer Azzi (Detroit). And do not be surprised if a college player like Semeka Randall (Tennessee) is considered.

The final roster is to be announced shortly after the start of the 2000 WNBA season, after three months of training in which two international tours and one domestic tour is made.