There’s no question that Cheryl Reeve put in the work to earn the job as U.S. women’s basketball team head coach.
The South Jersey native and product of Washington Township High and La Salle is a three-time WNBA coach of the year and owns six WNBA titles: two as an assistant coach with the former Detroit Shock (2006 and ‘08), and four as the head coach of the Minnesota Lynx (2011, ‘13, ‘15, and ‘17). She’s also been involved with USA Basketball for a long time, including as an assistant coach with the 2016 and ‘20 Olympic gold-medal winners.
Elena Delle Donne, famously of Wilmington, has an idea.
“It might be the soft pretzels and Diet Coke combo — I feel like every coach has that,” she said. “So they just grow up in the right eating spot, and then the coaching comes along with it.”
Delle Donne laughed, knowing she wasn’t going to stop there but easily could have.
“Obviously, phenomenal basketball is played in this region,” Delle Donne continued. “I feel like if you grow up in it, it’s hard not to be, like, immersed in it and learn so much from it. And then obviously those coaches have so much passion and love for the game, that they were destined to be great.”
» FROM THE ARCHIVES: Delaware is where Elena Delle Donne’s heart has always been
Two months after Reeve became U.S. head coach, this week brings her first official assignment: a FIBA regional World Cup qualifying tournament that starts Thursday in Washington. The U.S. is in a three-team round-robin with Belgium and Puerto Rico.
Reeve has assembled a 12-player roster and a coaching staff with four other WNBA head coaches: Vickie Johnson (Dallas Wings), Curt Miller (Connecticut Sun), Mike Thibault (Washington Mystics), and James Wade (Chicago Sky).
“There’s just a lot of good ideas, a lot of great basketball minds,” Reeve said. “The collaboration part of it’s what I’ve always enjoyed about USA Basketball. You get a bunch of head coaches together and you do a lot of collaborating, and you learn from each other. And this experience will be no different.”
Delle Donne, a Mystics veteran, was on the court with Reeve earlier this week as part of a pre-tournament training camp. She was one of a few players who were in the camp but knew they wouldn’t be in the tournament. Still, Delle Donne could tell from her brief stay that Reeve is right for the job.
“I feel like just even after one practice, I’m able to so understand why Minnesota runs like such a well-oiled machine,” Delle Donne said. “She certainly has a phenomenal way of coaching and wanting people in certain positions to do the right thing, and [be] in positions where they can excel.”
(By the way, it was news on its own that Delle Donne was in the camp, after injuries limited her to just three WNBA games over the last two years. Though she isn’t officially cleared for contact yet, she said she “will be ready for he season,” and wants to play in the World Cup in September.)
The U.S. isn’t as star-studded as the World Cup team will be, but there are plenty of familiar names. Nine of the 12 players were on last summer’s gold-medal winning team, including Stefanie Dolson (Chicago Sky), Jewell Loyd (Seattle Storm), Kelsey Plum (Las Vegas Aces), and Ariel Atkins (Washington).
» FROM THE ARCHIVES: Cheryl Reeve’s rise from South Jersey to La Salle to WNBA royalty
Some new players have also come on board to start developing toward the 2024 Olympics. One of them is Harrisburg-area native Alyssa Thomas. The 29-year-old Connecticut Sun forward has made it to the senior-level U.S. national team 11 years after she played at the under-19 World Cup.
“It’s just an honor to be part of USA Basketball for this team, and to be selected out of all these players,” Thomas said. “And for me, it’s been an exciting experience just to learn from Coach Reeve and get to play with my fellow peers. I’ve enjoyed the experience so far, and [am] just ready to get out there and play some games.”
Reeve has watched Thomas for a long time, and praised her earning a place on the hardest women’s basketball team to make.
“Alyssa has been a great player for a long time — it just so happens that there’s been a lot of great players at her position for a long time,” Reeve said. “For younger players to see that your time may not be right now, but if you’re a good enough player, your time could be coming, I think Alyssa fits that. This is her time, in terms of where she is in her career, how great of a player she is, and from a basketball perspective, I mean, she’s a great facilitator.”
Reeve also praised Thomas for having “a physical and mental toughness about her that resembles that of an Olympian, and that’s what you have to have.”
The U.S. team expects to see some familiar faces across the floor in the games against Belgium (Friday, 6:30 p.m.) and Puerto Rico (Saturday, 4:30 p.m.). Belgium is led by Emma Meesseman, a longtime Mystics stalwart who just joined the Chicago Sky as a free agent. Puerto Rico’s roster includes Arella Guirantes, a Rutgers alumna who played her WNBA rookie season with the Los Angeles Sparks last year. Those two teams met in the opener Thursday.
Both U.S. games are available for free on FIBA’s YouTube Channel.
The U.S. roster
Guards: Ariel Atkins (Washington Mystics), Allisha Gray (Dallas Wings), Chelsea Gray (Las Vegas Aces), Jewell Loyd (Seattle Storm), Kayla McBride (Minnesota Lynx), Kelsey Mitchell (Indiana Fever), Kelsey Plum (Las Vegas Aces)
Forwards: Dearica Hamby (Las Vegas Aces), Natasha Howard (New York Liberty), Alyssa Thomas (Connecticut Sun)
Centers: Stefanie Dolson (Chicago Sky), Brionna Jones (Connecticut Sun)