Seeds of USA Basketball Women’s Olympic Gold Medal Streak Sown 20 Years Ago
Twenty years ago today, on the morning of May 25, 1995, 18 of the best women’s basketball players in the country were sitting in their respective dorm rooms at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, anxiously awaiting word on their fate.
“I cannot believe that it has been 20 years,” said eventual two-time Olympic gold medalist Ruthie Bolton, who celebrated her 28th birthday on that day. “It was such a special moment for me. To be able to get ready to do something that would make history was a special moment. I felt like we were embarking on something special. I was nervous, but excited. It was something that I was extremely happy to be a part of, to be among a group of players that would change women’s basketball.”
Pared down from an original trials roster of 27 athletes, the 18 finalists who remained in the running for one of the 11 roster spots for the 1995-96 USA Basketball Women’s National Team each hoped they had done enough to earn one of the coveted spots on the team.
Little did they know that they would forever alter the trajectory of women’s basketball in the United States.
“Looking back, I did not think the team would change the landscape of women’s basketball in the way that it did,” said Carla McGhee, an NCAA champion in 1987 and 1989 playing for the University of Tennessee. “Nor did I appreciate the opportunity that it would be for us and the game of basketball. We did not know how big it was going to be to embark on something like this, something that had never been done before. To have the sponsorship dollars put on us, to have certain people be the face of different shoe companies or commercials, I did not fully appreciate or even comprehend what it would do for women’s basketball.”
Following a week of two-a-day trials sessions, all 18 athletes met individually with Karen Stromme, who at the time was head coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth and chair of the USA Basketball Player Selection Committee, as well as Carol Callan, who recently had been hired as the 1995-96 USA National Team director, in the lobby of the dorm building.
“We did not know what time they would tell us, though we knew it would be in the morning,” recalled McGhee, who, along with Bolton, was watching a young group of hopefuls at the USA Women’s U16 National Team Trials this past weekend at the USOTC. “We were told to get some rest. I was like, ‘How are you gonna get sleep?’
“Even though it has been 20 years, I can still remember,” continued McGhee. “I was nervous. I had a nervous stomach. I wasn’t felling good because in the last couple of sessions I did not perform how I wanted, and it didn’t help that Tara (VanDerveer) came over and was like, ‘What are you doing? Do what you do best, nothing different.’”
“That morning was as high and as low as you could imagine,” said Stromme. “There were some of our athletes who probably had a pretty good idea that they would make the team. But those on the bubble, when they came in, you could really see the anxiety. They didn’t sleep all night. When you gave them the good news, it was great. But, for those who didn’t make it, it was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done to this day, to give news to somebody like that. This was really profoundly difficult to tell somebody they didn’t make it, because they were all so good.”
One by one, in alphabetical order, each player received a knock on her door and were told they were up next and had to walk down the long hallway, replaying every moment of the trials in their heads. They all were nervous, emotionally spent and physically exhausted from the week-long trials process.
“I remember hanging out with Dawn (Staley) and Lisa (Leslie),” continued McGhee. “We were like the little crew. That was our little crew. I kept telling them that I knew they had made it. They said, ‘You made it Red, relax.’ I was like, ‘no.’ I was not feeling good about it. I went and cried. They were trying to make me laugh, but it was tough.”
It’s easy to understand why McGhee was so nervous. After all, this was no ordinary USA National Team. For the first time, USA Basketball athletes earned a salary of $50,000 for the year. Ten of the team’s games would be aired nationally on ABC and ESPN. This team would criss-cross the globe, fly more than 100,000 miles, go on a morning run with the president, play hoops at the Supreme Court, sign countless autographs, and compete in 52 games, winning all 52, before eventually making it to their final stop: the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
But before all of that, they had that long walk to make. For those who didn’t make the cut, it was devastating. For those who did, it was nearly impossible to mask their joy.
“I smiled, thinking this was Christmas for me,” said Bolton, the second one to get the good news. “It was like, ‘Man, you chose me.’ It was very humbling to know that I was one of the ones chosen. You are beyond yourself. It was one of those wow moments in my life.”
“When I got the knock on my door and heard I made it, it was the best feeling ever,” said McGhee. “I think I screamed forever. Dawn and Lisa were like, ‘You were screaming.’ You didn’t think about the people that didn’t get the knock, but you really weren’t trying to think about them. There were a lot of different emotions; each one will probably stay with me forever as long as I have that memory. It was one of the happiest days of my life besides giving birth to my son and winning a gold medal.”
Athlete by athlete the USA team started to take shape. The lives of Jennifer Azzi, Bolton, Teresa Edwards, Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, Katrina McClain, Nikki McCray, McGhee, Dawn Staley, Katy Steding and Sheryl Swoopes were forever transformed that day.
“I think about Teresa Edwards,” recalled Stromme. “She never took anything for granted. She was so excited. It would be her fourth Olympics and even at that point she was unsure going into the room. That’s what hit me. She really was so excited to be a part of it still. That is something I always remember. She was truly joyful. Honestly, sitting there it was joyful to watch people’s dreams come true.”
They all have gone on to lead successful lives. Lobo is regularly seen on ESPN. Staley, along with her assistant coach McCray, coached the University of South Carolina to the 2015 NCAA Final Four. Edwards was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, along with 1995-96 USA National Team and Stanford University head coach Tara VanDerveer. McClain was inducted in 2012, Staley followed in 2013 and Leslie will be inducted this year.
Two professional leagues were launched on the heels of the team winning gold in Atlanta: the ABL, which tipped-off that fall and folded after 2 ½ seasons, and the WNBA, which is still going strong.
“It opened so many doors for me,” added McGhee. “It allowed me to start my nonprofit organization. It allowed me to have a platform to reach kids. It gave me a name. It definitely improved my value in Europe, where I continued to play. After that we launched the ABL and WNBA, so we are people who would go down in history books. Who ever thought that a girl from Peoria, Illinois, would be a part of history for women’s basketball?”
Further, that team set a standard for USA Basketball, which has been upheld by teams over the past 20 years, and launched a string of five-consecutive Olympic gold medals for the USA women.
Bolton still has fans who remember how she played in Atlanta.
“I was just in Wal-Mart yesterday,” Bolton said. “I was wearing my jersey. This lady looked at me; she came up and she asked if I was Ruthie Bolton. I said yes. Then her face and hands started to shake. She was in tears. Her friend was with her; she said she had told her that it was me. She apologized for crying. She almost made me cry. It was a reflection of what we did 20 years ago and how it has changed the game. People are still talking about that Dream Team. People are still saying it was an amazing performance.”
That amazing performance was just a glimmer of hope in the eyes of the 11-member USA Basketball Women’s National Team on May 25, 1995. Little did they know all that was to come.
About the 1996-96 USA Basketball Women’s National Team
The 1995-96 USA Basketball Women’s National Team was a revolutionary undertaking for USA Basketball and women’s basketball as a whole. The USA National Team was a special one-time program designed specifically to develop the USA’s talent pool prior to the selection of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team and to enhance its chances of capturing the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, after returning from the 1991 Pan American Games, 1992 Olympic Games and 1994 FIBA World Championship with a bronze medal. A secondary goal of the program was to increase the USA’s popularity and interest in women’s basketball.
Over the next 15 months, USA Basketball will continue to take a look back on the team’s historic journey to gold in Atlanta.