RIO DE JANEIRO – It's not easy for Tamika Catchings, not easy sitting on the bench and watching the next generation of WNBA stars and Olympians grab all the minutes, the shots and the glory. She looks now at the team's young guns – and there are plenty of them – and she sees herself 12 years ago, in Athens in 2004, even eight years ago in Beijing and four years ago in London.
Now, at age 37, the elder statesman on the team, she mostly practices hard and sits during games. In fact, Catchings has played the fewest minutes of any Team USA player, just 67 minutes in six Olympic games. She's averaging 4.2 points per game and 2.8 rebounds per game in 11.2 minutes.
"I'm not going to lie and say, 'Yeah, it's great'," Catchings said after practice Wednesday in advance of Thursday's game against France. "It's been an adjustment. It has been. But (players) one through 12, we all start and we all play a lot for our own (WNBA) teams and we're all the players that everybody looks at.
"But when you walk into a situation like this, you know that egos have to be put aside and that somebody's going to have to take that role. I just keep telling myself, 'Always be ready. Always be ready.' The thing I keep thinking about is that a lot of people are watching me in this position because they're in this position, even players on our own team who don't get a lot of playing time. So I want to be an example to them and be ready when I get those minutes."
Olympic head coach Geno Auriemma knows he doesn't need to placate Catchings, as low-ego an athlete as exists on the planet, but still felt compelled to reach out to the former WNBA MVP.
"Just this morning, I was talking to her about how impressive she's been, because it's not an easy role to be thrust into at this stage of her career," he said. "I think she knew the situation coming in, but still, she's handled it like an unbelievable human being. Forget 'basketball player,' just the unbelievable human being she is.
"Every time I call on her, for those short periods of time, the old Tamika shows up. We talked about it coming out here. I told her 'Look, I don't know how many minutes you're going to get, but they're going to be impactful.'"
Someone asked if Catchings has pushed or politicked for more minutes during a tournament when the U.S. has been typically dominant. Although if you know how Catchings is wired, you know there's absolutely no chance she'd ever do such a thing.
"No, she hasn't (asked for more minutes) and I wouldn't expect her to because that's not the type of person she is," Auriemma said. "One of the things that gets lost is, when you have 12 All-Stars, you put one in, you've got to take one out. That's the impossible scenario in a 40-minute game.
"That's what makes this team great. They know this is not going to be like playing for their team at home. I asked them before the tournament, 'Can you tell me who our leading scorer was in London? How about our leading rebounding? Leader in assists?' And nobody knew. Nobody knew. 'How many guys got the gold medal?' 'I did.'"
That's what this is all about now for Catchings, who is the oldest player on the team. One more gold medal, one final goodbye. She's been an essential part of the U.S. international effort for years, so while some would argue that Candace Parker was a better choice to make the team than Catchings, there's something to be said for the value of being a great teammate.
"When she was in Athens at her first Olympics (in 2004), her and Diana (Taurasi) and Sue (Bird) basically said, 'Hey, we're here so get out of our way'," Auriemma said. "Now, in some ways, that's happening to those (veteran) players. There's so many new players now who weren't there five, 10 years ago who play Tamika's position."
As Catchings has mostly watched, her U.S. has done what it's been doing since 1996. It will pursue its 48th consecutive Olympic victory Thursday against the French, and eventually hope (figure) to win a sixth straight gold medal. Every game has been a thrashing; the Americans have failed to win by double digits just once during their 47-game winning streak.
The easy but wrong-headed basketball narrative goes something like this: While the women's U.S. basketball team dominates opponents with its talent and selfless style, the U.S. men's team is a hot mess because of individualism and raging egos.
Like I said, easy and wrong-headed.
There is a reason why all of this is happening, why the Americans men are struggling and the American women are rolling as usual.
"Let's be honest: The gap between us and international basketball on the men's side is shrinking rapidly; you see that with the incredible influx of (international) players into the NBA," Auriemma said. "I was watching our (the U.S.) game against Australia, the first possession, we get the tap, Paul George is running down the floor and Patty Mills is waiting – bam! – they were like two rams in the mountains. These international players, they don't care. They're not intimidated anymore. It's not like 1992 when they just wanted to get pictures and autographs.
"On our (the women's) end, all of our players play overseas, so they know all these players and they're familiar with the style they play. And we have the experience; it's their fourth Olympics, their third Olympics, their second, and they all get it. And because they all keep coming back, they never go through a rebuilding process like the men do.
"While we've got eight, nine, 10 players with significant international experience, the men have two guys, right? Now they're playing 30- and 35-year-olds who, the minute you turn your head, they get a layup. You have to chase them all over the floor. For our men's team, what they're seeing now is so foreign to what they see every day. Unless you're Melo (Carmelo Anthony), this is really, really hard."
Take Catchings, for example. She's played overseas every WNBA off-season, in Korea and Russia and Turkey, and she's played for the United States in tournaments all throughout her career. She understands why the women thrive in this environment, and why the men sometimes struggle.
"It's a different game, the international game," she said. "You've got to remember, we play overseas in our WNBA off-season, so a lot of the players we face here, we've played with or against a lot of them before. The overseas game is different from the American game. I know people are thinking, 'Basketball is basketball,' but I'm telling you, it's different. (Players) one through five can shoot, everybody can penetrate and pass.
"With our men, there's a lot of one-on-one. Get the ball to one person, then you watch him, and if he gets in trouble, he passes it to the next person. (The international teams) play so well. They move. They're like us (the women's team): We move, we pass, we cut, we screen for each other and help each other out.
"So our guys are learning."
"They're just going to have to learn a little quicker," she said.
Catchings? She's had it all figured out for a very long time now.