How to put the greatness of Team USA in historical context?
Well, it’s kind of impossible, as the U.S. Women’s National Basketball Team’s absolute awesomeness in Olympic competition has exceeded any and all precedence.
Yes, the U.S. Men’s National Basketball Team claimed seven-straight gold medals from 1936 to 1968. However, this feat occurred when the Olympic Movement was only beginning to open up to the non-white, non-Western world. Likewise, the U.S. Men’s National Basketball Team resisted choosing the most talented players to represent the nation, as unofficial racial barriers and unspoken racial quotas prevented the full participation of Black players.
During their run of seven gold medals, the women who have worn the jersey of the United States on the courts of Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London, Rio and Tokyo have better represented the diversity of the United States, with women of color and LGBTQ women populating the rosters. Head coach Dawn Staley also is the first coach of color to lead and then win gold with Team USA.
Dawn Staley, the first Black head coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team, has led Team USA to its seventh-consecutive gold medal— The Undefeated (@TheUndefeated) August 8, 2021
Team USA’s seven gold medals ties the longest gold medal streak for any Olympic team sport pic.twitter.com/GH0nQmYEd2
All the more, the breadth of Team USA’s dominance goes beyond seven-straight gold medals. They have won 55 games in a row. Or, to even better capture their absurd excellence, they have not lost a game in Olympic competition in almost thirty years. The last time Team USA lost on the Olympic stage six members of the 2020 Olympic team were not yet born: Chelsea Gray, Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Ariel Atkins and Napheesa Collier.
The five gold medals won by Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi — the only athletes in the world, woman or man, to win five basketball golds — further illuminates the unparalleled achievements of the U.S. Women’s National Basketball Team. Just as impressive, Staley captured her sixth gold medal — three as a player, two as an assistant coach and one as the head coach.
Those three fixtures of U.S. women’s basketball will not be in Paris in 2024 (or so we think right now). Staley announced that she is stepping down as head coach, while Bird confirmed that this was her final Olympics. Joking or not, Taurasi might have left the door open for 2024.
“See You In Paris”— PointsBet Sportsbook (@PointsBetUSA) August 8, 2021
Diana Taurasi x Sue Bird
Five-Time Gold Medalistspic.twitter.com/kMzytDruS7
Nevertheless, the performance of Team USA in Tokyo, despite some uneven early play, did nothing to dissuade the expectation that they will win an eighth-consecutive gold in Paris. Breanna Stewart, the MVP of the 2020 Women’s Olympic Basketball Tournament, and A’ja Wilson, who was a force in her first Olympiad, have emerged as the torch bearers of the next generation. Brittney Griner, who scored a U.S.-record 30 points in the gold medal game, also seems likely to continue to serve as a stalwart for Team USA.
For, for all the focus on Bird and Taurasi’s “drive for five,” the increasingly-legendary legacy of Team USA is about more than those two players. Bird made this clear in her postgame interview, making sure to highlight the gold medal-winning women who kickstarted this unprecedented streak in 1996 and 2000. After thanking her current and past teammates, she emphasized:
Even the ‘96 team. Even though we didn’t play with them, same with the 2000 team ... when you’re part of USA Basketball, you’re all family, you’re all teammates. I think this one, it’s seven in a row, it’s not just about us. It’s about all the players that have either set the stage or those that are on it right now.
"It's not just about us. It's about all the players that have either set the stage or those that are on it right now."— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) August 8, 2021
Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi after winning the seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal for women's @usabasketball. #TokyoOlympics #OlympicHERstory pic.twitter.com/uxq3GmBzur
The women who played for Team USA before 1996 also deserve credit.
Dismayed by a bronze medal in 1992 and intent upon winning gold with the Olympics on U.S. soil in 1996, USA Basketball, finally, invested significant resources into the U.S. Women’s National Basketball Team, paying some of the best women hoopers in the U.S. to embark on a year-long preparation for gold. Before that, the women of Team USA did not receive much material support from the powers that be.
Yet, Team USA has still medaled in every Olympics in which it has competed, winning silver in 1976 in Montreal and golds in 1984 and 1988 in Los Angeles and Seoul, respectively, before the bronze in Barcelona in 1992.
For the silver in 1976, Team USA was helmed by UCLA’s Billie Moore, with Lusia Harris and Ann Meyers leading the U.S. on the court. In 1984, Tennessee’s Pat Summit, a player in ‘76, served as head coach, when Cheryl Miller and Lynette Woodard carried Team USA to their first gold medal. A second gold was secured in 1988 by a squad coached by NC State’s Kay Yow and featuring Katrina McClain and Teresa Edwards. With the combination of McClain and Edwards again captaining the team in 1992, the U.S. won bronze, coached by Rutgers’ Theresa Grentz. Names familiar to women’s hoops fans — Nancy Lieberman, Kim Mulkey, Pam McGee, Cynthia Cooper and Teresa Weatherspoon — also suited up for the red, white and blue in Games prior to 1996.
While the U.S. Women’s National Basketball Team began to blossom in ‘96 — when this epic streak of seven-straight golds and 55-consecutive wins began — its greatness on the Olympic stage has been cultivated by players and coaches for 45 years. Three years from now, we’ll see how this legacy continues to grow.