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The 1996 U.S. Olympic team showed dreams can come true

The three-part ESPN documentary series highlights the contributions of this groundbreaking team

XXVI Summer Olympic Games Photo by Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty Images

They were the pioneers. They had talent, poise, determination, and authenticity. They were perfectly human and yet they were in many ways superwomen. They raised the bar and then broke the bar. They were America’s team, the 1996 U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team.

By now some may know that they were the instrumental force that helped launch the WNBA in 1997, but more will know the full extent of their legacy after watching an ESPN 30 for 30 three-part documentary series entitled Dream On directed by Kristen Lappas. Through 500 hours of archived footage, the series recreates the year-long journey the team endured in order to prove that women’s basketball could make it in the United States.

Among those featured include the head coach Tara VanDerveer and all twelve players. Also included are basketball greats and fellow 1996 Olympians Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill. as well as a special appearance by President Bill Clinton who was probably the team’s most high-profile supporter.

In the 1990’s, women’s basketball, much like the role of women in society, was growing in stature. In the college game, the women’s final four was starting to increase in popularity and television ratings. Much of which can be attributed to the success of Pat Summit’s Tennessee Lady Vols, VanDerveer’s Stanford Cardinal, and Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies.

On the international front, the USA women’s team was in desperate need to catch up. In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the women took home the bronze, their first loss in Olympic competition since women’s basketball started in 1976, while on the men’s side, the legendary Dream Team steamrolled their way to gold. In the 1994 FIBA World Championships, the US team came up short against Brazil. The women’s game needed some relief and as a result a revolutionary idea was born.

A group of organizers including Val Ackerman, who would later become the first WNBA Commissioner and current Commissioner of the Big East Commissioner, helped select the best women’s basketball players in the country, have them play a yearlong exhibition tour against college and international competition, and ultimately win gold in Atlanta. All with the goal in mind to help start a women’s professional basketball league.

“The importance from USA Basketball was to get back on track competitively,” Ackerman said in an interview with Swish Appeal. “There was the notion that there could be a dream team for the women’s game.”

The series highlights their exhibition tour in which they went 52-0. There are moments of joy, perseverance, hardship, and struggle that completely humbled these players, each of whom had their own personal journey to get to that point and wanting to prove themselves to the rest of the world.

By the time they got to Atlanta, they were ready, and a historic Sports Illustrated cover set the tone. Eventually, all the hard work and sacrifice paid off as they dominated their way to Olympic gold on American soil. They also managed to dominate their rival Brazil in the final game

When it came to making the series, there was so much to tell that Lappas had to break it up into episodes as opposed to a lengthy documentary.

“It was originally pitched as a 77 minute film,” Lappas told Swish Appeal. “It would be a disservice to these women to cream it into 77 minutes. This had to be three parts and we needed the time and space”.

There is a strong sense of solidarity that permeates throughout all three episodes. These women had each other’s back and continue to do so to this day.

“In this medium of documentary storytelling, we want to show that sisterhood and how far they have come,” Lappas said.

The team really lived up to the feminist motto of sisterhood is powerful. They also were the chief beneficiaries of one of the most significant feminist breakthroughs which was Title IX. The landmark law, passed 50 years ago June 22, opened the floodgates of opportunities for women in sports and society. The members of this team were born around the time of its passage and were able to live out the dreams that women of previous generations probably weren’t able to do; for this series to come out around the 50th anniversary carries additional significance.

“It is a logical release date given the fact that Title IX made it possible for these players to play basketball in college,” said Ackerman.

“I truly believe that this team accomplished the biggest thing since the passage of Title IX. This team put women’s sports on the map,” said Lappas.

This series is a much watch for anyone interested in learning about the growth of women’s basketball and the barriers this team broke. Ackerman wants audiences to walk away with a sense of appreciation for the valor these women demonstrated.

“I hope it educates the viewer the importance this team had on women’s basketball and when see it they appreciate the sacrifices the players made,” she said. “All in the effort to get the US back on track.”

For Lappas, she hopes that audiences will look at this and see it not just simply as a women’s sports moment.

“I hope people will walk away saying this is an amazing sports story,” she said. “I hope they walk away and appreciate this group of women because they deserve it.”

America’s team continues to inspire many to dream big and dream on. The series premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 p.m. EST.

Thank You Coach VanDerveer, Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Ruthie Bolton, Teresa Edwards, Carla McGhee, Katrina McClain Johnson, Jennifer Azzi, Rebecca Lobo, Venus Lacy, Nikki McCray, and Katy Steding.