ESPN’s “Dream On” Chronicles the 1996 Women’s Team’s Journey to Gold
It was all there, up on the screen, a scrapbook of the 1990s replayed on a 30-by-64 foot stage.
Jogging with President Bill Clinton. Shooting hoops with Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court Building’s court. Jocular appearances on “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” and “The Late Show with David Letterman.” Ubiquitous magazine covers.
And everywhere they went, the message was the same: “Bring back gold.”
“I was introduced as, ‘This is not about bronze, this is not about silver, this is about gold,’” Tara VanDerveer, head coach of the 1996 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team, said. “It was really clear what the mission was.”
VanDerveer, along with many members of the 1996 squad, gathered at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater in New York City last week for the premiere of the first two parts of “Dream On,” ESPN’s three-part 30 for 30 documentary series chronicling the team’s journey to gold at the Atlanta Olympic Games.
The series premieres to the public Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and will be available on ESPN+.
Scanning the roster today — Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Teresa Edwards, Dawn Staley, Katrina McClain, the list goes on — victory seemed to be preordained. But USA had lost to the Unified Team 79-73 in the semifinals of the 1992 Barcelona Games, coming home with bronze. Two years before the Atlanta Games, the Americans also won bronze at the 1994 World Championship.
“I did have kind of a — I won’t say breakdown moment, but a ‘wow’ moment,” VanDerveer recalled. “It was August 4, 1995, and I knew the gold-medal game was on August 4, 1996. And I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, what if in a year we don’t have a gold medal? What if we’re not in that game?’
“I really started having a panic attack. And then I just told myself, ‘You’ve got the best team, you’ve got the best players, you know what you are doing. The only thing that will stop you is if you have doubt about winning the gold.’”
VanDerveer, the longtime coach of Stanford University’s women’s basketball team, was recruited by USA Basketball and the NBA to assemble and train the national team more than a year prior to the 1996 Games.
Instead of pulling together players just weeks before the Olympics, the squad would have time to gel, including intense training in Colorado Springs, Colorado, before embarking on a 60-game, four-continent roadshow of exhibition matches against leading college teams and top international teams like Russia, China, Cuba, Ukraine and Australia.
The women were preparing for the Atlanta Games, but they were also laying the groundwork for the WNBA: If they dominated their opponents and sparked interest from the public, the NBA would likely launch a women’s league. If they came up short, that dream might die.
“Tara reminded us every day that any moment you think, ‘Oh, we can get silver, we can get bronze,’ you can go home,” Ruthie Bolton, a guard on the team, said. “We knew anything less than a gold was a failure. … We risked something major, we risked the future of women’s basketball. Because we did so well, it changed the direction of women’s basketball 25 years later.”
With television exposure and mainstream media covering the women’s games, often for the first time, it seemed the entire country had discovered women’s basketball. Nike joined the effort, offering women’s shoes and producing a commercial directed by Spike Lee.
“Things hit me a lot differently now that I’m a mother and I’ve seen my daughters grow up,” Rebecca Lobo, who played at center, said. “My oldest (daughter) loves Breanna Stewart. My 15-year-old loves (WNBA players) Napheesa Collier, loves Jonquel Jones. So I see female basketball players through their eyes and the impact they have as role models.
“The impact the ‘96 team had on a lot of young women was huge, and the impact they have on the sport of basketball was huge. Now we are 26 years into the WNBA as a result of it.”
“Dream On” began when NBA Entertainment approached ESPN Films with 500 hours of never-seen footage of the 1996 squad training and traveling. Originally conceived as a single episode, it grew to a three-part series, the first multi-part 30 for 30 devoted to female athletes.
“Once I started (watching the footage), I saw how magnetic and special this group was, what they did for female athletes, and I knew instantaneously this is going to be something really special,” said Kristen Lappas, who directed “Dream On.”
Her bosses at ESPN Films, Brian Lockhart and Burke Magnus, agreed.
“We thought, ‘This can’t be one part, it would be doing a disservice to these women and their stories,’” Lappas said. “It so happened we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, so it was the perfect opportunity to make this a three-part film.”
Lappas interviewed VanDerveer and her players, as well as other coaches and journalists covering the sport in the 1990s.
“The first interview I did was with Rebecca Lobo and she (said), ‘You know what, I’m just going to be really honest about my experience’ and from there, I traveled around the country and interviewed all of these women, and everybody told their truth.
“What they did on the court was incredible, and everybody kind of knew that story, but I don’t think people understood all of the things they were facing off the court — all of the sacrifices, giving up parts of their identity.”
The docuseries is triumphant, capturing the women’s friendship, on-court prowess and popularity with fans. But it also reveals the downside of fame in the 1990s: athletes unable to openly live as gay and being pressured into projecting conventional ideas of femininity. Personal challenges, including Lobo’s sometimes contentious relationship with VanDerveer, and Bolton’s struggle with domestic abuse, are also included.
“I’m so grateful I can live a great life, have a wonderful wife, amazing children,” guard Jennifer Azzi said. “With that, I see a lot of young people in a lot of pain, that may not have the support system that I’ve been fortunate to have with my parents and just in general. But there was a time in my life when I didn’t feel I could be 100% open, and I think to be in this environment is a different era, and young people now don’t have those types of judgments. They are a wonderful generation, so the future is very bright.”
The members of the 1996 squad still contribute mightily to women’s sports as coaches, commentators, authors, motivational speakers and philanthropists.
Staley, a guard on the team, is now head women’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina, and in 2021 she coached the U.S. women’s team to a seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal. She thinks the 1996 team’s success is rooted in the lessons learned and pressures withstood during that Olympic season.
“If you look at the success of those players on that team, what we’re doing now, and how involved we are in the sport, there isn’t anything we faced after that point that we weren’t successful at,” she said. “And I would try to instill that mental toughness in every young person.”
“You know, it doesn’t feel like it was 26 years ago,” VanDerveer said. “The championship game was on television during (the pandemic). And when I watched it, I was like, ‘Damn, that was a good team.’”
Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York.