April 5, 2024 

Sights and sounds: USA Basketball holds minicamp in Cleveland

Kelsey Plum: 'It's like the pinnacle for an athlete ... to be one of the 12 representing the team'

CLEVELAND — Following day three of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team training camp from the Cleveland Clinic Courts, players and members of the coaching staff threw dollar bills into makeshift collection bowl held together by guard Chelsea Gray. Gray placed the bills at center court before each player on the 14-athlete training camp roster attempted a half court shot for all the winnings. In the end, A’ja Wilson banked her shot and immediately ran jubilantly around the practice court in celebration, quickly followed by Las Vegas Aces teammates Gray and Kelsey Plum.

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“The last couple days I think was a lot of fun … anytime we get to come here, we know that we’re doing something bigger than ourselves,” Breanna Stewart told reporters following practice.

(Video credit: Gigi Speer/The Next)

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The levity of the final moments of practice was balanced out by a sense of business and mission. This camp marks the final time that players will be together for training camp before the Olympics begins this summer in Paris. The camp was also the last opportunity for players to make their case for selection on the exclusive 12-person roster.

“It’s a grind but it’s cool to finish the process and now it’s on the committee,” Kelsey Plum told reporters.

Plum won gold on the 3×3 team in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and having a chance to again represent the USA — this time on the 5×5 team — is something she’s worked and wished for her entire career.

“Oh my gosh, [it] would be a dream — it’s a bucket list thing,” Plum said. “It’s like the pinnacle for an athlete, especially playing basketball for United States. In the Olympics, to be one of the 12 representing the team is — I can’t like put into words what that would mean.”

Stars old and new

The past, present and future of USA Basketball were on display during Friday’s open practice. The team’s elder stateswoman, Diana Taurasi, seeks an opportunity to clinch a sixth gold medal. Taurasi started her journey with the national team fresh out of college in 2004, and to this day she still remembers her first training camp.

“I try to treat every single one like my first one. I tried to just think back on when I was 19. My first camp was in Denver coming out of college, with the national team and I just kind of always sort of think back like it’s an honor to be here and you never take it for granted,” Taurasi told reporters.

As for her “welcome to the national team” moment?

“We [were] doing a shooting drill and [former WNBA player] Katie Smith says, ‘I think I want your shorts because they’re a little bit bigger than mine.’ Well, what do you want me to do? So literally in the middle of shooting drill, I took my shorts off, I gave [them] to her and I took her shorts.”

Taurasi hasn’t done anything similar to today’s young players like Aliyah Boston and Rhyne Howard who are nearly 20 years her junior. That type of behavior, Taurasi joked, could get you “sued” nowadays.

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For 23-year-old Shakira Austin — who is seeking her first trip to the Olympics — playing alongside vets like Brittney Griner has helped her understand the hard work that goes into being a member of Team USA.

“[Brittney Griner] is a leader,” Austin said. “She’s always vocal. You could just see her energy and the energy that just radiates off for her. It’s really mesmerizing, honestly — she don’t even have to say much, but she kind of just brightens up the room. And that’s something I see in myself. So hopefully we can continue to talk and maybe she can help guide me.”

Collegiate rivalries renewed

Most of the players from training camp are sticking around to watch the Final Four, which is also being played in Cleveland. Especially for UConn alum Breanna Stewart and South Carolina alum A’ja Wilson, the stakes are high watching their alma maters compete for a spot in the national title game.

“We’re cheering for the Huskies, okay? That’s all we’re talking about right now. I’m really excited — excited and I’m proud of them for what they’ve been able to kind of go through being resilient throughout this year. And just know it’s gonna be great basketball games,” Stewart — who won four national titles between 2013–16 — told reporters.

Later, 2017 NCAA national champion A’ja Wilson shared that she stopped by South Carolina’s practice in preparation for the game. Her relationship with head coach Dawn Staley has evolved over the years and the two still share a very close bond.

“I don’t go a week, maybe two weeks without talking to her … I feel like our relationship just kind of grows like a normal mother and daughter as you get older,” Wilson shared with reporters. “You might not talk all the time like as you want to, but I’m so grateful for that relationship because that lady’s been in my back pocket no matter what.”

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Plum, who reached the Final Four as a senior with Washington in 2016, has no rooting interest in the outcome of this weekend’s matchups. The Aces guard just hopes that sport’s final weekend delivers the same competitiveness fans have seen all season.

“I’m just hoping for like two really good games,” Plum said. “I think we’ve been spoiled because just having such great competition throughout — not even just like the first round but second round, third round. You know what I mean? So I’m I’m excited for tonight. No talking trash, I’m just gonna enjoy it.”

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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