Celebrating the 1995-96 Olympic Team Ten Years Later
As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of their gold medal victory in Atlanta, the profound influence of the 1996 United States Women's Olympic Basketball continues to shape the landscape of modern sports. Ten years ago this month, the American women capped off a year-long exhibition of dominance and set the wheels in motion for the creation of the Women's National Basketball Association, which began play less than a year later.
The United States was coming off disappointing showings in the 1992 Olympics and 1994 World Championships, and was determined to regain the reputation it had earned as a powerhouse during the 1980's. USA Basketball brought together 11 of the best American women basketball players, who then embarked on a 10-month international training tour, competing against many countries national teams and United States college teams. It also marked the creation of a U.S. Senior National Team that trained and played in games other than the semi-annual major tournaments.
"Coming straight from college, I was in awe of everything. It was so huge for all of us," said two-time Olympic gold medalist and recently-retired WNBA star Nikki McCray. "It was unbelievable, like we were the 1992 men's dream team. Every city that we went to, there were fans for practices, sellouts at the games and it was really fun. There will never be another team like that because it was the first."
Also headlining the group were Olympic veterans Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain, as well Jennifer Azzi, Ruthie Bolton and Carla McGhee, who was recently named the WNBA Director of Player Personnel.
"I look back and see that the '95-'96 National Team experience was the beginning of greatness," McGhee said. "Great friends, great bonds, great memories, great opportunities, great fan support and awareness, and of course, great basketball! I am very thankful and blessed for everything associated with that team."
Also selected to the team were a trio of younger stars who would be making the first of several Olympic appearances for the United States: Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes. The team also added Rebecca Lobo, who was fresh off an NCAA title and undefeated season of her own.
It most certainly could be a draw. The group came together on October 2, 1995 and began traveling and competing to prepare for the 1996 Olympics. They arrived in Atlanta in July of 1996 with an unblemished 52-0 record. Their Olympic contests sold out and the team rewarded the home crowd with an array of offensive talent. In the eight victories en route to the gold medal, the United States averaged 102.4 points per game as Leslie, Bolton, Swoopes, Edwards and McClain started all eight games.
"We all did our part to go 60-0 and win the gold," McCray said. "Plus, we got to do it in front of one of the largest crowds to ever see women play."
But the team had accomplished so much more than taking home a shiny medal. Women's basketball had finally achieved prominence in the national sports conscience and the NBA's plan for a women's league, the WNBA, finally had a leg to stand on.
"That team was probably the primary piece of the foundation that led to the WNBA," the league's first president, Val Ackerman, said. "That particular team, at that particular time, with the top players at the time, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Rebecca Lobo, all came together. The gold medal game did got a 15.5 rating on NBC and people had noted that the women's game had arrived. That momentum generated the strongest push we could have imagined going into the first season of the WNBA. The top players of that national team had signed up with the WNBA and we were able to take advantage of the goodwill associated with their name."
The U.S. had won gold at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, as well as the 1986 and 1990 World championships, but American women still had to go overseas to play professional basketball, spending most of their time away from home. Friends and family members never got to watch them play unless they made the trek to Europe or Asia.
"Before that, I was playing overseas," Bolton said. "I played in Sweden, Hungary, and two years in Italy before I had a chance to play in the WNBA. I had a good time with my international experience, but it felt good to be able to come back home."
But the '96 team proved that women's basketball was viable in the United States and ended a 15-year absence of women's professional basketball in this country. Not to mention the countless dreams they have inspired in young girls around the world.
"It's been amazing, this opportunity to be a role model," Sparks center Lisa Leslie said. "Growing up, I remember thinking that the Olympics was as far as I would go. Then I basically retired from basketball. To play again and have the WNBA over the last ten years has been tremendous. Plus, the ability to inspire young girls and women to want to be professional basketball players as well as going back to school are opportunities that I have embraced and feel a lot of gratitude to have been able to accomplish."
The women also opened doors for female athletes and themselves. During the original tour, several women landed marketing endorsement deals that had never existed for women in America before. Lobo signed a deal ever with Reebok, the first ever for a women's basketball player in America. That followed by Nike signing Swoopes to a deal, which included Swoopes having her own shoe, "Air Swoopes." Leslie was signed to a modeling contract with Wilhelmina, one of the largest modeling agencies ni the world. It goes without saying that these players paved the way for current endorsement deals today. Nike has deals with a handful of WNBA players and Diana Taurasi is the latest to have her own shoe.
From a historical basketball perspective, this team changed women's basketball in the United States and around the world. Since 1995-96 the U.S. have not lost a major world tournament, winning three Olympic gold medals and two World Championship gold medals. Even more impressive, the U.S. has gone a perfect 42-0 during that time in the Olympics and World Championships. To this day, the Senior National Team also competes against club teams and national teams as a means of building unity, chemistry and committment, maintaining a pool of professional talent.
"To me it was the light on my professional career," Bolton said. "My experience with USA Basketball was great not just because of the winning, but because of the friendships I've developed. Of course, winning always makes it better."
The 2006 World Championships begin September 12 in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Two members of the original 1995-96 U.S. Team, Leslie and Swoopes (ten-year WNBA veterans with more than half of the WNBA M.V.P. awards between them), will be back in action once again for the Red, White and Blue. Also part of the 2006 National Team is Staley, who is now an assistant coach under Storm coach Anne Donovan for USA Basketball.
Where They Are Now...
Lisa Leslie - Ten-year WNBA veteran, still playing in the WNBA and starring with the Los Angeles Sparks; three-time Olympic gold medlaist; lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Michael.
Sheryl Swoopes - Ten-year WNBA veteran, still playing in the WNBA and starring with the Houston Comets; three-time Olympic gold medlaist; 2005 WNBA M.V.P.
Dawn Staley - Eight-year WNBA veteran, recently retired from the Houston Comets; Head coach at Temple University and will serve as assistant coach on the U.S. Women's National Team.
Carla McGhee - Four-year WNBA veteran with the Orlando Miracle; McGhee last played in 2002; She has been active with the WNBA since, and recently was hired as the Director of Player Personnel. She lives with her son in New York.
Rebecca Lobo - Six-year WNBA veteran, last played in 2003; currently works as a broadcaster for ESPN; lives in Connecticut with her family and recently gave birth to her second child
Venus Lacy - Played two seasons in the WNBA; Currently residing in Chattanooga, Tennesee with her children.
Jennifer Azzi - Five-year WNBA veteran, last played in 2003; Started Azzi Training and is involved with the WNBA Cares fitness initiatives; Lives in Salt Lake City Utah,
Teresa Edwards - Played one season in the WNBA with the Minnesota Lynx (2004); Currently living in Georgia; participates in Junior WNBA camps and clinics; Five-time Olympian
Nikki McCray - Nine-year WNBA veteran; retired during the 2006 with 2,550 career points; two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Ruthie Bolton - Eight-year WNBA veteran, retired after the 2004 season; Known as Miss Monarch and still works in fan relations and community relations with the Monarchs.
Katy Steading - Played two seasons in the WNBA; Is now the head coach at Warner Pacific in Oregon, where she lives with her husband.