Jennifer Azzi won a gold medal for her efforts as a point guard on Team USA’s 1996 Olympics team. She then played five seasons in the WNBA for the Detroit Shock, Utah Starzz and San Antonio Silver Stars. Now, she’s the head coach at the University of San Francisco, where she has revitalized a program that was in dire need of a new vision and culture.
What are some of your memories from the 1996 Olympics?
“It was just the most incredible experience. I think what made it so great were the people, that was one of the best teams I had ever been a part of and we were a team from top to bottom. We sort of became like sisters as the year went on – we put a lot of work into going to Atlanta. Being together that long and traveling that much bonded us. Going to the Olympics, I remember we were all really nervous before the first game, but once we started playing, given we had put in all that work, we just knew there was no way that anyone was going to take the gold medal from us. We were going to go get it.”
“Being part of a team that got so much attention because we were in the United States, we had a great platform to watch both professional leagues. That team was on a mission – it was about the gold medal, but it was also the first time people in the United States had seen an elite level of women’s basketball.”
The 1996 Olympic team started off a string of five straight gold medals. What’s the relationship between that team and the 2016 Olympic team?
“It was a pivotal Olympics and a pivotal experience for furthering our game. That sort of spirit of togetherness and respect – the respect for wearing your country on your jersey – the team now reflects that too. Some of the players on that team crossed over with some of our players, so across that 20 years, you have players on the 2016 team that played with players on our team. I’s fun to think about the fact that we have that continuity.”
Outlook for the 2016 Olympics – Who are you excited to see play?
“Obviously Sue [Bird] and Diana [Taurasi] having been in it for quite a while and seeing them continue going with their careers and having all the opportunities that they’ve had. The entire team, they’re just so talented and they’ve got a class about them that I really like.”
On the Olympic experience:
“You can get paid a lot of money playing professional basketball, but there’s nothing like being an Olympian. It’s a special, special thing that means more than just playing your sport. To get to represent the greatest country in the world is exciting.”
You were in the WNBA in its early years, how have you seen the league change over 20 years?
“It’s more athletic. The players are bigger and longer and you have to have that size and length in the WNBA. You have face-up players like [Elena] Delle Donne that didn’t really exist that much. Lauren Jackson was the first wave of that taller face-up player that can handle the ball, shoot the 3 .. you don’t see a lot of true, back-to-the-basket post players much. All the players inside can shoot the 3.”
On her coaching career at University of San Francisco:
“It’s hard, but it’s so rewarding to have gone from last to first. It was very, very challenging in the first couple of years having to weather a lot of storms and really stick to what I believe, which is hard work and doing things right. This was the first year where I felt the players took ownership and it wasn’t me constantly having to paint a picture of what was possible.”
How did this idea of coaching come about, is it always something you wanted?
“It’s always something I’ve wanted to do, I just didn’t know where or when. I needed space between my playing career and getting into coaching and it had to be the right situation, I didn’t want to do it just to do it.”