Throughout the Olympics, WNBA.com has caught up with members of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that began U.S. Women’s Basketball’s run of five straight gold medals, a streak the 2016 team is looking to extend to six in Rio.
Today, we catch up with the woman that orchestrated that great collection of talent from the sidelines – head coach Tara VanDerveer. The head coach at Stanford University since 1985, where she’s led the Cardinal to 11 Final Fours and two national championships, VanDerveer stepped down from her position at Stanford in order to take the “opportunity of a lifetime” to coach the U.S. National Team on the 52-game pre-Olympic tour and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
On her decision to step down from Stanford in order to take the USA Basketball job:
“Well it was a hard decision. Not because I didn’t want to do it, I mean it was a once in a lifetime opportunity; it was hard because I loved coaching at Stanford too. It was having two incredibly exciting and rewarding choices but you can only do one, you can’t clone yourself and do both. It was a sacrifice to walk from your program; I had to resign from Stanford, but it was really a thrilling, fantastic, once in a lifetime opportunity that I had to do it.”
On her memories of that year with the National Team:
“I think it was a really special team. What really stands out to me is we traveled together for nine months basically and we had very mature players, very competitive players, very unselfish players, and there really were no issues. They got along very well. There was great camaraderie, they worked extremely hard, and they were very focused. It was everything you could have asked for. It was an amazing, amazing group, and I think a great accomplishment.”
On coming from college and coaching professional players:
“Someone said to me, ‘You’re a college coach, how will you handle coaching the pros?’ I said I’ll have no problem coaching the pros, it’s the amateurs that will give me trouble. They were total professionals, they came everyday, gave everything they had, did whatever was asked. And it was demanding; we traveled a lot, we practiced a lot, it was very demanding.
“We had great leadership at USA Basketball, I worked with fabulous assistant coaches and I worked with just incredibly talented, unselfish, competitive players, just players that you like to be around. People that were mature, they understood what we were doing, and they made it fun, they a really were a special group. I don’t know that people understand how just how unique this team was, just for them to all leave bigger salaries overseas, to sacrifice and train and travel. Maybe some of them really didn’t understand what they were getting into because we trained and we worked hard, we got off a plane and we were in the gym, in the weight room, on the track, we were training. It wasn’t just showing up and playing games.”
On coaching such a talented roster and getting everyone to accept roles:
“It wasn’t an issue because of the maturity of the women that played and the leadership that you had on that team with people like Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain – they were players that had won gold medals before and then they played on a team that didn’t’ win the gold medal (in 1992) so I think they had to do it a different way, so for them that was the challenge. They were just a group that was incredibly unselfish, represented their country, they did whatever we needed them to do. There were no issues about playing time, roles, scoring, everybody bought in and it was an amazing experience.”
On the 1996 team’s camaraderie and chemistry:
“The team was really close. You’re on the bus with everybody, you don’t have cell phones, you’re connected to the people on the bus, you’re not sitting on the bus as an island, texting somebody else that’s not there. Your real focus was the team, the relationships were really close, they’re still close. It was a really close team. And they were tired. There was a lot of travel and a lot of work. People did whatever it took to win the gold medal.”
On the pressure to win the gold and elevate the game of women’s basketball in the United States:
“They were wanting to establish the professional leagues and I think what was really interesting was half the team was going to play with one league and half the league was going to play with the other, and there was never any division (among the players). There was a lot of pressure. Everywhere we went people were saying bring home the gold, it did put women’s basketball on the map in a different way. I think people handled it really well.”
On how the U.S. women’s basketball program has grown since 1996 to become one of the most dominant programs in the Olympics:
“I think it’s the 1996 team in some ways, but there were a lot of great teams before that. I think the 1992 team was talented but they didn’t get the advantage of the practice time we had. The ‘88 team won a gold, the ‘84 team won a gold but I know the Russians weren’t there. I think a lot of the success of women’s basketball is because of the development of the game at the college level, the high school level, things have just improved so much in terms of the teaching of the game, and the development of the fundamentals. We just have so many great players in the United States and we just need to continue to do that, continue to develop the game, teach the game and challenge the rest of the world to do the same. I think Australia is very competitive in basketball, Brazil used to be, they’re not as competitive now, obviously Russia was competitive for 25 years but I think we should challenge the rest of the world to do what the United States has done to develop the game and improve the game.”
On the WNBA celebrating its 20th season after launching just a year after her 1996 team won the gold:
“I think its great, it brings more visibility to women’s’ basketball, but we still have along way to go. It’s a great league, its probably one of the most competitive leagues of any professional league because there aren’t that many teams and its just the best of the best playing. It’s extremely competitive. It’s great that the league is viable and the WNBA is looking at different ways to make it work. Obviously, some of the women will play overseas still, but I think it gives … I know that we have players on our team that want to be WNBA players, they want to be professional women’s basketball players and its great to have that option in the United States.”
On preparing for the upcoming season at Stanford, her 31st as the head coach of the Cardinal:
We’re very excited. We return, for the most part, our starting lineup and top players and we’re very excited. We have at least one WNBA player as a senior – Erica McCall – she wants to continue playing and she’s someone that the WNBA will be looking at. We have some really young players coming in that we just need to get healthy and we’ll be ready to go.