June 30, 2022 

Sights and sounds from the premiere of ‘Dream On’

'A lot of little kids, little girls that want to play some type of sport, whether it's basketball, soccer, they got a chance to do it now'

NEW YORK — On the morning of June 9, three-time WNBA All-Star, ABL MVP and Olympic gold medalist Nikki McCray-Penson greeted Americans across the country with a simple Tweet: “Good Morning America,” she wrote. “Super excited to be reunited with special people to honor our 96’ Olympic Dream Team. Have an awesome day!” Accompanying McCray’s words was a photo whose subjects’ accolades, personal and professional, would take several pages to list and whose life stories could fill volumes — six members of the 1996 Olympic women’s basketball team and head coach Tara VanDerveer, smiling for a selfie on set of “Good Morning America.”

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The group’s appearance on GMA was the first stop on the way to the premiere of “Dream On,” the next installment in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, which would premiere at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater later that evening. Directed by Emmy Award winner Kristen Lappas, the three-part series documents the rise of the ’96 Olympic team, from the team’s careful construction to the intense training regimen and coaching genius of VanDerveer, behind-the-scenes stories so far untold and the legacy of the mid-nineties era of USA women’s basketball. Billed as the first multi-part 30 for 30 series on female athletes and pulling from 500 hours of archival footage, anticipation and expectations ran high.

Entering Madison Square Garden (MSG) for the first time is an experience that should come with a warning label. Its towering concrete pillars can make even the tallest of us feel small, as massive LED screens advertise every genre of event under the sun. The arena can pack hordes of hockey fans in the heat of New York summer and legions of concert-goers not a few days later. Hulu Theater, which has taken a handful of names over the years, is nestled beside the main arena. Its ceiling is lined with soft lights, which pull your eye toward the massive screen at the front of the bowl, the entire setup guarded by a small lobby and gathering area.

Empty Hulu theater is certainly a sight to behold. Not pictured: “Let’s go Rangers!” chants. (Photo credit: Isabel Rodrigues/The Next)

Readers with keen interest in the NHL may have recognized that June 9 was also the date of Game 5 of the New York Rangers’ playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Walking towards the red carpet area, it was impossible to ignore the overwhelming presence of the game — every piece of signage was plastered with NHL and Rangers logos, and giddy fans had gotten an early start on cheering as they walked through the halls of MSG. Every other person seemed wholly unaware of the group of superstars who were about to arrive, from security and ushers (who confidently answered, “What documentary?” when asked for directions), to fans and passersby.

At the lobby of Hulu Theater, the first signs for the premiere finally began to emerge. Lit-up frames held up copies of the documentary’s feature poster, while a small red carpet, with a roped-off area for press, patiently waited for its honorees. Further into the lobby, a rack of basketballs sat next to a sturdy gray locker stuffed with paraphernalia for ESPN’s Title IX initiative, “Fifty/50,” in which “Dream On” plays a significant role. A man in a white button-down stood behind a bar counter, carefully arranging a row of basketball-themed cake pops.

The area in front of Hulu Theater, where some combination of players, agents, ESPN admin, guests and media gathered ahead of the screening. (Photo credit: Isabel Rodrigues/The Next)

Not minutes later, a small group of reporters, photographers and staff from ESPN and USA Basketball began to gather near the door beside the red carpet, ready to greet the first arrivals. For a moment, the cheers undoubtedly coming from the Rangers fans next door pulled Hulu Theater back to 1996 in Atlanta as the entire nation eagerly awaited Team USA, the excitement tangible from miles away.

‘There was tremendous joy to watch them play

When the teammates, now coaches, administrators, national champions, mothers and so much more, entered the room, the energy shifted completely. The group of six or so journalists who had gathered held up microphones and carefully angled cameras, trying to capture what was most apparent from the moment the first of the teammates, Hall-of-Famers Jennifer Azzi and Carla McGhee, walked in: Though it had been nearly 26 years since the gold medal game, these women still have a bond the likes of which has yet to be replicated.

As they took turns cycling through media questions and photos, each player was quick to praise, or even run to grab, another teammate. It seemed as if not a single day had passed since the gold medal ceremony in Atlanta.

“The closeness of the team, they were incredibly unselfish,” VanDerveer said after the screening. “There was just tremendous joy to watch them play and how hard they play.”

The red carpet and media area as players, USA basketball staff and guests began to come through. Not pictured: the red carpet, but it was definitely there. (Photo credit: Isabel Rodrigues/The Next)

As players floated between answering questions for TikToks to doing stand-up interviews with journalists who’ve covered practically their entire careers, the modern evolution of women’s basketball came into view. With families alongside them and whole careers outside of basketball, the ’96 team represented everything that is now possible for young people in the sport. “Dream On,” it seemed, was as much an opportunity to show the history of the sport as it was a chance to show how far it has come.

For Louisiana Tech Hall-of-Famer and ’96 EuroLeague champion Venus Lacy, who now coaches high school girls’ basketball, the premiere also carried personal weight. Lacy has endured the lasting effects of a 1997 car accident and long fought to support herself and her family while continuing to support the future of the sport.

“We had so many females even before me that paved the way for us, for me,” Lacy told The Next. “For me to be able to give back just like they gave me, I’m going to advocate because I missed that. I came back and I’m loving the game all over again.”

It took MSG staff members a couple tries to corral the teammates for a group photo, but when they eventually succeeded, it took all of seconds for the group to fall back into the ribbing and infectious joy that captured the nation’s hearts, and wallets, all those years ago.

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‘It’s not just enough to play good basketball, it’s to have stars playing’

Front and center in “Dream On” is the media strategy concocted around the team to promote the sport of women’s basketball. Carol Callan, the national team director at the time and a prominent figure in USA Basketball to this day, told The Next about how players folded into it over time: “We worked together to develop a team that could win a gold medal,” Callan said. “Along the way, individuals became known that could then help sell the game because of their celebrity.”

Adjacent to the media strategy, the documentary also tackles the perception of the members of the ’96 team, including vulnerable conversations with Azzi, Dawn Staley and others who struggled with the gender presentation the NBA and USA Basketball expected from them. For better, VanDerveer described an environment where strength was valued and encouraged. “We had people that maybe weren’t used to doing any weights,” she said after the premiere. “People became very proud of how strong they were and how hard they could play.”

For worse, it became a matter of selling the game to audiences the NBA, USA Basketball and their media partners considered valuable. The 30 for 30 logo suddenly felt much heavier, especially as ESPN’s position as both the primary production company on “Dream On” and a major player in “selling the game” was largely ignored by the documentary.

“[The NBA] wanted to see, does merchandise sell?” Callan said. “Will people come to the all these games?” Even more plainly, “I found out that it’s not just enough to play good basketball, it’s to have stars playing,” she said.

‘It went from no professional leagues to two

If there was one phrase that wormed its way into ESPN’s marketing of this latest 30 for 30, it was this: “If [the ‘96] team didn’t exist, would there be a WNBA?” Tossed on everything from Tweets to Instagram posts, to the first second of the documentary’s official trailer, the early instability of professional women’s leagues was front and center in “Dream On.” Eager to capitalize on the success of the ’96 team, the American Basketball League (ABL), which was founded in 1995, kicked off its inaugural season in October 1996. The WNBA would follow in 1997, playing its season in the summer. The two leagues would directly compete to get players on their rosters, especially as players continued to play overseas.

“It went from no professional leagues to two professional leagues to then one professional league to overseas leagues,” Callan said. “The players had so many choices, but the one thing they remained loyal to [was] the national team.”

The time between the 1996 gold medal game and Dec. 22, 1998 — when the ABL would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, leaving the WNBA as the sole professional league in the U.S. — is painfully unexplored, broadly speaking. “Dream On” makes no attempt to fill this gap, and while it’s certainly not the first to leave out this part of the sport’s history, the space it occupies (a long-form documentary from ESPN, a traditional media outlet with a potentially massive reach) lends it a degree of authority that should be taken seriously.

Instead, with the release of “Dream On,” and the media created around it, ESPN has encouraged the fundamental re-writing of the history of women’s basketball. The third episode barely peeks through the window of 1997, skipping past even the foundation of the WNBA and straight to the early 2000s. Whether this move is motivated purely by time constraints or not, the period that Callan described, of uncertainty and significant professional choices that players, especially those on the ’96 team, had to make, disappears.

The result is a convoluted workaround that places the NBA, and commissioner David Stern in particular, at the forefront of the founding of professional women’s basketball as we know it today. Lobo herself says in the documentary, “If [the ’96 team] didn’t exist, if the NBA and David Stern hadn’t seen that women’s basketball could be marketable, if they hadn’t seen thousands of people coming out to our open practices, would there have been a WNBA?”

Perhaps not. Yet, to continually suggest that the NBA’s disapproval would’ve meant the end of women’s professional basketball altogether is at best misleading and at worst historically destructive. Of course, it is impossible to know if the ABL would’ve survived without the WNBA around — the league struggled to find viable financial and ownership structures throughout its two-year run. Yet, when more than half of the 1996 Olympic team had a spot on ABL rosters in 1997, it is irresponsible to erase that much history in favor of supporting the legacy of the modern WNBA.

Especially as the issue of player pay continues to be pervasive, and as the WNBA moves towards a new media deal and the possibility of expansion, the history of a league that once offered its players “stock options, retirement plans, year-round health benefits and a seat on the board of directors” is wiped away. Even more importantly, a 1997 episode of HBO’s “Real Sports” noted ABL player salaries to be between $50,000 and $150,000 on a 40-game schedule, or between about $91,000 and $273,000 in today’s dollars. Knowing and sharing the history of what women have received as professional basketball players, that it was possible for them to receive equal salaries, benefits and not be expected to sacrifice to play and advance the sport, is extraordinarily valuable.

‘What if in a year we don’t win the gold medal, what if we’re not in that game?

Even more importantly, the documentary does not for a moment question the incredible pressure placed on VanDerveer’s shoulders in particular. Criticism of VanDerveer’s coaching style is nothing new, and “Dream On” doesn’t shy away from considering the drawbacks of her intense method. Yet, as the film pushes an all-or-nothing narrative, when VanDerveer says, “David Stern looks at me and he goes, ‘There’s only one thing that can go wrong and that’s you screwing it up,’” it’s framed as an inspirational moment: terrifying, but in the way that spurs you into action and makes you believe in yourself for a fleeting moment.

VanDerveer and the U.S. Olympic team would succeed in 1996, as it turns out. However, that monumental victory didn’t come without a significant mental toll. “It was Aug. 4, 1995, and I knew the gold medal game was on Aug. 4, 1996, and I was back in California and I went running,” VanDerveer said after the screening. What VanDerveer described next wasn’t shown in “Dream On,” though Lappas told The Athletic it was “the hardest cut” she had to make.

ESPN’s Andraya Carter joins director Kristen Lappas, Tara VanDerveer and Dawn Staley for a Q&A after the screening. (Photo credit: Isabel Rodrigues/The Next)

“I did this big hill that I called Olympic hill, and I was going up the hill, and then when I got in the shower and I started thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what if in a year we’re not, we don’t win the gold medal, what if we’re not in that game?’ And I really started to have a panic attack.”

When telling the history of women’s basketball, it’s almost always a game of who you see and who you don’t, who is allowed to struggle with adversity in the public eye and who handles it behind closed doors. For the better, “Dream On” looks behind that curtain for its athletes. Perhaps because of the highly structured and closely monitored media image of the ’96 team (which the documentary skillfully explores), much of the adversity individual team members faced wasn’t discussed publicly until now.

For VanDerveer’s part, it was consistent self-reassurance and confidence that helped her through. “I just sat down and I told myself, ‘You’ve got the best team, you’ve got the best players, you know what you’re doing,’” she recounted. “’The only thing that’ll stop you is if you have doubt. If you have any doubt about winning the gold.’ So I got back in the shower and washed the doubt down the drain.”

“Dream On” accepts the sacrifices of its subjects, the majority of whom are Black and/or gay, without question. “For someone like me who was playing overseas, I was making … close to $400,000,” describes Katrina McClain. The national team salary at the time was $50,000; the only justification we’re offered is that was all USA Basketball could give. The same year, the men’s team had an Olympic salary of $100,000, alongside potential millions in endorsements, per The Washington Post. “Dream Team” merchandise promoting the 1992 men’s Olympic team was alone netting USA Basketball millions. Yet “Dream On” refuses to look beyond statements from USA Basketball representatives and identify where the wrong turn was taken.

When all-time WNBA great Lisa Leslie delivers an emotional speech about how much she gave up in order to guarantee the future of women’s basketball, it’s presented without a wonder for why so much was taken from her. “It’s part of the sacrifice,” Leslie recounts to the camera. “The coach seats are a part of the sacrifice, the bus rides are a part of the sacrifice, the room sharing is a part of the sacrifice.”

The WNBA’s new prioritization rule kicks into effect next year. Once again, women’s basketball players will be asked to sacrifice professional opportunities and take significant pay cuts in order to further the success of their sport in the U.S. market. The picture we get of the modern WNBA at the conclusion of “Dream On” is much more optimistic, but it is so by glossing over the WNBA’s current relationship with overseas leagues.

Individual sacrifices also went beyond salary. Ruthie Bolton delivers an especially vulnerable testimony of the domestic abuse she suffered while on the ’96 team, which bears immense value on its own — her story and bravery in telling it is alone enough for an entire episode. 

However, as a relatively short piece in a larger project that aims to tell the story of the growth of women’s basketball, its inclusion and use must warrant the personal strength required for Bolton to share such a story so publicly. Without interrogating how and why women, especially Black women, so frequently face this type of violence, both then and now, “Dream On” risks a much more exploitative tone.

Especially as other members of the ’96 team have spoken up about facing abuse at home, it is hard to ignore the missed opportunity to discuss the prevalence of domestic violence in women’s sports. Though no major studies of interpersonal violence rates among professional athletes in the U.S. exist, a 2002 study of Australian athletes found that 31% of female athletes had experienced some form of sexual violence. Reports of abuse faced by college players are not uncommon, and it’s no secret that women’s basketball players face significant online harassment and abuse, the majority of which is sexist or sexual in nature. How the sport addresses such a widespread problem will continue to be a critical part of its growth; Bolton’s story, and her legacy as a valiant advocate for victims of domestic abuse, has already begun to lead the way.

In the shadow of ‘The Last Dance

Lappas and her team received the archival footage of the ’96 team from figures at the NBA, who also recorded the majority of the footage. “They [the NBA] came to us,” said Lappas after the screening. “They were like, listen, we’ve only documented two teams as extensively as we did the ’96 women’s dream team. The only other team was the 97–98 Bulls; that obviously was the impetus to ‘The Last Dance.'”

With what began as a one-part documentary that eventually became three, this comparison does little to nothing to help “Dream On.” Instead, it highlights its shortcomings and all ESPN could’ve done to improve its promotion and release but didn’t. “The Last Dance” also premiered during the early weeks of the pandemic, the impact of which has already been explored and found to have had played a significant role. The comparison makes the average viewership for the three “Dream On” episodes on its June 15 worldwide premiere (247,000 per ShowBuzz Daily) look tiny, though the more recent general decline in ESPN’s documentary content viewership is also likely at play.

Yet, considering how much promotion and production value was allotted for “The Last Dance” compared to “Dream On,” by this metric ESPN had almost guaranteed its failure in the moment as well as a short stint in public memory. Playing all three episodes on the same day, only beginning advertising weeks ahead of the premiere instead of months, not pursuing outside partnerships with other streaming platforms, like Netflix, which hosted “The Last Dance”: all of these moves, or lack thereof, played a role in the reception of “Dream On.”

A source close to the situation also confirmed to The Next that Hulu Theater was chosen as the premiere site, rather than utilizing a film festival circuit (which are frequently sites for 30 for 30 episode premieres — and like the New York Liberty used for the premiere of their “Unfinished Business” documentary the following week), to emphasize the film’s participation in the Fifty/50 initiative. Notably, Fifty/50 has yet to see significant space on ESPN’s website or app, and it will conclude on the final day of June.

These decisions will ultimately determine much of what the public remembers about “Dream On,” and how long it’s remembered at all. The 30 for 30 name may be its most valuable archival benefit, as it at least provides it a place within one of the most recognizable names in sports media. Ultimately, only time will show whether the conversation around “Dream On” and the 1996 team continues for years to come or peters out before the end of 2022.

As the night drew to a close, the teammates came together once again, this time on stage in front of the audience that had gathered inside Hulu Theater. The standing ovation they received was overwhelming, as they stood side by side, beaming and joining in to clap for each other. “Dream On” does so much right, and there is plenty it could’ve done more for. There is little doubt Lappas’ work will occupy a significant and valuable place in the ranks of long-form media about the sport. The history of women’s basketball, however, will continue to fight for its homecoming.

Players are presented with custom Wheaties boxes at the tail end of the event. This photo may be the only evidence that this actually happened. (Photo credit: M.A. Voepel/ESPN)

Sprinting out of MSG to catch the last train out of New York, Lacy’s words rang heavy in the air: “A lot of little kids, little girls that want to play some type of sport, whether it’s basketball, soccer, they got a chance to do it now.” 

The legions of women before them have made it so.

Written by Isabel Rodrigues

Isabel Rodrigues (she/her) is a contributing editor for The Next from upstate New York. She occasionally covers 3x3 and labor in women's basketball.

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