Could Tokyo Olympics’ postponement benefit U.S. women’s basketball team?

Amid all the fluidity surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, too many unanswered questions loom about the Tokyo Olympics and the WNBA season. One thing seems certain, though: What it would mean for Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles to compete in the Tokyo Games, now scheduled for sometime in 2021.  

She already has won two WNBA championships, two Finals MVPs and three Olympic gold medals. But Fowles could add something else to her resume by joining Lisa Leslie, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Teresa Edwards as the only women’s basketball players to have four Olympic gold medals.

“That would definitely be No.1 on the list just to be able to accomplish,” Fowles told USA TODAY Sports. “It will be tough. But at the end of the day, what makes Team USA great is we have a bunch of stubborn women who are willing to go get it done no matter what. So that will definitely rank high on my list.” 

Bird and Taurasi have the chance to become the only women’s basketball players to win five gold medals. Bird, the oldest active WNBA player who turns 40 in October, told ESPN she still plans to play in the Tokyo Olympics even if the IOC pushed them back a year because of concerns about COVID-19. Taurasi, who turns 38 in June, has not commented publicly yet on whether she still intends to play in the Tokyo Olympics.

Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird pose for a picture with head coach Geno Auriemma after beating Spain in the 2016 women's basketball gold medal game. (Photo: Jeffrey Swinger, USA TODAY Sports)

Despite expressing disappointment about those developments, Fowles also considered it “a blessing in disguise” because this added time might allow Bird and Taurasi to recharge. Bird missed the 2019 WNBA season because of knee surgery, while Taurasi played in only six games because of various back and hamstring ailments.

“I think about older players who have nagging injuries like Sue or D. I guess it’s a give and take,” Fowles said. “You give them another year, how will they hold up? But at the same time, they are veterans and know what to do with their bodies. I think it’ll benefit them this way.”

The delay may also benefit Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne, who won a WNBA championship and league MVP last season despite nursing three herniated disks. After having off-season back surgery and dealing with initial nerve pain, Delle Donne said she's “been able to get a lot of my strength back.” Even before she became confined to rehabbing from home, Delle Donne had not been cleared for any on-court work.

“Anytime you get a surgery, especially a back surgery, there are always questions,” Delle Donne told USA TODAY Sports. “I have stayed super positive and told myself for the Olympics, ‘I’ll be back and I’ll be ready.’ But you really never know, especially as I progress more and more. Time for me is not a bad thing with just trying to heal this back.”

Opinion: Olympics will be worth the wait following postponement

As for the 34-year-old Fowles? She said she feels refreshed entering her 13th WNBA season after abstaining from playing overseas last year. 

“As long as I’m healthy, I think I’ll be OK. But at the same time, too, there is a lot of room for something to happen,” Fowles said about playing in the Tokyo Olympics. “I know people don’t like thinking that way. But just staying healthy this year going into next year will be the biggest key and going into the Olympics in 2021. But I don’t see it as an issue. Other people might see it as an issue.”

The reality: USA Basketball has dealt with too much uncertainty to offer clarity on anything moving forward.  

Fowles and Delle Donne have received a few emails from USA Basketball officials after the IOC postponed the Games only to say they will provide updates once they have them. Connecticut Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller, who served on USA Basketball’s players selection committee since 2017, said he “had very little discussions” with USA Basketball and if he would remain on staff in 2021. His original role was slated to last only through 2020. Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes, who is an assistant on Team USA, said he has not talked with USA Basketball officials yet, either.

“What is going on in the world is bigger than sports,” Hughes said. “That’s where my initial thought went even beyond what does the future hold and all of those things. I’m a lifer in basketball. But there are bigger issues than basketball right now.” 

Nonetheless, the WNBA has maintained its original schedule for the 2019 season. It will hold a virtual draft on April 17 without any players, guests or media. The WNBA has not changed the original dates of the beginning of training camp (April 26) and the season opener (May 15), but that schedule depends on daily developments with COVID-19.

Because of that reality, it did not surprise those with USA Basketball that the Olympics were postponed. Other professional and college sports leagues suspended or canceled their respective seasons shortly after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11.

“There was a shock. But I knew something was coming,” Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields said. “The Olympics are a very big event and a very big production. There are a lot of different parties involved with making that happen.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

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