More than a dream

By winning Olympic gold in 1996, the female Dream Team paved the way for a new world order in women's pro hoops. AP Photo/Susan Ragan

It happened only once. Doubt.

On Aug. 4, 1995, Tara VanDerveer went running near her home in Palo Alto, Calif. She jogged the hill by her house, thinking about the gig she had just signed up for, the golden challenge she had accepted: coach of the 1996 U.S. Olympic women's basketball team. When she was done with her run, she hopped in the shower. But the thoughts, increasingly uneasy, continued. She remembered the words C.M. Newton, president of USA Basketball, had said to her from the outset: "This isn't about silver; this is about gold."

What if the team, her team, let everyone down? Despite the hot water pouring over her, VanDerveer began shaking. She stepped out of the shower, sat down and filled her mind with reassurances. You're ready. You'll work as hard as you can. You have the right team.

Then she stood up, got back in the shower and washed away the negativity.

Exactly one year later, on Aug. 4, 1996, the U.S. women won basketball gold at the Summer Olympics, a victory that helped launch the WNBA. The Atlanta Games are often called the "Title IX Olympics" for the U.S., because so many of the female athletes competing on the courts, fields and tracks grew up after the law, passed in 1972, had taken root.

The American women dominated those two weeks -- also winning gold in soccer, softball and gymnastics -- but it was VanDerveer's squad, featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated's Olympics preview issue, that carried the heaviest burden.

After failures in three previous major tournaments (the 1991 Pan Am Games, the 1992 Summer Olympics and the 1994 world championships), USA Basketball decided to assemble the women's team a year early and play a 52-game exhibition schedule. The NBA pumped in $3 million to fund the campaign, which was intended to build chemistry and prove to investors -- namely the NBA itself -- that professional women's basketball could be a viable business in the U.S.

Now, 16 years later, on the eve of the 2012 Summer Olympics, the U.S. women are expected to win gold again, for the fifth consecutive time. Anything less would be a serious disappointment. But while the stars of this year's team -- Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker -- know the pressure of playing for their country, they can only imagine the pressure of playing for the future of the game. That was the weight carried by the 1996 squad, which created a legacy of winning and built the platform upon which to do it.

In short, the roots of today's U.S. pro game took hold in Atlanta.

For that 1995-96 crusade, VanDerveer resigned as coach at Stanford (albeit temporarily, because a leave of absence wouldn't allow the program to hire an assistant coach to help fill the void). Meanwhile, the U.S. players gave up six-figure contracts overseas -- some for as much as $300,000 -- in exchange for a $50,000 stipend. But all of them were offered something money couldn't buy: a spotlight for their game.

They traveled more than 100,000 miles, signed thousands of autographs and won 60 contests (including eight as Olympians) without losing any. They also ran more sprints than any of them care to remember.

Below are a few stories from their journey, recounted by the women who lived it.

The wind was whipping. The temperature was dipping. What had been rain was now sleet. The members of the U.S. women's national team were sitting in their cars outside a middle school track in Colorado Springs, Colo., their headlights illuminating the conditions. And every player was thinking the same thing: No way we're running in this.

It was early October, and they were gathered for their conditioning test, which was a timed 2-mile run. The selection committee had chosen the first 11 players back in May: Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Katrina McClain, Teresa Edwards, Dawn Staley, Nikki McCray, Rebecca Lobo, Jennifer Azzi, Katy Steding, Ruthie Bolton and Carla McGhee. They were a delicate blend of experience, talent and marketability. They needed to win gold, yes, but they also needed to capture the public's imagination along the way, proving that women's hoops could carve out space in America's already crowded sports landscape.

The newly formed team had flown overseas for games in Lithuania and Italy that spring of 1995, but then disbanded for the summer, each player going home with a training schedule in hand. Every week, they mailed their workout results to VanDerveer, who meticulously compiled the numbers. Now, with the temperature near freezing, the team was together again at a small track near the U.S. Olympic training facility -- and the players figured Mother Nature had bought them a day off.

They were wrong. "Some of them, they weren't used to working like this," VanDerveer recalls. "I can't say people loved it, but they eventually embraced it. They were proud of the fact they became so fit and strong."

Everyone made their times except Leslie, McGhee and Lobo. All three became members of VanDerveer's "Breakfast Club," which required them to run the test each morning until they broke 16 minutes. The 6-foot-4 Lobo was the last to pass, doing so on the fourth day.

For the next nine months, the team lifted weights and conditioned every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Whether it was a game day or a travel day, they worked out, recording each sprint and lift in a binder VanDerveer had distributed. The first page of everyone's binder was a photocopy of Edwards' gold medal from the 1988 Seoul Games.

USA Basketball began its partnership with NBA Properties before the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. For the first time in history, the U.S. men's squad would be comprised of NBA players -- aka the Dream Team. As the plan was hatched to send the U.S. women's national team on its world tour in advance of the Atlanta Games, NBA Properties helped with the marketing and brought in corporate backing.

Gatorade, for example, sponsored a poster of Team USA that featured a game schedule and was sent to every major women's college hoops program, as a handout for summer campers. USA Basketball also created a red jersey, making it easier to assess sales by quickly scanning the crowd. At each of the team's domestic games, a merchandise booth was set up, practice was open to the public and autographs were freely given.

VanDerveer did not pick the squad. There is a clause in USA Basketball's constitution that says the coach of the national team is not allowed to vote on player selection. She could speak her mind at two meetings held by the selection committee, but no one had to listen. (The 13-member panel was comprised mainly of high school and college coaches, with a few athlete representatives.)

For years, VanDerveer had diligently assembled her Stanford squads, so having no say in choosing the national team was a little like enduring an arranged marriage. Love, or even like, was not guaranteed. And according to several sources close to the team, the selection committee's picks were based on more than just basketball ability.

Part of the deal was promotion -- ticket sales, merchandise slinging, media requests and autograph sessions. Center Rebecca Lobo, coming off an NCAA title with UConn, was a media darling. But she was also fresh out of college, not prepared to compete against older, stronger players, and she would land at the end of the bench in Atlanta. In that regard, she was similar to Christian Laettner of the 1992 Dream Team. But while Laettner hardly mattered amid the likes of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, Lobo was as visible a star as the women's game had.

Under normal circumstances, VanDerveer would have used that roster spot for a veteran player with more international experience; she worried the team lacked the physical inside presence to compete against China, Brazil and Australia. But the goals in Atlanta were bigger and beyond the coach's control. What she could script was how she prepared her team. And she vowed that the U.S. would be in better shape and more disciplined than any other squad at the Olympics.

The first game of the team's college tour was at the University of Georgia, in October. VanDerveer took her players to the Georgia Dome, where the Olympic gold-medal game would take place nine months later. Although she worried they would think it was cheesy, she asked Edwards to bring her two gold medals (the one from Seoul and another from the 1984 Los Angeles Games), and the players held a mock medal ceremony. "Somebody is going to win a gold medal in here," VanDerveer told them.

Center Lisa Leslie, who would go on to emerge as Team USA's leading scorer at the Olympics, raised her arms over her head. Then Edwards instructed her, "When you get a gold medal, this is what you do."

Bow slightly, and let them gently slip it around your neck.

The U.S. team bus was pulling away from The Palestra, the legendary arena on Penn's campus, after the Americans had defeated China in an April 1996 exhibition game. The win boosted their record to 39-0, and they had clearly established themselves as the favorites for gold. Point guard Dawn Staley, who had grown up on Philly's hardscrabble streets, spotted a little girl running after the bus. Staley stood and asked the driver to stop. Everyone filed off the bus and signed an autograph for the girl.

"We became conditioned to sign a lot of autographs," Staley says. "We had the No Child Left Behind policy."

Just before the Olympics, the players were invited to the White House to jog along the Potomac with President Bill Clinton. Before the run, a White House aide pulled VanDerveer aside and asked, "What if the girls have trouble keeping up with him?" The coach thought to herself, Then I will cut those girls on the spot.

Before one game -- nobody can remember which one or when -- VanDerveer was delivering the scouting report, talking at great length, making sure to mention every last detail. Finally, assistant coach Nell Fortner interrupted. "OK, Tara, I'll take it from here," she said. Fortner told the players to turn the page, then she scribbled on the blackboard: KICK THEIR ASS.

There was a time for nose-to-the-grindstone, and there was a time for letting go.

So much was asked of the players that VanDerveer wanted to ask the same of herself. As soon as she took over as coach, she and Carol Callan, director of operations for USA Basketball, began running every other day, usually for 45 minutes. One time in Vancouver, British Columbia, though, they became so enthralled by the scenery -- the sweeping mountains and glimpses of the Pacific Ocean -- that they ran too far in one direction, then had to hail a cab back downtown.

The running was meant to be a stress release, but the pair often talked about hoops anyway. VanDerveer would say, "We need a big girl on this team!" (She eventually got one: Venus Lacy, a wide-bodied, 6-foot-4 center, the last player added.) The running was also about more than just exercise. It was about a mantra: Put into something what you want to get out of it.

Taped to the mirror of her hotel room at the Omni in downtown Atlanta, VanDerveer had two photos -- one of a gold medal, the other of her and Edwards balancing each other on a high-ropes course. VanDerveer would look at those photos and think, We won't let each other down.

On the morning of the gold-medal game, the coach looked in the mirror and knew there was nothing more she could have done. No corner had been cut. So when she and Callan went running that day, they put in extra minutes -- just in case the game went into overtime.

"I couldn't see anything beyond Aug. 4, 1996," VanDerveer says, recalling Team USA's 111-87 win over Brazil in the final event of the Olympic fortnight. "I couldn't believe there was going to be a day after that."

After receiving their gold medals, the players went back to the Omni and smoked celebratory cigars. Later that night, VanDerveer saw Edwards at the front desk, checking out of the hotel, beer in hand. "That was it," Edwards quipped to the coach. "I can't take you another day."

Everyone felt more than just excitement and celebration. They felt relief. For months, the media had made it seem like victory was a forgone conclusion. But the cost of failure was extreme: the undermining of the pro game in the U.S. Now, finally, their mission complete, the players were ready for their exhausting, yearlong quest to end.

In the months after Atlanta, three new women's professional leagues appeared: the Women's Pro Softball League, the American Basketball League and the Women's National Basketball Association. A fourth league, the Women's United Soccer Association opened its doors a few years later, after the Americans' memorable win at the 1999 Women's World Cup. But the momentum for WUSA started in Atlanta, where the U.S. won gold in front of 77,000 fans, at the time an attendance record for women's soccer.

Of those four leagues, only the WNBA still exists in its original form. The ABL, sapped of talent because of the WNBA's emergence and resources, closed its doors in 1998. The WPSL folded in 2001, then re-emerged as the National Pro Fastpitch League in 2004, with four active teams today. WUSA shuttered in 2003, and its successor, Women's Professional Soccer, announced bankruptcy this summer.

The WNBA began operations in 1996 and played its first game in the summer of 1997. Now in its 16th season, with a lineup of 12 teams, it is the longest-running women's pro league in U.S. history.

The day after the gold-medal game in Atlanta, VanDerveer was back home in Palo Alto, staring at an empty fridge. She went to the grocery store, and as the coach was handpicking oranges, a woman stopped and stared at her before asking, "Weren't you in Atlanta yesterday, coaching the Olympic team?"

VanDerveer allowed herself a moment of pride, thinking to herself, Oh yeah, that was me.

"Huh," the woman said. "You're shorter than I thought."