Months before the 1996 Olympic Games would be held in the Georgia Dome, the United States women’s basketball team stopped by. After watching video of various American hoops teams winning gold, two veteran players, Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain, surprised their teammates by revealing the gold medals they’d won in previous Olympic competition. With the players standing where the podium would eventually be, they bowed their heads and accepted the medals. It was inspirational, and the message was clear: It was gold or bust for the 1996 U.S. women’s basketball team.
Spoiler alert: They won. On August 4, 1996, the U.S. team completed an undefeated “season” and earned its very own gold medals. Given their third-place finishes at the two previous international tournaments, it was critical they reestablished themselves as the world’s elite. Among the 33,000 in attendance at the gold-medal game was Val Ackerman, who’d been named the president of a new women’s professional basketball league, the WNBA. As she sat with NBA colleagues watching “one of the best basketball games you could ever see,” she thought, What a platform to be springing from.
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The gold standard
Women’s basketball first appeared in the Olympics at the 1976 Summer Games. The U.S. took silver that year, didn’t medal in 1980, and won gold in ’84 and ’88. After bronze finishes at the ’92 Games and at the FIBA World Championship two years later, USA Basketball (USAB) had seen enough. The American teams were talented, but not good enough to gather just two weeks before the Games and hope to beat teams that played together year-round. Meanwhile, the NBA, by then a USAB member with employees on the group’s board, was considering launching a women’s pro league and figured the national team could be a test group, especially with the Olympics on U.S. soil. Those two goals—USAB: win gold; NBA: test the market—resulted in an unprecedented 10-month tour leading up to the Olympics.
The players had to forfeit, in some cases, six-figure salaries playing overseas. But the $50,000 stipend and the opportunity to return to the top of the medal podium, in their own country, were major selling points. Every player USAB wanted, it got. The 12-player roster is a who’s who of women’s hoops history: Edwards and McClain, the lone holdovers from ’92, were joined in the starting lineup by Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Ruthie Bolton. Dawn Staley, Nikki McCray, and Jennifer Azzi were on the team. Rebecca Lobo was one of the last players off the bench. This was the women’s version of what Jordan, Magic and Bird had been a part of four years prior: a Dream Team.
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Since USAB’s preference was to keep a coach for a two-event cycle, Tara VanDerveer, who led the team at the ’94 Worlds, was the logical choice. The year-long commitment meant she’d have to leave Stanford for a season. “It was a very difficult decision,” VanDerveer, who is still at Stanford, says now. “It was a little bit of an unknown. There was no precedent.” She signed on, bringing two college national championships and an obsessive determination to win gold with her.
“We were viewed by the rest of the world as talented but lazy, dysfunctional,” VanDerveer says. “That we thought we could just show up and win.” Starting practice in October was the solution. And they went hard in those practices. VanDerveer had met with a world-renowned sleep doctor at Stanford who told her a good tip for overcoming jet lag was to exercise immediately upon arrival. So that’s what the team did. “We would fly for 15 hours, get off the bus at the hotel thinking we’d shower and rest,” says Carla McGhee, a back-up center. “Tara would have us practice right then. It didn’t matter if it was freezing in the gym. We’d have gloves on in the warm-up line.” Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, regardless of their location, they’d lift weights and do conditioning work.
The players battled until they memorized and anticipated each other’s moves. McGhee and Leslie traded plenty of elbows, but the competition made them all better. Three-hour practices, more common in college than the pros, were the norm. VanDerveer knows several players thought she was crazy, and McGhee admits she was one of them. McGhee, who also played for Pat Summitt at Tennessee, now considers herself blessed to have been coached by two geniuses.
From Halloween 1995 to mid-July, the team played a 52-game exhibition schedule against other national teams and college squads. They started and ended in the United States but made trips to Russia, China and Australia. Despite VanDerveer handicapping her players by not allowing them to press or run set plays against the college teams, the United States won every game, many by margins of 40 or more. None of it mattered if the U.S. didn’t capture gold in Atlanta.
‘This needs to go forward’
The NBA had its eye on more than scoreboards. It financed and managed the team’s marketing for the first time, securing sponsorships, arranging public appearances and getting a handful of games on ABC and ESPN. The NBA wanted to know if the market was receptive of women’s basketball.
Ackerman and her colleagues watched as crowd sizes and media support grew as the national team progressed through its barnstorming tour. The players reaped benefits, signing endorsement deals with Nike and Reebok, among others. The team crossed paths with many of the biggest stars of the time. McGhee recalls hanging out with President Clinton. After a game in Australia, Ice Cube invited the players to the VIP section of a club. Cedric the Entertainer opened his house to them in California. They dined with Boyz II Men, who would sing the national anthem at the Games’ closing ceremonies, and hung with Will Smith, who spotted Staley and shouted, “Yo, Dawn, my girl from Philly!”
The players would sign autographs for long lines of fans—including many young girls with their families—after games. We’re on to something here, thought assistant coach Renee Brown, now a senior executive with the WNBA. “We were developing the WNBA on a side-by-side track with the unfolding of the national team,” Ackerman says. By the NBA’s April board meeting, she could report confidently to team owners: “This needs to go forward.” The WNBA was officially announced that month, with games to begin in the summer of ’97. (A competing league, the ABL, would start play in the fall of ’96, but folded after just two seasons.)
There was still the matter of, you know, the U.S. reclaiming its position as the best basketball team in the world. VanDerveer eliminated contact drills once the team arrived in Atlanta. Leading up to the Games, the team hadn’t gone a week without an injury. Heck, center Venus Lacy missed the Opening Ceremonies because she needed a root canal. For the two weeks of Olympic competition, though, the whole squad was healthy. It cruised through pool play and beat Japan in the quarterfinals and Australia in the semis to set up a championship showdown with Brazil, the team that had bounced the U.S. from the semis in 1994 and gone on to win gold.
In a New York Times game preview, McClain is quoted saying, “If we don’t win, for me, the whole year has been a waste.” Nikki McCray-Penson, a guard, still gets chills thinking about it. “That game was bigger than just the gold medal game.”
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The Americans led by 11 at the half and won 111–87, their superior conditioning and depth prevailing. All 12 players scored; Leslie, the leading scorer during the tour and the Olympics, poured in a game-high 29 points. Edwards had 10 assists and became the first basketball player to win three gold medals. The “experiment” had gone 60–0.
Malcolm Moran, who covered the game for the Times, says the first half of the gold-medal game was the best half of basketball at the Olympics, men or women. “It felt like we were going through a threshold [for women’s basketball],” he says. “That level of competition in front of that size crowd was something that had never been seen before. It was the perfect showcase for how far the women’s game had come.”
A league of their own
For the WNBA, taking gold was the “icing on the cake,” according to Ackerman, now the Big East commissioner. Initially, the national team’s roster was divided between the WNBA and ABL, but 10 of the 12 would eventually play in the WNBA. At the time, the players recognized the national team was special, but couldn’t predict the impact it would have on women’s basketball as a whole: the creation of a new league, now in its 20th season; more endorsements; increased salaries overseas.
“We just wanted a league of our own,” McGhee says. She was tired of traveling overseas with no internet and high telephone bills. With the new leagues, “Our families could see us play on our soil.”
Carol Callan, the director of the women’s national team then and now, points to a variety of factors that helped launch the WNBA, including UConn’s undefeated season in 1994–95 and its budding rivalry with Tennessee. “There was so much momentum from a variety of forces and our team galvanized it in one area.”
Sue Bird was 15 years old during the ’96 Olympics. Candace Parker was 10. The WNBA icons reflected on the importance of that team in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “The WNBA was born out of the excitement and the hype that the ’96 team created,” Bird said. Added Parker: “They jumpstarted women’s hoops in America. Without that team, I don’t think the WNBA would exist today.”
Twenty years ago, the national team trained for nearly a year because it was both necessary and feasible. By 2000, it trained during certain gaps in the WNBA and overseas seasons. Now, USAB has a pool of 30 players, and the 12 who make the final cut practice together for two weeks leading up to the Olympics. With WNBA—which takes a four- to five-week break every four years—and overseas opportunities, players are going year-round. “We adjust to the climate and competition as best we can,” Callan says. “We want our players to be prepared but not over-trained.” It’s obviously working: If the women dominate in Rio as expected, it will be their sixth straight gold.
The streak started, of course, in ’96. “I don’t think anyone knew how important our team was or what precedent we were setting,” McGhee says. “We just wanted to bring back gold.”
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to Excelle Sports. He writes about women’s basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.