In July and August 1996, the world sent its finest athletes to Atlanta. Some athletes came as familiar names from familiar nations. Others had toiled in obscurity. Each came proudly to Atlanta, and Atlanta received them in the same manner. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of those Summer Games, the AJC offers 20 memorable athletes and performances.
The ninth in the series: Response to earlier loss drives U.S. women to hoops gold.
Former U.S. women’s basketball coach Tara Vanderveer stills remembers sharing a bus with Brazil, 22 years after the Brazilians won their first world championship.
“We shared a bus with them as we were in the back and they were in the front of the bus,” Vanderveer, who is the head coach at Stanford, said. “They were all partying, and there was a lot of kids on that bus, and myself included, that were angry.”
Days earlier, the U.S. lost 110-107 in the semifinals to Brazil in 1994. The loss sent the U.S. to the third-place game, where they won the bronze medal against host country Australia. However, for many players, the bus ride still served as an embarrassing wake-up call.
“I think that loss opened everyone’s eyes to see that other countries are good, getting better and moving ahead of us,” Olympian Sheryl Swoopes said. “I think that loss kind of showed U.S. basketball that we have work to do, if we are serious about bouncing back and winning gold medals each year.”
Later that year, U.S. basketball president C.M. Newton wasted no time getting to work. He assembled a talented roster with Swoopes and future WNBA stars such as Teresa Edwards, Lisa Leslie, and Rebecca Lobo. He also added some American Basketball League stars such as Dawn Staley and Jennifer Azzi to the team. Altogether, the team consisted of 12 athletes that ushered in a new era of women’s basketball.
In their first meeting with the team, he introduced Vanderveer with a stern message to win the gold medal. So, she took a year off from coaching at Stanford to lead the team.
“I kind of said that we have nine months, and there is going to be some pain involved,” she said. “In the end, it is going to be a beautiful journey, and we are going to win a gold medal.”
Vanderveer wanted a defensive-minded team that would dominate the 1996 Olympic Games. So, she guided them through grueling workouts and a rigorous 52-game stretch against some of the top collegiate and professional teams.
“She pushed everybody and established to us that we are going to work hard and improve,” Azzi said. “We would have shooting workouts, conditioning workouts, weightlifting workouts and then practice. Our days were jam-packed with work and she definitely established that we were not going to lose to Brazil again.”
Those workouts helped the U.S. win each exhibition game by an impressive 45.2 points per game average. During that stretch, the team also improved their chemistry and became a sisterhood.
“We invested a lot in each other and did a lot of team building,” Olympian Katy Stedling said. “I don’t think it was scripted by the coaches but it was us coming together. It was the bonding off the court that made such a big impact on our play on the court.”
The chemistry also paid off during the Olympics in Atlanta. The U.S. rolled through the group stage, winning all five games against Ukraine, Australia, and South Korea among others. They also had an impressive plus-168 point differential that carried them into the knockout rounds.
Eventually, the U.S. made it to the gold-medal game against Brazil in a rematch. This time, they outmatched the Brazilians in a 111-87 victory.
Leslie led the way with 29 points, and Swoopes added 16. All 12 members scored. The team also set a record by shooting 66.2 percent from the field en route to the first gold medal for the U.S. since the 1988 Olympics.
Now 20 years later, the team was finally able to reunite at the 2016 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee. Honored as “Trailblazers of the Game,”it was the first time that the team has gotten together as a unit.
Since their last meeting, many of the players had gone on to play in the WNBA and currently involved with the sport. Azzi is the head coach at the University of San Francisco, Staley is the coach at South Carolina and Lobo is a commentator for ESPN.
When asked about the team, each athlete shared her gratitude at the Hall of Fame and were glad to be honored.
“Being a part of the 1996 Olympic team was a movement and an experience that shall linger on forever,” Olympian Ruthie Bolton said. “Those memories helped shaped me as far as being competitive and being a part of a family and team.”
Vanderveer also expressed her thankfulness to the team and said she will always remember the group as family.
“Honestly, it was so amazing that I didn’t have to have a one-on-one with any single player about attitude or effort. They all bought in at such a high level that it was incredible.”
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Credit: Jason Getz/AJC