USA Basketball's failure to offer answers fuels speculation around Candace Parker's exclusion

Several members of the newly named U.S. Olympic women's basketball team were in New York City on Wednesday celebrating their inclusion on the Road to Rio. They made an appearance on the "Today" show, did interviews, high-fived fans, the whole deal.

It was the happy image of jubilant teammates that USA Basketball wants everyone to focus on, and why not? It's a great group of likable, popular and successful players who are trying to win the United States' sixth consecutive Olympic gold medal in women's basketball.

Indiana's Tamika Catchings, who will be 37 when the Summer Games start in August, is the oldest on the squad. The week after the Rio de Janeiro Games end, the youngest U.S. player, Breanna Stewart, will turn 22. Catchings will be playing in her final WNBA season this year, Stewart in her first. There's a really neat kind of symmetry to that, and there are multiple other touching and inspiring stories that come from this team.

But the question about why Candace Parker didn't make this team lingers. Parker's omission threw an ember on what's been a potential tinderbox since UConn coach Geno Auriemma has been the national team coach -- which is, of course, the idea of favoritism toward former UConn players and others who are pro teammates and/or good friends with them.

The "UConn fatigue" issue in women's basketball -- which seeps into the WNBA and international competitions -- can be attributed in part to plain old envy. But there is also concern by people who truly aren't "haters" about how cozy USA Basketball is with UConn, because of how that looks (and feels) to those players, coaches and fans outside that bubble.

This controversy isn't fair to the 12 Olympians; they didn't pick the team. Every one of them worked hard for this opportunity, and they're all very good.

However, when one of the best players in the world isn't on the U.S. Olympic team -- despite having been a two-time Olympian, being healthy and rested, and being at the prime of her career -- it shouldn't be a surprise that people want answers.

They will not get them from USA Basketball, though, because that's never been how that system works.

"Candace is a great player," said national team director Carol Callan, chair of the five-person committee that set the roster. "She's done a lot for us in the past, since she was in high school. As a committee, we don't get into specifics speaking about each player publicly. Needless to say, there are a lot of deliberations.

"We have a committee for a reason ... it's not just one person who is making a decision. So, I may not be able to satisfy your question with an answer specifically of why or why not, but I think it speaks to that we have incredible depth on this team."

"If the top qualities sought were talent, experience and versatility, the three automatic picks to build the rest of the U.S. team around should have been [Diana] Taurasi, Maya Moore and [Candace] Parker."

Given a chance to end the speculation about Parker's omission, USA Basketball instead left that door wide open. Not that anyone was surprised.

On the women's side, USA Basketball still wields enormous power, because there is so much available talent and all the best players want to play in the Olympics. Even if they've been there three times before (Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Catchings) and have already won everything there is to win, from NCAA and WNBA titles to overseas championships and gold medals, it is still that coveted an honor.

Thus, USA Basketball can demand total loyalty and deference from the women. Players virtually never publicly question the organization -- no matter how angry and upset they might be -- because they can't afford to. They're never going to have the upper hand in any such dispute. And if they don't make a team but want any chance to play for USA Basketball in the future, they must be diplomatic.

But fans? No so much. Parker, a Tennessee grad, played on the last Lady Vols squad to face UConn, in 2007, before former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt ended the series. Even though it's been nearly a decade since the programs met, the enmity remains. To be frank, particularly from the Tennessee side.

Yet it isn't just Tennessee fans, or even Parker fans, who are wondering about some of USA Basketball's decisions.

Trying to figure it out

The fact that the USA Basketball committee, which doesn't include Auriemma, picked the team isn't going to stop some from speculating that he was still the ultimate fulcrum in regard to Parker not being selected.

Theories have been bandied about, ranging from plausible to nutty. Is it because of how Auriemma feels about coaching Parker? Is it a lingering UConn vs. Tennessee disconnect? Is this about Parker being an Adidas athlete in a sea of Nike players? Is the answer actually hidden somewhere in Beyonce's "Lemonade?"

If the top qualities sought were talent, experience and versatility, the three automatic picks to build the rest of the U.S. team around should have been Taurasi, Maya Moore and Parker.

Instead, it appears Taurasi and Moore were locks, but Parker got caught in a numbers game ultimately decided by "intangibles" that are hard to quantify and can become very subjective.

Parker was among 10 players back from the 2012 Olympics who were finalists for 2016. Then there were three players -- recent No. 1 draft pick Stewart, 2015 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner -- that USA Basketball seemed determined to add as first-time Olympians. Thirteen people for 12 spots; somebody had to go.

The three newcomers are all 6-foot-4 or taller; Griner is a true center, and Delle Donne and Stewart are forwards. So the target for the cut was with forwards/centers.

Catchings, the 2011 WNBA MVP and another Tennessee grad, is a beloved veteran who is retiring later this year. She's known for enthusiasm and effort, and she's still an effective forward. No chance she was getting cut.

Center Tina Charles, the 2012 WNBA MVP, won two NCAA championships with Auriemma at UConn.

Center Sylvia Fowles is part of the quartet from the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx who are on this Olympic team, along with Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen. The Lynx connection -- Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve is an assistant to Auriemma for the United States -- brings a natural camaraderie.

So did Parker "lose" her spot on two fronts? Was her far greater international experience than Stewart, Delle Donne and Griner (combined) discounted? Did she fail to win a kind of popularity contest among the remaining players at her position?

"Was [Candace Parker's] far greater international experience than [Breanna] Stewart, [Elena] Delle Donne and [Brittney] Griner (combined) discounted? Did she fail to win a kind of popularity contest among the remaining players at her position?"

USA Basketball's choices at the guard position also can be questioned. There was speculation before the roster was named that one of the two guard/forwards -- the 6-foot Augustus or 6-foot-1 Angel McCoughtry -- might be cut, but the committee went another direction.

What about the backcourt? Taurasi, as mentioned, was a lock. Bird and Whalen, true point guards with loads of experience, are still considered the most dependable at that spot.

But Bird is 35 and Whalen will soon be 34, and for the second consecutive Olympics, there is no point guard on the U.S. team who is under the age of 30. There should be concern about developing that position for the 2018 world championship and 2020 Olympics.

Auriemma said that the inclusion of Stewart and Delle Donne on the Olympic team could be attributed largely to their ability to play multiple positions and the fact that they were part of the foundation for the future. Then what about building a similar bridge to the future at the point guard spot?

Auriemma said someone among the younger American point guards still has to clearly establish herself as better than the pack. "You really start to look around," Auriemma said, "and you go, 'That is a huge question that has to be answered going forward.'"

But Skylar Diggins was having a fantastic season last year before suffering a late-June knee injury; Briann January was a key factor in leading Indiana to the WNBA Finals last season; and Chicago's Courtney Vandersloot also is among players who really have made themselves noticed at the next level.

Who gets chosen?

The debates get murkier because USA Basketball hasn't always been consistent in its decisions.

During the WNBA's existence, there have been four American athletes picked No. 1 in the draft during an Olympic year. Three of them -- Taurasi in 2004, Parker in 2008 and Stewart this year -- made the Olympic team that year. Los Angeles forward Nneka Ogwumike, a Stanford grad who ended up being the WNBA's rookie of the year in 2012, didn't.

It's not as if there wasn't room on the 2012 Olympic team for an admittedly inexperienced player who was one of the promising new faces of pro basketball, because there was room for two other forwards, Swin Cash and Asjha Jones, who were sparsely used Olympic reserves at age 32.

They were talented, dependable veterans -- and also UConn grads. Which brings us back to that touchy, divisive topic.

USA Basketball can't ever be surprised that questions arise about how players' college affiliation might impact their national team chances, but especially when there is an active college coach in charge for two Olympics.

USA Basketball knew there could be some criticism in this regard. Auriemma knew it too. But in the end, with him riding a streak of golden performances in one Olympics and two world championships, plus having won six of the past eight NCAA titles, he can say, "Top that." And no one comes even close.

Further, Auriemma, the former UConn players and the Huskies' large fan base might feel they're once again being unfairly targeted and pilloried just for being really good. And that Stewart, in particular, is being "blamed" on social media as the reason Parker isn't on the Olympic team.

These are problems USA Basketball could have foreseen and likely avoided by not cutting Parker, because that can cast a negative light on the selection process itself.

Unless the situation arises for an alternate to take a spot and Parker is picked -- don't hold your breath -- then a two-time WNBA MVP who many would have considered a slam dunk to make this team will miss the Rio Games.

Parker didn't see this coming. She was part of the Olympic media summit in March. She was looking forward to her third Olympics. The committee consulted last Friday for the last time and made its final roster picks, informing Parker then.

In what is a further insult, USA Basketball seemed to hope she would then opt to say this was all her choice. That she needed more rest or wanted to stay home to attend one of her daughter's recitals or that she didn't care for samba music or whatever could have kept USA Basketball from being asked why she's not on the team.

Alas, there has been significant backlash to her omission. As these things typically work, there now might be backlash to the backlash. ("Shut up already about Parker!" some will say.)

Most people already have made up their own minds about why Parker isn't an Olympian this time. And as long as there's a gold medal at the end of the Rio Games, that's all the answer that USA Basketball will feel any need to provide.

Perhaps the whole controversy will completely dissipate. But this team could be the feel-good story that some U.S. women's basketball fans won't feel quite as good about as they expected to.