1996 U.S. women's basketball team paved way for future generations

Jennifer Azzi couldn't eat. The 1996 Atlanta Games were about to open for the U.S. women's basketball team, and food was the last thing on her mind as she sat next to Lisa Leslie for breakfast in the Olympic Village.

"I just had this nervous excitement, and then I look over, and Lisa couldn't eat either," Azzi said. "We were all just so over-the-top excited."

U.S. national team director Carol Callan's memory drifts to a different point that day, when the team's bus pulled into the parking lot of the Georgia Dome.

"It was a school-girl level of excitement," Callan recalled. "People were screaming on the bus. They'd been playing and training together for a year, and it was time to see the end result."

As the U.S. women's team prepares to begin its quest for a sixth consecutive gold medal in women's basketball in Rio, the groundwork laid by the groundbreaking team of 1996 has never been more evident.

"That team readjusted the balance of power in the world," USA Basketball coach Geno Auriemma said. "Starting 20 years ago to today, there's never been a more dominant team in the Olympics in any sport than the U.S. women's national team."

The 1996 Olympic women's basketball team accomplished things that had never been done by preparing in a way that had never been done. For the first time in program history, the women's USA Basketball team trained and played together for nearly a year in preparation for the Olympics. In the end, that group made more than history, going 60-0 (52-0 in pre-Olympic competition and 8-0 in the Games) and capturing one of the most visible gold medals in an Olympics that was a marking point because of the overwhelming success of female athletes.

The 1996 team created stars in players such as Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes, set a new bar for the level of play in women's basketball, and launched two professional leagues, including the WNBA, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season.

Callan calls the creation of the 1996 team, and in a way, all that came after, "a perfect storm."

The women's college game was growing in popularity, as Connecticut won its first national championship in 1995 and had a burgeoning rivalry with Tennessee. The NBA was exploring a business model for professional women's basketball in the United States and was willing to put some money behind the USA women's team as a marketing "project."

"That team readjusted the balance of power in the world." USA Basketball coach Geno Auriemma on the impact of the 1996 team

The U.S. team was coming off a pair of disappointing performances, finishing with bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Games and at the 1994 world championship.

"We knew we had to make some changes," Callan said. "We created a program that allowed the team to train together over a sustained period, like the rest of the world does."

USA Basketball convinced Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer to leave her program for a year to coach the team. It assembled a roster mixed with veteran players such as Teresa Edwards, who had been playing for years in anonymity overseas, and young guns such as Leslie and Dawn Staley, who were best known for their NCAA résumés and were about to break through on a different level.

USA Basketball scheduled a year's worth of exhibitions, a 22-game college tour that introduced the team to the country, and a full slate of international games to prepare the U.S. women's basketball team for international competition. A handful of those games were on national television.

The college tour began in Atlanta, with VanDerveer taking the players to the Georgia Dome and asking them to visualize their place on the medal stand.

In between games and trips, there were autograph sessions, photo shoots and media interviews. There was no social media. The players were tightly bonded and exceedingly focused.

"It was almost like we were still girls waiting to become grown women," Edwards said. "We grew up really fast, and the grown-up part of us allowed us to be great basketball players.

"But the kid part of us really enjoyed each other's company. We laughed so much. We messed up each other's hair and fixed it back. We paid for each other's dinners. We'd send room service to the wrong rooms. We had fun. But when it was time to play, we killed each other. We brought the best out of each other."

"Starting 20 years ago to today, there's never been a more dominant team in the Olympics in any sport than the U.S. women's national team." USA Basketball coach Geno Auriemma

Azzi remembers a day when the U.S. women practiced at Georgetown while legendary coach John Thompson stood on the sideline and watched. Thompson came into the huddle at the end of practice to address the team.

"You are making people respect you," he told them, and the compliment stuck with Azzi and her teammates.

"We showed people a different level of basketball," Azzi said. "No one had seen professional women's basketball in the States. We would go into college arenas, and teams thought they were going to be able to beat us. We were beating national championship teams by a significant margin. It was the first time for people to see the game played by women at that level."

'Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity'

The legacy of the 1996 team goes beyond the history that was written, the ripples of that seminal experience casting off in all directions. They established professional basketball in the United States, cementing a place for pro women's team sports in the landscape. To the players on that team who eventually would go on to coaching careers, such as Staley (South Carolina), Azzi (San Francisco), Swoopes (formerly of Loyola) and Katy Steding (Boston University). To the influence over the U.S. team's current batch of stalwarts such as Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Tamika Catchings. To the other side of the country to the coach who cemented her own Hall of Fame legacy without taking home a medal.

Coaches don't receive medals in the Olympics, so while the players stood on the platform after beating Brazil in the final in front of nearly 33,000 fans that last day, VanDerveer stood just off to the side. She didn't need a medal to realize she'd created a gold standard.

VanDerveer was demanding, unrelenting. She had the most talented roster in the history of the game, and she wanted those players to give her everything, from the first game to the last. After all, she was giving significantly as well.

VanDerveer had resigned from her head-coaching job at Stanford, taking the year away to not only lead the U.S. women back to the gold-medal stand, but to prime the country for professional women's basketball and to alter the culture of the women's national team program.

"It was a really difficult decision," said VanDerveer, who turned her program over to longtime assistant coach Amy Tucker and brought old friend Marianne Stanley in as co-head coach for one season. "You put so much into your own program. The hardest part of it was having to resign for that year. But I recognized it as an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

"It was a really difficult decision. You put so much into your own program. ... But I recognized it as an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." Tara VanDerveer, on stepping away from Stanford for a year to coach the 1996 Olympic team

People told VanDerveer she was never going to be able to go back to the college game after her experience coaching the best team in the world. Her name came up as a coaching candidate for the WNBA and the American Basketball League, which was going to have a team in San Jose and feature Azzi as its founding player. But VanDerveer never wavered about her commitment to return to Stanford.

"I was excited about going back," she said. "I had learned things from the Olympic experience that I wanted to take back to my team."

Twenty years later, VanDerveer is a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame and is on the cusp of reaching 1,000 career wins as a college coach. Many players on that 1996 team regard her as the best coach they ever played for.

Ruthie Bolton knew that playing the Olympics on home soil had the potential to make or break women's basketball in the United States.

"There was so much at stake," Bolton said. "We didn't want another feeling of sadness, agony and defeat. We made sure that didn't happen. Tara was preparing us to have a state of mind that was above and beyond. It was like going overboard a little, but we didn't want to leave any questions of whether we were ready."

Azzi said that experience "challenged everybody to the core."

"At one point, everybody had a meltdown," she said. "But we were all in it together, in a very professional way. It was a sisterhood with a level of trust and respect that I had never experienced before."

The legacy of the 1996 women's basketball team is one that changed the landscape of the sport, setting a tone for everything that came after.

"Players like Lisa and Dawn and Sheryl taught Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird what it mean to be on the national team," Callan said, "and those players have taught the next generation."

Seimone Augustus, who helped the United States win gold medals in 2008 and '12 and is in Rio for her third Olympics, had a poster in her room as a kid of the 1996 team.

"My dream, my goal, was to be like those strong women I saw in that poster," Augustus said. "To be able to be a part of that legacy and tradition that's so rich in success and winning means a lot."