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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

USA Basketball valued experience over popularity in excluding Caitlin Clark

Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever dribbles against the Chicago Sky during their game on June 1 in Indianapolis.  (Tribune News Service)
By Glynn A. Hill Washington Post

A top USA Basketball official said Caitlin Clark’s popularity and impact on television viewership weren’t “the purview of the (selection) committee” after the organization announced its roster Tuesday for the women’s competition at this summer’s Paris Olympics. The official announcement came three days after reports emerged that Clark would be excluded from the 12-player squad, igniting debate over whether the rookie WNBA star should have made the team.

“Obviously, I want today to mostly be (about) the players that made the team, but there’s no avoiding the conversation around who didn’t, so I’m happy to address it,” Jennifer Rizzotti, the USA Basketball women’s national team committee chair, told reporters during a news conference. “Obviously, we know the success that Caitlin had in college, and she’s had a tremendous start to the WNBA season so far. … But essentially it was the committee’s job to pick the 12 based on our selection criteria, and as much as you want to maybe make conversation around how we should have considered TV viewership, or jersey sales or popularity, that wasn’t the purview of the committee to have those discussions. The selection criteria were very clear.”

The roster is stocked with decorated players and is headlined by two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson and five-time gold medalist Diana Taurasi, who will break the record for most Olympics played in basketball with her sixth selection. It also features Olympic veterans Breanna Stewart, Chelsea Gray, Napheesa Collier, Jewell Loyd and Brittney Griner, who will play internationally for the first time since she was detained in a Russian prison for 10 months in 2022.

Also included were Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum, who won gold in three-on-three basketball at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, plus first-time Olympians Sabrina Ionescu, Kahleah Copper and Alyssa Thomas, who all played on the American team that won the FIBA World Cup in 2022.

Rizzotti cited the value of experience and continuity in assembling the roster for Coach Cheryl Reeve.

“A lot of conversation goes around what’s most important to put on the floor for Cheryl and give her the opportunity to have the best roster available, not necessarily always the 12 best players,” Rizzotti said. “There’s consideration around positions, depth, versatility, style of play that Cheryl has implemented over the last three years. Familiarity around international competition; familiarity with each other. But I think the challenge that was prevalent for us was the lack of prep time that we would have in July.

“I think trying to balance all of that in our decision-making, block outside noise around things that weren’t part of our criteria, and really hone in and have integrity around the process with sticking to a roster that fit the criteria for the selection process. And I’m really proud of our committee for coming to that final roster, because it wasn’t easy.”

Clark’s star ascended at the University of Iowa, where she led the Hawkeyes to back-to-back national championship game appearances and finished her career as the NCAA’s all-time Division I scoring leader.

She was selected as the No. 1 pick by the Indiana Fever in this year’s WNBA draft, and her arrival in the league has coincided with substantial increases in television ratings, attendance and merchandise sales.

The 22-year-old is averaging 16.3 points, 6.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds through 13 games this season, though the Fever has won just three of those games.

Clark has represented the United States in youth competitions, and she was invited to USA Basketball’s final pre-Olympics training camp in April, though she could not attend because Iowa was competing in the Final Four.

The United States has won every gold medal in women’s basketball since the 1996 Summer Olympics, and the Americans will be favored to win an eighth straight gold in Paris. They will face Japan in their Olympic opener July 29. The gold medal game is scheduled for Aug. 11.

In constructing a veteran-laden roster, Rizzotti said players’ age was not a factor. Still, she added it can be a challenge to create space for developing players on the roster when the talent pool is so deep.

“I think it is an important part of the game, but I also think that it’s been documented that people hit their peak in their athletic careers when they’re in their mid-to-late 20s,” Rizzotti said. “So, we’re talking about these college players that are phenomenal and they’re going to be future stars of our game, coming out of college and playing against women that are at their peak or that have years of experience.”