Why two former Duke women’s basketball players want so badly to make the USA National Team

Duke guard Chelsea Gray (12) tries to get inside in the first half as Connecticut guard Brianna Banks (13) defends at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Dec. 17, 2013 in Durham.
Duke guard Chelsea Gray (12) tries to get inside in the first half as Connecticut guard Brianna Banks (13) defends at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Dec. 17, 2013 in Durham. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Former Duke standouts Chelsea Gray and Elizabeth Williams, knowing full well they are long shots to make the USA Basketball Women’s National Team, still could not contain their enthusiasm to be part of training camp.

“It’s an amazing accomplishment,” Gray said.

“Just to be here,” Williams said.

For many women, playing for the USA National Team and competing in the upcoming World Cup and the 2020 Olympics means more than it does for their male counterparts.

“The NBA has been around for so long and has had so many teams and so much history that they take a lot more pride in the NBA championship, maybe more than an Olympic medal,” Williams said.

Skewed vantage point

Williams and Gray, once teammates and roommates at Duke and with Connecticut in the WNBA, spoke following this past Friday’s opening practice session during the three-day camp at the University of South Carolina.

The team is coached by Dawn Staley, the head coach of South Carolina’s defending national championship team and a gold-medal winner as a player on USA Olympic teams in 1996, 2000 and 2004. So, she has some perspective on what it means for women to compete for their country.

“I have a skewed vantage point on this because I never won a national championship (as a player) in college, so the Olympics was my passion,” Staley said. “I had just two goals when I was growing up, to be a national champion, and then win a gold medal because those were the only two things I saw on television growing up.”

Atlanta Dream's Elizabeth Williams in action against the Seattle Storm in a WNBA basketball game Tuesday, June 13, 2017 in Seattle. The Dream won 91-86 in overtime. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson AP

Staley was reared playing basketball against young men on the Philadelphia playgrounds and reached three Final Fours, but never won a championship, as a point guard at Virginia. Winning a pro basketball championship as a player was a distant third on Staley’s checklist of goals.

That seems to remain true with today’s players. Much of the difference between men’s and women’s desire to compete for the USA teams has to do with finances. NBA players with multimillion-dollar contracts are less enamored with winning a championship for their country while risking injury. Average WNBA salaries are less than $100,000.

Because of that, the world’s best players all compete in the NBA. That is not necessarily true in women’s basketball, where considerably higher salaries are paid in overseas leagues, thus often attracting some of the game’s best talent.

So, the World Cup and the Olympics allow for women to compete at a higher level.

Gray and Williams were late invitees to the first camp, which included 22 players with several others who are certain to make the team absent. A selection committee will trim the roster to 12 for the World Cup in September in the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain. Traditionally, most of the same players have competed in the Olympics two years later.

‘Who is this?’

Gray and Williams are among a couple handfuls of players competing for two or three spots. Even so, to be invited means the two have emerged as standout players in the WNBA, Gray with Los Angeles and Williams with Atlanta.

Gray is a 5-foot-11 guard who was an All-American during her sophomore and junior seasons at Duke. She was the 2013 ACC player of the year despite being felled by a knee injury late that season before injuring the same knee midway through the following season.

“Because of the injuries she sustained at Duke, then early in her year or two in the WNBA, then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Where did she come from? Who is this?’ “ said Los Angeles Sparks head coach Brian Agler of Gray, who earned second-team all-NBA honors this past season. “I really think she’s an up-and-coming star.

Agler could also have been speaking of Williams.

Williams is a 6-3 senior who was Duke’s first four-time All-American and four-time, first-team all-ACC performer. She was named the 2016 WNBA Most Improved Player and continued to be one of the league’s best defenders and shot blockers this past season.

Although Gray was sidelined during the first two days of camp with an illness, she competed Sunday along with Williams. It was a chance for the two to showcase their talent against the likes of perennial stars Sue Bird, Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi.

“They are pretty treasured spots,” Williams said of making the team, “but to be able to represent the USA and to play for the national team, that’s the highest honor.”