Napheesa Collier was on the Minnesota Lynx team bus heading to the airport when her phone rang. It was Carol Callan, the director of the U.S. women’s national basketball team.
With her teammates behind her on the bus listening and cheering, Collier was told that she had been selected to represent her country as an Olympian for the first time.
“I feel so honored that USA chose me and that I get to experience this with this team of amazing women,” Collier said during a Zoom call with reporters Monday. “Definitely not expected, but I'm going to try to do everything I can to help the team and soak in as much as I can of this experience."
Collier was one of five UConn alumnae selected to the U.S. Olympic team for the upcoming Tokyo Games. The team was announced Monday. Joining Collier are Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles, and Breanna Stewart.
"The fact that just about half the team is UConn players says a lot about the program," Stewart said. It says a lot about what we did when we were at UConn and are now continuing to build on that success as we come onto the professional stage. This is the reason why we went to UConn, to not only be our best when we're in college but continue to be our best as pros, to continue to follow our dreams and reach new goals.”
UConn has had at least five players on a single Olympic team twice before. Six Huskies were on the 2012 team and five on the 2016 team. UConn has had at least one player on each U.S team dating back to 1996 when Rebecca Lobo was selected.
WNBA standouts Ariel Atkins (Washington Mystics), Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith (Phoenix Mercury), Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota), Chelsea Gray and A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces) and Jewell Loyd (Seattle Storm) rounded out the 12-player roster.
The team’s roster was chosen by the USA Basketball women’s national team player selection committee, which includes Connecticut Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller. UConn coach Geno Auriemma serves as a special advisor to the committee.
Not only is it the first time that Collier, 24, was selected to the Olympic team, but it marks the first time she’s been selected to represent her country in a FIBA senior-level 5-on-5 competition. She was one of the final players cut from the U.S squad that won gold at the 2018 FIBA World Cup to qualify the Americans for Tokyo.
"I've watched the Olympics since I can remember," Collier said. "So, to think that one day I would be on that team, it's just been a dream. I've been doing USA since 2013, and even before that all I could think about is that making the Olympics is obviously a huge goal. So, to say that I'm here, it's crazy."
Collier played at UConn from 2015-19 and is in her third WNBA season with the Lynx. She was the Rookie of the Year in 2019 and had a breakout season in the 2020 bubble season, finishing fifth in the MVP voting.
When asked what she’s looking forward to most about her first Olympics, Collier’s answer was simple: everything.
Besides Collier, five other players - Loyd, Wilson, Atkins, Diggins-Smith and Gray - will make their Olympic debuts.
Those players will get to learn from grizzled veterans in Bird and Taurasi, who will each be making their fifth Olympic appearance.
Only six other basketball players - man or woman - have played in five Olympics: Teresa Edwards (USA), Juan Carlos Navarro (Spain), Adriana Moises Pinto (Brazil), Oscar Schmidt (Brazil), Andrew Gaze (Australia) and Teofilo Cruz (Puerto Rico). Men’s basketball was first added to the Olympic program in 1936 and women’s basketball was added in 1976.
A gold medal at the Tokyo Games would give Bird and Taurasi their fifth, and would break Edwards’ record of four. Edwards was on the 1984, ’88, ’96 and 2000 gold medal teams. She was also on the 1992 team that took the bronze medal. The Americans fell in the semifinals to the eventual gold medal-winning Unified Team, the last Olympic tournament loss suffered by the U.S.
“Each one, I feel like it's my first one. That's how I treat it,” Taurasi said of what being named to a fifth Olympic team meant. “I go in there with this naivety of enjoying every single moment, competing in every single game like it's my last one.
“I guess when you look back on it, just that mindset of taking a day, an Olympics at a time, kind builds up to a career of now going into my fifth one. But I think when I hang them up, I'll have a better understanding of what five means."
Taurasi has played only four games in her 17th WNBA season with the Phoenix Mercury due to a fractured sternum. She suffered the injury May 16 against the Sun. Taurasi said that she will have a CT scan today and hopes to return to the court for the Mercury Sunday.
Meanwhile, Bird is off to a strong start in her 18th season with the Seattle Storm. And despite being there four times before, her motivation heading into the Tokyo Olympics is as high as it’s ever been.
“I think when you are heading to an event like the Olympics and you're representing your country's best, it's not hard to be motivated, to want to get there,” Bird said. “That part never changes. I think for athletes, some of the other stuff that goes around that is what makes it a little harder to stay motivated, but I don't think the motivation ever really changes. It hasn't for me.
“Even at this age and everything that I've accomplished, I still feel like I have something to prove. I'm sure there are people out there like 'what's a 40-year-old doing on this team?' Well, thanks for the motivation."
Charles is no stranger to the Olympics herself. She’ll be making her third appearance and has already won two gold medals.
"It's just an honor," she said. "It's a blessing to be able to represent your country in this way of doing something that you love to do, with a passion that you have. More so not for us, but just for the generations that are coming after us."
Stewart’s selection marks the second time she’s been named to the Olympic roster, having won a gold medal in 2016. She is in her fifth WNBA season with the Seattle Storm - she missed the entire 2019 season due to a ruptured Achilles tendon.
"I'm just going to continue to do what I do best: continue to help our team go for our seventh consecutive gold medal," she said. "I was a baby in my first Olympics. Now coming back five years later, I'm looking froward to continuing to make an impact, help everyone get better and help the people who haven't been there before be their best and enjoy it."
Team USA opens the round-robin portion of the tournament July 27 against Nigeria in a Group B game. Japan and France are also in the group. The competition runs from July 26-Aug. 8 in Saitama, Japan.