July 24, 2021 

How USA Basketball’s 1996 gold medal team set the foundation of winning

Defeated Brazil in final of Atlanta Olympics 25 years ago

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The U.S. women’s basketball team is embarking on a quest for a seventh-consecutive gold medal Tokyo this week, following in the footprints that were stamped 25 years ago at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta.

The team was coming off a disappointing six-point loss in the semifinals to the eventual champion Commonwealth of Independent States at Barcelona in 1992. A 110-107 loss to Brazil in the 1994 World Championship semifinals followed. With the 1996 Games on their home court, a new generation of stars, and an increased spectator interest in women’s sports, it was the perfect time to set the foundation for a quarter century that was more golden than silver.

“During our training, we never talked about the bronze,” said current U.S. coach Dawn Staley, who was cut from the 1992 team, before joining for the 1994 Worlds. “We only worked. It was not stated, but stated in the work that took place that year. USA Basketball has not looked back since.”

Staley was from an exciting young crop of players that included Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, Nikki McCray, and Ruthie Bolton. If you think the six Olympic rookies on the current roster are a lot, there were 10 on the 1996 team, with only Hall of Famers Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain returning. Leading up to the Olympics, the team went on a strenuous eight-month pre-Olympic tour that crossed four continents.

“If you look at the ’95 team,” Leslie said, “and all of the work we put in to travel the world and play against other countries, a culture was created — a winning culture was created. First, we have to give a shout out to Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain, who welcomed Dawn Staley and myself and Sheryl Swoopes as the young players at that time. They instilled in us by action and by words a certain work ethic that we continue to pass on to Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird. It was that culture passed on. We all have that same work ethic; it’s gold or it’s nothing. The hardest part is practice because you are playing against the best players in the world.”

Bird, now eyeing a fifth gold medal, even mentioned that her AAU coach brought her team to see the U.S. play in exhibition at the Palestra in Philadelphia. She said it was the first time she saw that level of basketball played and envisioned she could be there one day.

“There was no WNBA at that time, so we looked towards the Olympics as the end all be all,” Bird said.

The U.S. opened group play in Atlanta with a 101-84 win over Cuba and a 98-65 win over a Ukraine team that included players from the 1992 gold medal Unified Team. Then a 107-47 demolition of Zaire, just months before the nation became the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a 17-point win over Australia and a 41-point domination of South Korea wrapped up the group.

Team USA defeated Japan by 15 in the quarterfinals and the Australians again in the semifinals, 93-71. In the final, the U.S. shut down Brazilian stars Hortencia Marcari and Janeth Arcain for a 111-87 win on the afternoon of the Closing Ceremony. Staley and Swoopes returned for two more gold medals in Sydney and Athens, while Leslie concluded her career after a fourth gold, at Beijing in 2008.

“If it’s your lifelong dream like it was for me in 1996,” Staley added, “you want to take it all in, but you don’t want to take anything away from the process of zeroing in on the gold medal. When you go, two or three or four of five times, it doesn’t get easier, but you have trimmed the energy of what takes up that space inside your head and you know how to navigate it without all of the extras.”

The other members of head coach Tara VanDerveer’s 1996 gold medal team were Jennifer Azzi, Venus Lacey, Carla McGhee, and Katy Steding. The team was honored at the WNBA All-Star Game versus the current Olympians in Las Vegas earlier this month in celebration of the 25th anniversary.

Written by Scott Mammoser

Scott Mammoser has covered major international events for FIBA, World Athletics and the International Skating Union. He has been to six Olympics and traveled to more than 90 countries.

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