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AN OLYMPIAN PORTRAIT OF WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

SHOOTING FROM THE OUTSIDE
By Tara VanDerveer
with Joan Ryan
Avon
273 pages, $23

In most mysteries, the exciting conclusion to an unfolding story isn't revealed until the very end. Tara VanDerveer's book on the 1996 U.S. Olympic women's basketball team has that concept backward.

Almost everyone who would open "Shooting From the Outside" is aware that the Olympic team won the gold medal in smashing style last summer in Atlanta, having few severe tests along the way. What most readers don't know is how the team spent the year leading up to the Olympics as it prepared for that gold medal.

This book essentially fills in that gap. Readers will find out that the women's team was a long way from the men's team, which came together a few weeks before the Olympics, practiced a few times, and then stomped on the rest of the world's best in Atlanta.

The women's story starts with VanDerveer, who took a year off from her coaching duties at Stanford to lead the Olympic squad. In October 1995, she and 11 players met in Colorado Springs, Colo., for the first time as they started preparations for the summer Games. The team toured together right up until the Olympics, playing mostly U.S. college teams but participating in some international tournaments overseas as well.

VanDerveer spends most of the book talking about that tour. She comes off as an excellent choice -- driven to win, attentive to detail, not satisfied with anything less than perfection. VanDerveer is not much of a jokester -- the book could have used a little levity here and there -- but there's no doubt she knows her basketball.

Along the way, VanDerveer weaves in stories about growing up in upstate New York. After several years in the Albany area, the VanDerveers moved to Western New York. The family lived in Niagara Falls and Tara graduated from Buffalo Seminary. She frequently writes about spending summers past and present in Chautauqua and how much she loves that area.

VanDerveer tells about how difficult it was for a young woman to try to get into coaching in the 1970s. For example, out of a couple of hundred people who attended one clinic, she was the only female. With that sort of effort, it's not surprising that she went on to reach the pinnacle of her profession once doors started opening to women who wanted to coach women's collegiate teams.

VanDerveer covers her year of guiding America's best woman players -- such as Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo and Ruthie Bolton -- easily enough. There are the usual stories about travel difficulties, personnel decisions, etc., that might be expected. But at least those tales are fresh to most people, because the media didn't focus on the team until shortly before it arrived in Atlanta.

The only major complaint with the book is an underlying premise that the hopes of women's professional basketball in this country depended on the Olympic team. Considering how successful women's college basketball is in many places across the country, a strong pro league is almost inevitable. The National Basketball Association's marketing muscle has helped put its female league, the WNBA, on the sports map in a remarkably short time. The league probably would have done all right this year no matter what happened in Atlanta.

That said, a gold-medal performance by Team USA certainly didn't hurt the visibility of women's basketball in this country. If you want to learn more about that sport's "Dream Team," "Shooting From the Outside" is a good place to start.

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