UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) — For most leagues, the All-Star break is a time for players and fans to relax and have some fun. For the WNBA, the All-Star break included some serious business.
It was the first and only opportunity for all the players in the U.S. national basketball pool to be in camp before the World Championship in the Czech Republic this fall. Over the past decade it has been nearly impossible for the Americans to get all of their players in the same place at the same time with many of them competing overseas in the winter or making the WNBA finals.
Coach Geno Auriemma allowed The Associated Press exclusive access to the team and coaches during its training camp at WNBA All-Star weekend.
MEET AND GREET: Practice started Thursday night with a decade's worth of UConn domination on the court. The old guard of Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Diana Taurasi and Ashja Jones teaming with young stars Renee Montgomery, Tina Charles and Maya Moore.
It was the first camp that Taurasi had attended since Auriemma took over.
"It was just like old times," Taurasi said. "You remember all the little things he taught way back when and how much he knows about this game."
After a quick session with the media it was time to get down to work. At first the practice looked eerily similar to a UConn alumni game. Duke graduate Lindsey Harding walked on the court to warm up and saw the "UConn seven" on one side and playfully started walking the other way as if she didn't belong before joining them to shoot around.
Auriemma ran the group through drills and many offensive sets. Having so many former UConn players around made life easy for some of the camp newcomers since they could quickly explain drills they had done for years.
It was evident from the start that this wasn't about getting ready for an All-Star game. The team was practicing with a purpose. Auriemma even said to treat the weekend not as an All-Star game, but as a Final Four or WNBA finals.
Everyone is vying for a spot at the Worlds, and assuming everyone remains healthy for the remainder of the season, it will be a difficult task to find the right mix. That responsibility falls on the U.S basketball selection committee.
Some of whom were on the sidelines all weekend watching and evaluating.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS: After the 2-hour workout, the team went back to the Mohegan Sun and had dinner at Auriemma's restaurant. The biggest decision that night for the players wasn't where LeBron James would end up, but what to eat with choices on the menu including a Sue Bird (chicken cheesesteak), Diana Taurasi (eggplant Italian dish) or Tina Charles (lobster roll). The players stuck to the basics.
They did turn to the TVs at 9 p.m. — along with much of the rest of the country — to watch James' decision. Most already had a feeling he was headed to Miami. However their attention quickly went back to the food and conversation when it was evident that James wouldn't reveal his choice in the first 10 minutes of the broadcast.
JOKING AROUND: Bird and Taurasi walked on the court for practice Friday morning at the Mohegan Sun, laughing and joking around. Bird looked up at the overhead scoreboards which still flashed the 82-81 Connecticut Sun victory over Taurasi's Phoenix Mercury from June 25 pointing it out to her longtime friend.
Taurasi quickly changed that outcome giving her team another basket to ensure a fictitious win. By the time Sun coach Mike Thibault arrived in the arena to take in the closed practice the score had been changed to 195-82 Phoenix. He could only smile knowing exactly who the culprit was.
Bird and Taurasi, who spend the winter together playing overseas in Russia, couldn't stop laughing when they looked on the court and saw a set of life-size action banners of themselves and other WNBA players laid out on the court. It was tough for the two to decide which one they liked best. Bird made it clear which one she liked least — dancing all over Taurasi's photo. The Mercury guard was quick to retaliate, mocking Bird's photo.
The two veterans will play greater roles of leadership on this World Championship team and the 2012 Olympic team. Gone are Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Tina Thompson and Katie Smith. Bird and Taurasi as well as Tamika Catchings are the veterans now.
THE GANG'S ALL HERE: Friday's practice marked the first time since the Beijing Olympics that the core group of the national team that will play in the Worlds was together. Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter and Tamika Catchings all missed last fall's training camp as they were playing in the WNBA finals. Of course Candace Parker was missing, but she's out for the season with a separated shoulder.
Catchings and Seimone Augustus were the last two to arrive walking into practice Friday as they had WNBA games Thursday night. The two were mobbed by their teammates.
"It's great seeing everyone here," Catchings said. "I know I had to miss a few camps, but I've been hearing all about them from the other players."
Catchings is now one of the elder stateswomen of the team having played for the U.S. in the 2002 and 2006 World Championships. Her time playing over the weekend was limited because of nagging injuries.
That didn't stop her teammates from joking around with her and nicknaming the 30-year-old Catchings "grandma." That's the nickname U.S. assistant coach Jennifer Gillom earned as the senior most player on the 2002 team.
FILLING OUT THE PAPERWORK: After practice all 19 players in training camp spent time huddled on a computer. No they weren't chatting with fans, tweeting or checking e-mail. They were entering data on the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency site that requires athletes to input their whereabouts for the next three months for random testing.
Athletes must supply a phone number and a time each day that they are available to be tested from now through September.
"Forget it, I don't want to be on the Olympic team anymore," Taurasi joked.
The process took around 90 minutes to complete and the players all have their own personal ID codes to update their schedules in case something comes up.
GAME TIME: Twenty-eight minutes before the U.S team would take on the WNBA All-Stars on Saturday and Auriemma turned to the white dry-erase board in the locker room and started to write. Bird knew exactly what he was putting on it. The same words he's been writing on it since she was a freshman at UConn: "Play Hard. Play Smart. Have Fun."
"Some things never change," she said smiling. "Every game, every practice it's the same thing. T-shirts, hats, bags, he could market them."
The biggest concern in the locker room wasn't who was starting — that honor Auriemma decided should go to the players who won gold at the Beijing Olympics — or beating the WNBA All-Stars.
It was how they would line up to run out for warmups.
"Smallest to tallest that's how we'll do it," Bird said.
RESERVED: Auriemma is always colorful on the sideline and in the locker room, cracking jokes and sometimes offering tough love to his players. Yet there was a sense of reservation from the coach on Friday during the open practice and Saturday during the game.
Was he shy about being around his new players? Think again. Auriemma was miked up for television and had been burnt in the past in a similar situation.
Although even he forgot he was miked one time. In the locker room before the game, Auriemma was trying to figure out from his players who might have been left off the WNBA All-Star roster and who shouldn't have been there.
He was surprised when his players wouldn't offer any answers until Montgomery reminded the coach he was "live" for TV. After a good laugh, he quickly shut off the mike and got the answer he sought.
ADJUSTMENTS: The U.S. team ran back into the locker room at the half up 49-28. Auriemma praised his team's unselfishness. He wasn't concerned about the score or how much his team would win by. It was about trying to get better. He wanted to put his players in difficult situations and see how they would react.
In the third quarter the U.S. went with a small lineup of Montgomery, Pondexter, Angel McCoughtry, Candice Dupree and Swin Cash. In another stretch he went without a true point guard having Maya Moore run the show.
All the moves seemed to pay off as the U.S. went on to a 99-72 victory.
ROOKIE HAZING: Moore was a sponge all weekend long soaking up everything she could from the experience. She was the definite fan favorite, getting a huge ovation from the crowd when she entered the game for the first time with 1:58 left in the first quarter. Moore drew a louder cheer when she had an eye-popping move in the second half.
She finished with 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists leaving little doubt that she should be on the U.S. roster headed to the Czech Republic.
"Every day in practice she proves she belongs on the team," Auriemma said. "The great thing about our team is that you can't tell who the college kid is. If you line up all of our players and say pick the one in college, you can never figure it out. She blends right in, she plays like them, she handles herself like them."
Still even with her strong showing in the game, Taurasi was quick to remind the college star afterward about the airball she shot.
The two will go head-to-head on Wednesday for an ESPY as both were nominated as the best female athlete.
AUSSIE, AUSSIE, AUSSIE: After beating the WNBA All-Stars on Saturday the U.S. had a scrimmage against rival Australia on Sunday morning. The Aussies had come to Connecticut for the weekend to train as well since a few of their key players were in the WNBA and couldn't travel home to get ready for the Worlds.
With center Sylvia Fowles gone to New York for a WNBA game, the U.S. team was lacking in the frontcourt against the much taller Aussies, who had a 6-foot-8 post player.
Auriemma joked with Australia coach Carrie Graf before the game that there would be a limit to the number of posts she could play at any one time.
It was evident that the U.S. was using the scrimmage as a chance to further evaluate talent, limiting the minutes that Bird, Taurasi and a few other key players were on the court. He didn't call timeouts when the Australians started pulling away in the second half en route to their 87-72 victory.
"This was invaluable to us having a chance to see what people can do," he said. "If I was looking to win it people would have played different amounts."
Odds are these two teams will be seeing each other a few more times during Auriemma's tenure as coach of U.S. basketball.
UCONN BIAS?: Auriemma made it clear when he took the job as coach of U.S. basketball he wanted no favors granted or ill-will to his former UConn players. He wants the selection committee to put together the best team possible no matter how many of his former players were on it.
It was interesting to see that at no point during the All-Star game Saturday or the scrimmage on Sunday did Auriemma have five Connecticut players on the court at the same time. Maybe it's because he knew already what he had with them and wanted to see what other players could do.
"It was funny. I was kind of conscious of not sending them all out there at the same time because then it would look like I was trying to do it on purpose," Auriemma said.
SAYING GOODBYE: Auriemma closed out the camp reminding his players to stay healthy and telling them to do what they could to make their current teams better. The next camp will open up in early September and he may only have a few players available with it being right in the middle of the WNBA playoffs.
"This was an invaluable four days for us to get to everyone together and see what we need to work on," Auriemma said.
A couple of hugs from his former players whom he won't see until September and everyone went their separate ways getting ready for the rest of the WNBA season.
Auriemma was off to recruit for his "other" team — the Connecticut Huskies.