Two Gold Medals Highlight Darsch’s Resume
The gold-medal exploits of Seattle Storm veterans Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes have been well-documentered, but the Storm also added another Olympic veteran during the offseason: Assistant Coach Nancy Darsch, who was on the sidelines as an assistant as the U.S. Women won gold on their home soil in Los Angeles in 1984 and in Atlanta in 1996.
"That's pretty unusual, I would say," noted Darsch, "and I feel very fortunate to have had that experience in two United States Olympics in L.A. and Atlanta."
12 years later, the USA found itself in the unusual position of looking to bounce back after taking home bronze in 1992 in Barcelona and finishing third in the 1994 World Championships. With the Olympics back in the U.S., the result was an unprecedented year spent training and barnstorming the country under Head Coach Tara VanDerveer. Darsch joined the team after completing her NCAA season as head coach at Ohio State and was part of the U.S. team that went 8-0 to reclaim gold and capture the attention of the nation.
The opening ceremonies at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, along with the two gold-medal games, gave Darsch three indelible memories from her Olympic trips.
"In L.A., I was not on the official staff, so I didn't get to go through the opening ceremonies," Darsch recalled. "I watched it on TV and I thought it was absolutely awesome, like I have every other time I've watched it. To be able to go through the opening ceremonies in '96 in Atlanta, it's hard to describe. It was probably as good as winning a gold medal just to walk into the stadium and then witness the rest of the ceremony on the infield instead of on TV at home was absolutely wonderful.
"Obviously, the other two things that stand out would be the gold-medal clinching games, in L.A. against South Korea and in Atlanta against Brazil."
Though they came just 12 years apart, Darsch's two Olympic experiences were very different. In 1984, women's basketball was just starting to take root in the United States, a task made more challenging because players had to go overseas to continue their careers after college. At the time, the Olympics were the pinnacle of competition for U.S. players.
"I think it's obviously still a very big honor, but back in the '80s it was the biggest thing you could do as an American," explained Darsch. "There was no league here. You finished your college career, you went and played overseas - different culture, different country, different language, anonymity, invisibility. Then all of a sudden you become an Olympian, one of 12 players, you were known again. Then you went back to Europe and played somewhere and nobody knew who you were."
Presented a chance to shine, the Olympic team took full advantage, making fans along the way with their style of play.
"The ironic thing, on our team in '84, we had six people on our team who could dunk," Darsch said. "It seemed like we were on the cusp of that becoming a bigger part of our game. We had players who dunked in warmups. Having five or six of them doing it, if fans missed one, they could catch up and see the next one. I think that really surprised people. We had some fans that were women's basketball fans, obviously, but we had some casual fans as well that maybe were won over in '84. A lot of our players had been playing overseas. Americans didn't even remember some of these people - coverage of college basketball wasn't as big as it is now. I think it was kind of like a coming-out party for women's basketball in '84 in L.A."
12 years later, women's college basketball had exploded in popularity, building on the undefeated 35-0 national championship season of the Connecticut Huskies. The time was right for women's professional basketball to come back to the U.S., with the ABL and the WNBA both in the works by the time the U.S. women completed their journey in Atlanta. The Georgia Dome was filled with fans ready to see emerging stars like Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo go for gold.
"We played our first game not in the Dome but at Morehouse College there," recalled Darsch. "Then our second game was in the Dome. We walked out of the tunnel that first game in the Dome and there were 33,000 people there. Of course the majority of them were American, and the ovation that the team received and the cheering and the support, not only in that game but throughout the entire Olympics, was absolutely phenomenal."
As a part of the coaching staff, Darsch was focused on the Xs and Os and had little time to think about the bigger picture in terms of what the success the U.S. women enjoyed in Atlanta meant for the future of women's basketball in the country.
"I think the feeling was very good that this is going to be an exciting product, this is going to be a successful product," she said. "A lot of groundwork was laid during that time. I don't know if I was really aware of that, but I'm sure the NBA knew exactly what they were doing."
Less than nine months later, Darsch would be a part of that future, on the sidelines as head coach of the New York Liberty for the WNBA's inaugural game. She would lead the Liberty to the WNBA Finals in the league's first season, adding to a resume that included taking Ohio State to the national championship game in 1993. Darsch's four years of head-coaching experience in the WNBA in New York and Washington, along with three years as an assistant in Minnesota, made her an ideal choice to round out the Storm's coaching staff under new Head Coach Brian Agler, a friend dating back to their days as rival college head coaches.
"She's got a wealth of knowledge and experience, both at the collegiate level and the pro level," said Agler. "She knows most of the players, she knows the teams in the league. She is a basketball person. She's got a great work ethic. She's an excellent Xs and Os person. She gets along great with the players, and just the experience of coaching the game itself has been a great asset to the team."
For her part, Darsch is happy to be back in the WNBA after spending the last two seasons as an assistant coach at Boston College.
"I really enjoy working with Brian and Shelley (Patterson) and working with this organization and working back at this level of basketball player," she said. "I enjoyed my two years at Boston College very much and working with that age group too. There are things I like about both levels, but I'm enjoying myself working here with the Storm."
With the Storm in the hunt for a WNBA Championship, Darsch could add another major accomplishment to her coaching resume. It will be difficult, however, to top the experience of twice helping the USA win gold.
"It gives you chills to walk out onto the court wearing red, white and blue and know that you're helping a team achieve a gold medal," Darsch said. "It's just awesome."