September 20, 2020
Remembering the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, 20 years later
U.S. beat Australia on home court for second-straight gold medal
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Twenty years ago this month, the U.S. women’s basketball team traveled to Sydney, Australia, for the XXVII Olympic Summer Games. Not only was it the first Olympics of the new century, it was the first since the formation of the ABL, in winter 1996, and the WNBA, tipping off in summer 1997.
The program was on a high note after expectedly crushing the competition at home in Atlanta in 1996, and was in search of a new coach. While Tara VanDerveer returned to Stanford, the national team needed someone who could train both the WNBA and ABL players over the course of a year, as the leagues operated on opposing sides of the calendar. It turned to Purdue coach Nell Fortner, who had just won a Big Ten title and was an assistant to VanDerveer in the year leading up to the Atlanta Games, along with Renee Brown. Ceal Barry, Nancy Darsch and Marian Washington, were all head collegiate coaches in 1996, and thus chosen to accompany VanDerveer on the bench at the actual Olympics.
“The timing was really good for me,” Fortner said. “You had all national team members for a three-year period of time, not being able to train together. USA Basketball needed to get a coach, one consistent coach. I had just finished my first year at Purdue. It was the perfect storm because I had lots of international experience and we were the Big Ten champions.”
The team marched in an unforgettable Opening Ceremony at Stadium Australia on September 15, capitalized with eventual 400-meter winner Cathy Freeman lighting the Olympic cauldron.
“The Opening Ceremonies were phenomenal,” U.S. guard Katie Smith said, “with all the planning. Some athletes say they don’t go because they compete the next day.”
Smith, then 26 and of the Minnesota Lynx, was on her first of three Olympic teams. She said she enjoyed going to other events, such as track and field, plus seeing fellow Ohio State alum Blaine Wilson in gymnastics.
“Of course it was the first time with pomp and circumstance,” Smith said, “and I was still processing it, getting all of the gear for Team USA and seeing the village, even though we didn’t stay there. Going out to Australia, we had some trips there in anticipation. I love the Olympics, and to have that reality and a job to do, it was exciting and eye opening. USA Basketball is always one team, one goal. I tried out for the 1996 team and started out in 1992-93 with my first USA Basketball experiences. Older players lead the role, whether starters or if they don’t play, on and off the court.”
However, a major setback occurred when Chamique Holdsclaw, the three-time NCAA champion with Tennessee, went down with a stress fracture in her right foot, just before the first game.
“It was so unfortunate for her, one of the youngest players on the team,” Fortner stated. “She remained engaged and supportive, and it was too late to get an alternate. That’s part of sport, and the experienced players took over.”
The Americans opened their defense of the gold medal with the first of two wins over South Korea, 89-75. They would also meet South Korea in the semifinals, which produced a similar score of 78-65.
“Korea is one of the hardest teams,” Fortner said. “They play a style of ball that is so fast, constantly moving. They shoot the three well. It’s a difficult style to defend and tough to guard. I got my only technical in that first game. We were super young, and they were experienced, fast and quick and can kill you on all levels.”
The Koreans were the two-time reigning Asian champions going into the event.
“Korea is so fundamental,” Smith said, “how they don’t stop moving, and we had to be solid. You go in trying to be as focused on the game plan as possible.”
In the second game, the U.S. faced a Cuban team that knocked it out in the semifinals of the Pan-American Games the previous summer in Winnipeg. While the Cuban team remained intact, none of the U.S. Olympians were on the Pan-American roster, and it controlled Cuba, 90-61.
“I know we played a lot of teams, but every game we played, we were prepared for the best,” Fortner added. “Our mindset was that we came out focused, with team rebounds, team steals, team assists. We were worried about the gold medal game. We were trying to focus and take nobody for granted. We worked out butts off, and we didn’t take anybody lightly.”
Russia, the team the U.S. defeated in the final of the 1998 FIBA World Championships in Germany by six points, was third on the schedule, and the U.S. won 88-77.
“Russia is always interesting,” Fortner reminisced. “With us, they sand-bagged and laid low (in group play in 1998). They were a totally different team in the final, hoping we would be over confident. I have enough experience with Russia to know what was going on. I’m proud of how our kids conducted in those games with an enigma going on.”
The U.S. cruised to dominant wins over New Zealand, 93-42, and Poland, 76-57, to end the group stage. Standing at 7-foot-2, Margo Dydek anchored the post for the Polish team, but Coach Fortner said her players were used to her presence from the WNBA, especially Natalie Williams, who played with her on the Utah Starzz.
“It was challenging,” Fortner said, “but that was a big woman, seven-feet tall, not very physical, but down low, Natalie Williams and Yolanda Griffith had to work really hard on the boards.”
A 58-43 victory over Slovakia in the quarterfinal and the second win over the Koreans in the semifinal set up the highly-anticipated gold medal match with the host Australians. Lauren Jackson was 19 years old at the time, and she was surrounded by WNBA players, such as Sandy Brondello, Michele Timms and Kristi Harrower.
“I always figured that’s who we would play in the finals,” Fortner said. “Lauren Jackson was every bit as good as she ever was. The team was veteran, well coached, tough and gritty. It really made for a competitive team on their home floor, and they had a lot of pressure going into that game. We were quick on all cylinders. In the second half, we were pulling away from them, and we would up wearing the gold medal.”
U.S. guard Ruthie Bolton, a Mississippi native who played at Auburn, was one of six players who carried over from the 1996 team, along with Teresa Edwards, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley, and Nikki McCray.
“There’s a saying in the south that it is easier to beat somebody in your own backyard,” said Bolton, who was on the Sacramento Monarchs at the time. “Playing in your neighborhood, you know the bad angles, and you have the advantage over someone else. We needed motivation and a huger desire. What can keep us hungry? How can we duplicate that? Go in their backyard. What motivated me was to go in their backyard. That’s what was even harder to do because we were in their backyard. My role changed, and I didn’t play as much. I was one of the older players, and I was still part of the team, and I was happy for them.”
Smith was fifth on the team, scoring about eight points per game in the tournament.
“We were aware that it was probably going to come down to Australia and ourselves,” added Smith, who faced Australia in all three of her Olympic finals. “In 2000, being in their home country, they were flying high about it.”
Leslie, Swoopes, Williams, and Griffith all scored in double figures against the Opals to pace the Americans to a victory, 76-54. In addition, Edwards won her fourth gold medal and fifth medal total, DeLisha Milton-Jones won her first of two gold medals, and Kara Wolters added the championship to her existing ones with UConn, the Houston Comets and the 1998 World Championships.
“That was a cool moment as a coach because my goal was always to win the gold medal,” said Fortner, who presently coaches Georgia Tech. “Now I have to think ‘Did that really happen?’ We traveled the world, and every team we played , you were playing against the best they had to offer.”
For Bolton, who followed her sister to Auburn after not being recruited herself and had knee surgery following the 1998 World Championships, the moment continues to resonate.
“I was just so happy,” Bolton added. “I cheered for my teammates and reminisced about my whole career. This was a period of time from 1996 to 2000, when I shined as an athlete, and to me, I almost didn’t play basketball. I was not recruited out of high school. Half of the battle is showing up. I was thinking, ‘Dad, thank you, for allowing me to prove me of my greatness.’ Nothing was given to me.”
Now, amidst her extensive humanitarian work, Bolton proudly displays her medals.
“I take my medals everywhere,” Bolton added. “It’s my duty and obligation, and I am delighted to share these stories every chance I can get. I wasn’t supposed to be here, and I want to show the next generation. The amazing thing about sports is it brings countries and people together. It’ better to wear out than rust out. Faith, attitude and character have kept me grounded, and I have carried that for a lifetime.”