There will be no shows of undue kindness to their hosts when USA’s women face Great Britain in the most glamorous of friendlies in Manchester on July 18.
There is, Tamika Catchings declares, no room for easing off the accelerator if the American machine is to reach full speed before their Olympic title defence begins in London barely two weeks later.
Training camp, for the gold medallists of the last four Games, is short. Every minute and second on court together is priceless. This will be no mere exhibition, to use Stateside parlance.
“I go back to us staying focused,” Catchings states.
“So at the end of the day, because of the lack of time we actually have to train with each other, we have to focus on what we do have in the few games we have before we get to the Olympics.”
Retaining six of the players who won gold in Beijing and the majority of the line-up that qualified for London by claiming the world championship in the Czech Republic in 2010, will give the Americans some degree of compensation for preparations which will start after most of their presumed rivals.
The mission, the primary goal, is to still be playing when all but one foe has left the stage this summer. But the USA, unlike any other participant at the Olympics, carries a large florescent target on their backs.
Which is why they will not take Team GB lightly, regardless of how they fare in this weekend’s warm-ups against Australia, France and Angola in Sheffield. Nor, she says, should anyone else.
“I feel like it’s going to be a great game,” says Catchings. “Any time, even looking at the world championships, where you have your host country performing in the tournament, you automatically have that extra incentive.
“So they’ll be ready to play.”
The Indiana Fever forward always comes ready. The reigning WNBA MVP – who will hope to claim her third gold next month – has been a potent force ever since she left Tennessee to turn pro in 2001, remaining with her sole US club while spending time overseas in Poland, Russia and Turkey.
Part of that personal drive was fermented at home, growing up with a cluster of siblings who all wanted to shine and emerge from the shadow cast by their father Harvey, a veteran of several NBA campaigns.
“We were a very athletic family,” Catchings states. “There are five of us in total. I have an older sister and older brother, another older sister, then a younger brother. We all played sports. We earned respect in the gym playing basketball.
“I grew up as a little tomboy always wanted to be out there with the guys. My Dad would go: ‘you’re too young, you have to wait your turn.’ So when I grew up and go the chance to play with the big dogs, it was the turning point for me in what I wanted to do.”
She arrived just in time for the WNBA to shake off its own teething troubles, becoming part of that Generation Next for whom turning pro meant acquiring a passport and heading off into the far yonder.
Growing up in Illinois, she had dreams, big dreams. “When I was in seventh grade, I made it my goal to play in the NBA. I wanted to follow in my Dad’s footsteps. I knew there would be a lot of barriers but it was something I was determined to do.”
The women’s league provided a close alternative. “I didn’t have to play in the NBA. I had my own league. I had to be there. I went: ‘wow, this is an amazing opportunity.’”
If playing basketball was an obsession, it was also an outlet to fit in. Catchings was born with partial deafness, which in turn lead to speech problems as she went through school. It set her apart. Sport brought her back in. In the past, she wore hearing aids while playing. Now she finds other ways to compensate. A sixth sense, if you will.
“On the court, I feel I’m a more observant player,” she declares. “Going through a period of time not wearing a hearing aid, I became more conscious of my surroundings, always looking around, making sure if someone was talking to me I could see their lips and read them. And so that helped me on the court.
“If coaches are yelling, I can see what’s going on. Even on defence, I’m always looking around to see where players are cutting to see where someone else is finding the gap.”
Does that extend, I wonder, to occasionally not hearing a bawl from the bench?
“Yup,” she laughs. “My teammates always make fun of me when I go: ‘I really didn’t hear you.’ They say I’ve got selective hearing. And in some cases, I do.”
USA head coach Geno Auriemma will be wise to such ploys. He will hope there is little need to tweak and cajole a group that looks omnipotent.
If the Americans are not standing atop the podium in Greenwich at the Olympics’ end, it will be a major shock.
Some say their competition will not be as strong as in Beijing. Others claim the USA lack the star quality in depth of 2008.
That is an argument which is impossible to prove, Catchings correctly notes.
“You can’t compare each group. We look at the here and the now, and hopefully being able to be a part of one of the best USA teams ever.”
- Great Britain women play the USA at the Manchester Arena on July 18. For tickets visit www.ticketmaster.co.uk or call +44 (0)844 847 8000
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