2016 USA National Team Hoping To Build On Golden Legacy
Tamika Catchings still gets giddy when she recalls the experience that she shared with the 1995-96 U.S. Olympic Team.
It took place well before Catchings had won three Olympic gold medals, been named the WNBA Most Valuable Player or won a WNBA championship. Her career was in its infancy as she sat in a locker room with the rest of the USA Women's Junior World Championship Qualifying Team -- now referred to as the USA U18 National Team -- in 1996.
The players had been told following practice that they would be receiving a surprise. Exactly what was the surprise? No one knew until a door swung open and in walked the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team. Suddenly, players such as Lisa Leslie, Katrina McClain, Sheryl Swoopes, Ruthie Bolton, Teresa Edwards and Dawn Staley were standing before them.
"It was so cool,’’ Catchings said. "It was the first time for me that I saw players like Sheryl and Lisa and Dawn that I aspired to be like … a female basketball player. Up until that point it was like my dad (Harvey) and Alonzo Mourning and players like that. But watching the Olympic Team, I was like, 'Oh, my God. One day I want to be there, and I want to represent my country and have that opportunity.’’’
On the 20th anniversary of the domineering gold medal run by the USA in Atlanta, Catchings is not the only current Olympian that was impacted by that team.
Candace Parker, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, remembers watching the 1996 Olympics on her couch and telling her father that her goal was to one day play in the Games. She was about 10-years-old at the time.
Sue Bird, who will be looking to win a fourth gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in August, attended an exhibition game between the U.S. and the Chinese National Team in Philadelphia when she was a sophomore in high school. And Diana Taurasi, who has also won three gold medals, had a poster of Jennifer Azzi on her wall.
"I remember (the 1995-96 team) like it was yesterday,’’ Taurasi said. "I had Jen Azzi because I had a connection to her. I wanted to be in her position one day. That was like the first time I fell in love with the (USA) logo. It’s the first time when the women’s Olympic team was a big deal, where they played exhibition games all around the country. You knew it was Lisa, Sheryl, Dawn. Those are the names that were like synonymous with Magic, Larry … To us that was that era. Like their Dream Team (in 1992), that was our Dream Team.’’
Three-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Smith was not fortunate enough to earn a roster spot on the 1995-96 team. However, she did have the opportunity to play two exhibition games against the USA – at Ohio State Dec. 21, 1995 during a 20-game college tour and in Philadelphia April 13, 1996 as a member of the WBCA All-Star team.
Smith believes that it was this team that served as the foundation for the future of USA Basketball as well as the launch of professional women’s basketball in this country. The American Basketball League (ABL) began play in the Fall of 1996. The WNBA debuted in 1997.
"It really put USA Basketball at the forefront of the women’s game like, 'We’re here to stay. We are coming every Olympics and are going to have the best players and play as a team and work the hardest,’’’ Smith said. "And those players, not only did they represent us on the court in winning a gold medal in such a huge fashion, but they were publicizing and promoting the women’s game and basically got two leagues off the ground and one has withstood everything, the WNBA. So we are indebted to them, a huge 'thank you' for what they did.’’
It was a different age back then for USA Basketball. The U.S. began training for the 1996 Olympics Oct. 2, 1995. Head coach Tara VanDerveer took a year away from Stanford to be with the team. And the players had no professional commitments that would interrupt the training period.
The U.S. was 52-0 in its pre-Olympic competition. It then rolled through the Games unbeaten in front of a combined record crowd of 202,556, an average of 25,320 over the eight-game stretch.
"It was a machine because they played together for a whole year,’’ current U.S. Olympic coach Geno Auriemma said. "I think they were a perfect example of what you can do when put a lot of time into it. And, obviously, they put a lot of time into it. And it was crucial to reestablish the U.S. as the dominant team in the world, and they did. And the fact that they could do it in the United States was really, really key. And then that kind of set the tone for what has happened since then, and it’s only gotten bigger and bigger and better and better, and the last one in 2012 may have been the most dominant.’’
Overall, that 1995-96 team set and still holds U.S. Olympic records for scoring (819), scoring average (102.4), assists (207), field goals made (322), free throws made (142), free throws attempted (212) and field goal percentage (.572).
The U.S. also set a team single-game record in field goal percentage (.662) in a 111-87 victory over Brazil in the gold medal game. Leslie scored 29 points in the game en route to setting the team record for scoring average (19.5) in the Games.
Leslie also set team single-game records for scoring (35) and made field goals (16) in the quarterfinals against Japan, while McClain had a record 16 rebounds in the game. Edwards set a record with 15 assists in the semifinals against Australia.
"It was amazing,’’ Staley said. " But, at the same time, at that time America was only seeing women play once a year and that’s during the Olympic Games during the peaks of their careers. That whole year you saw women play during the peaks of their career, and we did it with such grace, humility and, to be honest, a certain flair and passion to go along with it. We made it look easy at times, but there was a whole lot of work that went into that. And when you’re able to see it for yourself you have a different appreciation for women’s basketball.’’
Winning the gold medal in Atlanta avenged a bronze medal finish in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992. The U.S. is now riding a streak that stands at five-straight gold medals heading into competition this summer.
Staley said that the team felt pressure to win gold after the U.S. had come up short four years earlier.
"We had two players that were part of that bronze medal team in Katrina McClain and Teresa Edwards,’’ Staley said. "So, obviously, they had a story, and they had a sour taste in their mouth and they had a hunger to not have that feeling again. And then for USA Basketball to make that commitment of preparing a year out, for the NBA to make that financial commitment as well, we knew it was a pretty big deal and we didn’t want our sacrifice to be one that wasted a lot of people’s time, money, expertise and vision.’’
Not only did this particular collection of players excel as a team and post impressive individual performances, a number of them have achieved immortality in the sport by being enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Azzi (2009), Bolton (2011), Edwards (2010), Leslie (2015), Rebecca Lobo (2010), McClain (2006), Nikki McCray (2012) and Staley (2012) have been inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Swoopes is certain to be in the future.
Edwards (2011), Leslie (2015), McClain (2012) and Staley (2013) have also been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Swoopes is currently one of 14 finalists in the Class of 2016.
The 1995-96 team established a level of dominance that the Olympians of today yearn to continue. This particular group, harboring memories of the past, will get another opportunity this summer.
"We set the stage. and we set the example of how women’s professional basketball should be displayed and played out,’’ Staley said. "And it was great. I don’t know if it’s been a mainstay, but it was what we needed to see as a country and the young girls growing up to see the game being played unselfishly. It was like basketball utopia, because it was played beautifully.’’