The documentary “Dream On” tells how the 1996 US women’s Olympic team helped launch the WNBA

Editor’s Note: Follow this link To watch the first episode of “Dream On”.

NEW YORK – A quarter century after helping lead the US women’s basketball team to the Olympic gold race that continues to this day, Don Staley and Tara Vanderveer sat on stage and each talked about their chess game. In Manhattan for the world premiere of the ESPN documentary “Dream On” last week, Staley and VanDerveer watched their pasts come to life on screen and were reminded of how high the stakes were at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The coaches of the two past NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships then discussed this legendary team and everything that went on at a critical juncture, including the launch of two women’s professional leagues. The three-part documentary begins Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Staley and VanDerveer now know everything they didn’t fully understand at the time. This kind of perspective depends on time. VanDerveer was head coach and Staley was one of 12 players who changed the course of women’s sports history in the mid-1990s, when NBA and USA Basketball combined to sponsor the women’s version of the Dream Team to prepare for the 1996 Olympics.

It wasn’t just an Olympic gold on the line after the Americans had failed in two previous major competitions. The 1996 team was a primary test of the viability of professional women’s basketball in the United States.

“There was a sense of urgency … but when you work really hard, you don’t have time to worry as much,” said Vanderveer, the long-time Stanford coach who took time off from the Cardinal in 1995. -96 to direct the US national team. “I think the guys had to focus on doing a workout every day, not what was on the road.”

Staley, coach of NCAA champion South Carolina Jamicks, also coached the Americans for their seventh straight gold medal at the Olympics last year in Japan. She remembers the 1996 team understanding the mission, but she wasn’t overwhelmed.

“We haven’t had those really deep conversations,” Staley said. “It was good then not to feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. We were task-oriented.

“But when you grow up and take yourself out of that time, you have those conversations now. It’s great to be a part of the evolution of a sport — to have seen it, to feel it, to live it — and to really take the time, really try to appreciate that and think about how you keep its continuity.”

Just how special the 1996 USA team is today is partly reflected in how young its members and coaches are. Staley’s Gamecocks and VanDerveer’s Cardinal are in the top three in the latest ESPN rankings for the 2022-23 college season. Rebecca Lobo is the ESPN Principal Analyst for Women’s Basketball Association and Women’s Basketball. Most of the 1996 players are still involved in basketball or athletics in some way.

“I think it’s rare for you to realize what’s going on at this moment, especially when you’re young,” said Lobo, who joined 1996 US teammates Sheryl Swoops and Lisa Leslie as the first of three signed to the WNBA. “At 22, I had no insight into the importance of the team and that time.

“Now when I look back…holy cow, what the Olympic team did, launching the WNBA here after 26 years – would there be a WNBA without this team? Certainly not in that immediate time frame.”

The WNBA began in June 1997 after the months-long US team tour in 1995-96, in which the Americans played collegiate and professional teams to prepare for the Olympics in Atlanta. But the seeds for the 1996 US women’s team actually began with the disappointment of the 1992 Olympics.

The Americans won the silver medal in the first Olympic women’s basketball competition, in 1976, boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980, and then won the gold medal in 1984 and 1988. Talent was plentiful on the US women’s program, but preparation was short and swift.

With amateur requirements scrapped by the 1992 Olympics, a squad of NBA legends – the Dream Team – dominated headlines while crushing opponents on their way to men’s basketball gold. Meanwhile, the almost-overlooked US women’s squad took the bronze medal at the Barcelona Games. When another women’s bronze in the next major competition, the 1994 Basketball World Championships, followed, NBA knew there was something to be done.

It seems strange that disappointments in the bronze medal were the best thing to happen to women’s basketball in the United States. In the ’90s, the National Basketball Association was realizing it was a good time to invest in the women’s game, and funding the national team was the perfect opportunity to do some sort of beta test for a pro league.

“Dream On” includes extensive behind-the-scenes footage chronicling everything from the national team’s 1995 test camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with over 200 candidates, to a frigid winter’s trip to Russia in 1996 for exhibition games in the smoke. Gyms fill up, to that triumphant day in August 1996 in Atlanta when the Americans returned to the top of the Olympic medal podium. They have not left that position since, a streak of seven consecutive Olympic gold medals.

The timing was a coincidence. Lobo led UConn to her first NCAA title with the perfect 1994-95 season, and both huskies captured more attention than usual at the time for the women’s college game. Then Lobo was the youngest member of an American team representing many different players and backstories.

Sheryl Soops set an NCAA record of 47 points for the Texas Tech Lady Raiders in the 1993 National Championship game and is considered one of the best women’s soccer players in the world. But she hated playing outside – at the time her only option was to play outside the national team – and found herself working in a bank while trying to stay in shape for basketball playing small games against those who attended. Similarly, Lisa Leslie finished an impressive career with USC Trojans in 1994 but had little desire to play abroad.

Staley, a two-time national college player of the year for the Virginia Cavaliers, was told shortly after her college career ended in 1992 that she was too short and inexperienced to be an Olympian. Jennifer Azzi, who led Stanford to her first NCAA title in 1990, hasn’t got an explanation for why she left the Olympic team in 1992, but it’s now believed to have something to do with her being gay.

Theresa Edwards and Katrina McLean, former teammates of Georgia Lady Bulldogs who won gold together at the 1988 Olympics, were set to redeem after the 1992 Olympics bronze. But they felt they were nurturing, despite being America’s most experienced international athlete. They vowed to show that they are too good to be cut down.

Carla McGee was so badly injured in a car accident while playing for Tennessee that there was no guarantee that she would walk normally after that, let alone return to the field or become an Olympian. Venus Lacey, who was the 12th athlete added to the team later in the process, was the perfect addition with her size and strength, though she would also get hurt after the Olympics in a serious car accident.

Ruthie Bolton engineered the endless power of her teammates, even as she was hiding the nightmare of domestic violence she feared would end her life.

The team bonded through rigorous and relentless training under VanDerveer’s leadership. There were no smartphones or internet on their miles. Card games, chess – VanDerveer and Staley now joking disagree about who’s the best – watching TV and having discussions about life was the way players took to off the field. For long periods, they just had each other.

“It was a very motivated group of people who had the physical toughness and also the mental ability to get through what has been a very difficult year,” Lobo said. “It was a private group.”

The gold medal success for the U.S. women’s teams at the Atlanta Games in basketball, soccer and softball showed the sponsors that there is value in joining that wave of development in the sport. And while the ABL Winter League — the first women’s basketball league to be launched in the United States after the Olympics in the fall of 1996 — folded in December 1998 during its third season, longevity was a milestone for the WNBA.

“We moved the chains, but we didn’t succeed as much as we could have if we invested more,” Staley said. “Women’s basketball has been successful despite often minimal investment. We are looking for more and more opportunities.”

Women’s sports in general have more representation on both television and media platforms that did not exist in the mid-1990s, but they still strive for a greater mainstream vision. The NCAA was removed after just one year of exposure to the embarrassing inequality between the men’s and women’s Division I basketball leagues, prompting an external review detailing that this is the case in pretty much all collegiate sports leagues.

And while the 12-team WNBA celebrated its silver anniversary last season, the league is still hoping to expand for the first time since 2008.

“What we achieved in 1996 will become a complete moment for me when I feel the forces really sinking into our game and giving it the space and resources it deserves,” Staley said. “Then everyone can benefit. I want people who invest ten times what they put into our game to get back.”