NEW YORK — A quarter-century after they helped lead the United States women’s basketball team to an Olympic gold rush that continues today, Dawn Staley and Tara VanDerveer sat on a stage and razzed each other about their chess games. In Manhattan to watch the world premiere of the ESPN documentary “Dream On” last week, Staley and VanDerveer saw their past selves come to life on screen and were reminded how high the stakes were heading into the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The coaches of the past two NCAA women’s basketball championship teams then discussed that legendary squad and all that happened at a critical juncture, including the launch of two women’s pro leagues. The three-part documentary debuts Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Staley and VanDerveer know now all that they didn’t fully grasp then. That kind of perspective is dependent on time. VanDerveer was head coach and Staley one of 12 players who changed the course of women’s sports history in the mid-1990s, when the NBA and USA Basketball came together to sponsor the women’s version of the Dream Team to prepare for the 1996 Olympics.
It wasn’t just Olympic gold on the line after the Americans had come up short in two previous major competitions. The 1996 team was a litmus test for the viability of women’s professional basketball in the United States.
“There was a sense of urgency … but when you’re working really hard, you don’t have time to be worried as much,” said VanDerveer, the longtime Stanford coach who took a leave of absence from the Cardinal in 1995-96 to guide the U.S. squad. “I think the players had to focus on getting through each day’s workout, not what was down the road.”
Staley, coach of the reigning NCAA champion South Carolina Gamecocks, also coached the Americans to their seventh consecutive gold medal at last year’s Olympics in Japan. She recalls the 1996 team understanding the mission, but not getting overwhelmed by it.
“We didn’t really have those profound conversations,” Staley said. “It was OK then to not feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. We were task-oriented.
“But when you grow and remove yourself from that time, you do have those conversations now. It is cool to have been part of the evolution of a sport — to have seen it, felt it, lived it — and take the time to really, really try to appreciate it and think how to keep it going.”
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How exceptional the 1996 U.S. team was currently is borne out in part by how contemporary its members and coaches still are. Staley’s Gamecocks and VanDerveer’s Cardinal are in the top three in ESPN’s most recent rankings for the 2022-23 college season. Rebecca Lobo is ESPN’s lead analyst for the WNBA and women’s basketball. Most of the 1996 players are still involved in basketball or athletics in some way.
“I think it’s rare that you recognize what’s happening in the moment of it, especially when you’re young,” said Lobo, who joined 1996 U.S. teammates Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie as the WNBA’s first three signees. “At 22, I didn’t have the foresight into the significance the team and that time would have.
“Now when I look in hindsight … holy cow, what the Olympic team did, the launch of the WNBA that’s here 26 years later — would there even be a WNBA without that team? Certainly not in that immediate time frame.”
The WNBA began in June 1997 after the U.S. team’s monthslong global tour in 1995-96, in which the Americans played collegiate and professional teams to get ready for the Atlanta Olympics. But the seeds for the 1996 U.S. women’s team actually started with the disappointment of the 1992 Olympics.
The Americans won silver in the first Olympic women’s basketball competition, in 1976, boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games, and then took gold in 1984 and 1988. Talent was abundant for the U.S. women’s program, but preparation was brief and on the fly.
With amateur requirements removed by the 1992 Olympics, a squad of NBA legends — the Dream Team — dominated headlines while crushing opponents on the way to men’s basketball gold. Meanwhile, the virtually ignored U.S. women’s squad got bronze in those Barcelona Games. When another bronze followed for the women in the next major competition, the 1994 FIBA World Championship, USA Basketball knew something needed to be done.
The Women’s Dream Team brought home a gold medal and won over America.
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Strange as it sounds, those bronze-medal disappointments ended up being the best thing to happen for U.S. women’s basketball. In the 1990s, the NBA was in the process of realizing the time was right for investment in the women’s game, and funding the national team presented the perfect opportunity to do a kind of test run for a pro league.
“Dream On” includes extensive behind-the-scenes footage that chronicles everything from the national team tryout camp in 1995 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with more than 200 hopefuls, to a frigid winter trip to Russia in 1996 for exhibition games in smoke-filled gymnasiums, to that triumphant August 1996 day in Atlanta when the Americans got back atop the Olympic medal podium. They haven’t left that perch since, a run of seven consecutive Olympic golds.
The timing was serendipitous. Lobo had led UConn to its first NCAA title with a perfect 1994-95 season, and the Huskies captured more attention than usual at that time for the women’s college game. Then Lobo was the youngest member of a U.S. team that represented many different players and back stories.
Sheryl Swoopes scored an NCAA-record 47 points for the Texas Tech Lady Raiders in the 1993 national championship game and was considered one of the best women’s players in the world. But she disliked playing overseas — at the time her only playing option outside of the national team — and found herself working at a bank while trying to stay in basketball shape playing pick-up games against whoever showed up. Similarly, Lisa Leslie finished a stellar career for the USC Trojans in 1994 but had little desire to play overseas.
Staley, a two-time national college player of the year for the Virginia Cavaliers, had been told not long after her college career ended in 1992 that she was too short and inexperienced to be an Olympian. Jennifer Azzi, who led Stanford to its first NCAA title in 1990, never got an explanation for why she was left off the 1992 Olympic team but surmises now it had to do with her being gay.
Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain, former Georgia Lady Bulldogs teammates who had won gold together in the 1988 Olympics, were determined for redemption after their 1992 Olympic bronze. But they felt they were being put out to pasture, despite being the Americans’ most experienced international players. They vowed to show they were too good to be cut.
Carla McGhee had been so badly injured in a car accident while playing at Tennessee that there was no guarantee she would walk normally after it, let alone return to the court or become an Olympian. Venus Lacy, who was the 12th player added to the team later in the process, was the perfect addition with her size and strength, although after the Olympics, she also would be hurt in a serious car accident.
Ruthie Bolton modeled unending strength for her teammates, even while she was hiding the nightmare of domestic violence that she feared would end her life.
The team bonded during the unrelenting strict workouts under VanDerveer. There were no smart phones or internet on their many miles traveled. Card games, chess — VanDerveer and Staley jokingly disagree now on who was better — watching television and having discussions about life were how the players bonded off the court. For lengthy stretches, they only had one another.
“It was a very driven group of people that had the physical toughness and the mental piece as well to make it through what was a very demanding year,” Lobo said. “It was a special group.”
The gold-medal success of U.S. women’s teams at the Atlanta Games in basketball, soccer and softball showed sponsors there was value in joining that wave of sports development. And while the winter-based ABL — the first women’s basketball league to launch in the United States post-Olympics in fall 1996 — folded in December 1998 during its third season, longevity has been a major milestone for the WNBA.
“We’ve moved the chains, but we’re not nearly as successful as we could be if we were invested in more,” Staley said. “Women’s basketball has been successful despite what’s often bare-minimum investment. We’re looking for more and more opportunities.”
Women’s sports in general have more representation on both television and media platforms that didn’t exist in the mid-1990s, but they still seek greater mainstream visibility. The NCAA is just a year removed from being exposed for embarrassing inequities between its Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, which prompted an external review detailing that was largely the case in all collegiate sports championships.
And while the 12-team WNBA celebrated its silver anniversary last season, the league is still hoping to expand for the first time since 2008.
“What we achieved in 1996 will become a full-circle moment for me when I feel the powers that be really dive into our game and give it the space and resources that it deserves,” Staley said. “Then everybody can benefit. I want the people who invest to get tenfold back what they put into our game.”