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In the spring of 1995, twelve extraordinary basketball players were chosen to represent the United States in the year-long march to the 1996 Olympics. For Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and their teammates, winning the gold medal was only one of many goals. Around them swirled the dreams of the millions of young girls who played organized basketball, the hopes of the fans who sent the team an average of 125 pounds of fan mail each month, the multimillion-dollar bets of Nike, Champion, and other ...
In the spring of 1995, twelve extraordinary basketball players were chosen to represent the United States in the year-long march to the 1996 Olympics. For Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and their teammates, winning the gold medal was only one of many goals. Around them swirled the dreams of the millions of young girls who played organized basketball, the hopes of the fans who sent the team an average of 125 pounds of fan mail each month, the multimillion-dollar bets of Nike, Champion, and other corporate sponsors, the promise of a new women's professional league, and not least, the hopes of female athletes across the country to gain the respect accorded male athletes.
These women upon whom so much pressure rested included a runway model (who also happened to be one of the few women players able to dunk), a forward who barely survived a car accident that left her in coma, a collegiate sensation struggling to live up to her rep and her huge marketing contract from Reebok, a superstar known as "the female Michael Jordan," and a controversial, unrelenting coach. Nine of the women were black; three were white. Some were married, some single; some outspoken, some painfully shy. Some were rivals, some fast friends. How they came together, both on and off the court, is the subject of this wonderful celebration of the female athlete.
On a Tuesday in late October, Tara VanDerveer stared impassively out a hotel window at the Georgia Dome. In the drab autumn light, the building appeared almost menacingly impersonal—a white, oval-shaped structure made of mostly concrete and glittering glass with a white circus-tent top that rose to a girdered point in the middle—a grand-scale postmodern cupcake set down in the center of Atlanta. This was where, nine months from then, the final games of the Olympics would be played. For VanDerveer it was where the full pressure of her life as a coach would come to bear, where she and her team would distinguish themselves either as winners or losers.
After dominating the international game in the eighties, the American women, and their game—an exuberant run-and-gun brand of basketball—had been ransacked by the competition, chewed up by the Chinese and the Russians and even the Australians in the last few years. Losing to Brazil in the semifinals at the 1994 World Championships in Sydney hurt perhaps the worst. The next day, when Brazil beat China to win the gold medal, the Brazilian players had all but rioted on the bus back to the hotel, dancing and singing and hanging out the windows. Eventually the women had worked themselves into such a frenzy that when somebody produced a pair of scissors, taking turns, egged on by chants of "Vivß Brasil!," they'd gleefully chopped off the hair of their male coach. Unfortunately, as it was common for teams to share transportation at international tournaments, the Americans had been on that same bus, having won the bronze medal game earlier that evening. VanDerveer remembered sitting up front, her back to her own team, all of them muted and glum in the twilight as the new world champions carried on boisterously behind them.
She did not want to lose again.
Though USA Basketball paid only for basic hotel rooms, the PR people at the Westin Hotel had put VanDerveer in the Presidential Suite for no charge, a two-story affair complete with spiral staircase, a baby grand piano, and a whirlpool. "I could have a party in there," she joked with the players, something that was funny only because they understood that VanDerveer was as equally ill at ease at parties as she was surrounded by opulence. In the suite she unpacked her things and kept them piled neatly in one corner, spreading only her paperwork out over the sleek coffee table in the living room. The whirlpool went unused.
For her, the highlight of the $1,450-a-night accommodations was the view from the 69th floor, looking out over Atlanta's downtown sprawl and toward the Georgia Dome, which from above looked flat and utterly conquerable. A lover of symbols and portents, VanDerveer was making a point to glance over at the Dome every chance she got during the team's stopover in Atlanta. On her morning runs with the team's administrative director, she jogged a slow circle around it, trying to view it from every angle, squinting at it front and back. In their several days there she would try to see the building in every light, gilded in the morning, milky and ominous against the nighttime streetlights, as if trying to establish herself in relation to it, as if to assert that whatever the Georgia Dome came to represent in her life, it would never catch her by surprise.
Training camp had ended a week earlier with a series of short scrimmages against teams from South Korea and Ukraine, which the U.S. Olympic Committee had imported to Colorado Springs for ten days. VanDerveer had given the players a few days off, then they'd kicked off the road tour with little fanfare, meeting up in Cincinnati to play Athletes in Action, a women's team fielded by a Christian organization. In a high school gym before a small but enthused crowd, the national team had won the game 83-57. Still, they played sloppy, lackluster basketball with too many turnovers and too many forced shots. It had been, to VanDerveer's mind, a terrible start, one that confirmed her worst insecurities. Her team seemed unsynchronized, too lax on defense, and more troubling, too weak in the middle. Lisa Leslie was getting pushed around. What VanDerveer needed was some heft underneath, a banger.
Now in Georgia, she wanted them to see the Dome. She wanted to plant a seed: It could happen here.
With the Georgia Tech football season in full swing, the floor of the stadium was padded with thick grass and striped with yellow and white yard lines. The smell of stale beer hung faintly in the air, and 36,000 empty seats rose up around them. As they filed onto the field, joking with each other, their voices seemed to float rather than echo as they would on a basketball court. The moment felt distinctly uninspired: They were a bunch of women standing around a football field.
VanDerveer gathered them together then and asked them to imagine a court and two nets and a game that unfolded flawlessly. Could they hear the crowd? How did the floor feel beneath their feet? Soon, transfixed, they were running the fast break seamlessly, hawking the ball on defense until their defense became an offense, wrenching down rebounds, looping full-court passes on the break. They imagined the red-lit numbers on the scoreboard ticking upward in their favor, the Brazilians or Russians or Chinese, whoever, frozen like pillars in their wake. The cheering of 30,000 fans rose up and crashed over them.
When they focused again, they saw only a short woman with a blunt haircut and a far-off expression, Tara VanDerveer on the 60-yard line. Marching them to some imagined midcourt line, she dug two objects out of her pocket—glinting and unfamiliar, discs too big to be a silver dollar and the wrong color too. She'd borrowed two gold medals from Teresa, from 1984 and 1988. The medals were heavier than most of the women had imagined, a quarter-inch of solid gold on a satin ribbon. As they took turns hanging the medals around their necks, VanDerveer had them pose individually for a photo—the athlete, the medal, and the Georgia Dome—a reminder for when they doubted themselves or each other or her at points along the way, about what this was all for.
They would carry these photos, plus another close-up of the medal alone, taped to a page in the notebooks they brought with them everywhere, simple black ring binders that would soon swell with flight schedules and hotel names and media obligations and page after page of VanDerveer's diagrammed plays.
It was going to be a long haul. This was something that VanDerveer seemed to understand more than anyone else. Less than a week into the tour, newspapers across the country were using phrases like "best in the world" and "women's Dream Team" to describe her players. The attention was good, but the optimism, the kind generated so glibly and so often by a national media quick to find heroes before actual battle, was dangerous; it could steamroll them if they weren't careful. The media would try to fit them into so many boxes, pumping out as-yet-unearned superlatives as the team jumped from city to city. They were beautiful (a new definition of American beauty!), they were all about togetherness (blacks and whites in a perfect microcosm of American racial harmony!), they had manners and humility and a deep-seated respect for the opportunity now afforded them (the antithesis of the NBA crybabies and buffoons!) and most significantly, they were going to win it all.
For her part, VanDerveer would discourage the hype as much as she could. It was one thing to appreciate the way her team played, what good people her players were, but it was quite another to predict victory nine months in advance. The reality was that China had a six-foot-eight center who hit eighty percent of her shots; that Russia had big, hungry players who were six nine and six seven; and the Brazilian team was full of fiery veterans who could pass the ball in their sleep. And all of them, she couldn't help reminding herself—no, obsessing on—had thumped the Americans at one time or another in the last five years.
Later, talking with an Atlanta reporter at the hotel, with the Dome looming again in the distance, she tried to be realistic. "There's a misconception out there that because we invented the game of basketball, it's a U.S. right to claim the medal," she said. When she gave interviews she rarely smiled, but she did give the most honest answers she could. She wanted the press to understand. "In order to win that gold medal in that building right over there, on August fourth at about two o'clock in the afternoon," she said, eyeing the Dome, drawing her breath in lightly, "we have a tremendous amount of work ahead."
Sara Corbett: Hi! It's great to be here. I've done one online chat so far and loved it.
Sara Corbett: Hi, Jake. The nice thing is that you and your daughter have many great role models to choose from. I, of course, particularly recommend the basketball players I was lucky to get to know in the last year. For me, meeting women like Rebecca Lobo, Teresa Edwards, Lisa Leslie, Jennifer Azzi, and the other women on the Olympic team was a real treat. Because most of them grew up without female-athlete role models, they are extremely committed to cultivating new fans, particularly young girls...unlike many male athletes, the women usually stay after practices or games to sign autographs and chat with their fans. As for other athletes, I think the '96 Olympics were important as a showcase for women's team sports. The success of the soccer and softball teams, in addition to the basketball team, gave the public new and important images of women working together to achieve their goals.
Sara Corbett: It's funny, because people often assume I titled the book after Venus Lacy, who was the last player added to the Olympic team in June 1996. Actually, however, when I titled the book back in February of '95, I'd never even heard of Venus Lacy. Rather, I was responding to a 1960 New York Times Magazine story I'd read in my research on women's sports, entitled "Venus Wasn't a Shotputter." In it, the author asserts that strong, athletic women can't be beautiful. "I for one," he wrote, "have never met a lovable lady shotputter..." Both his title and mine refer to "Venus" as the traditional goddess of beauty. I conceived of the book really as a rebuttal to this story, since even 37 years later women athletes still struggle with a vast set of stereotypes. What I saw in the basketball players was the arrival of a new "Venus," the big, strong, sweaty, aggressive, and competitive woman...a beauty that's determined by discipline, commitment, and drive.
Sara Corbett: Good question! It's interesting because what I'd heard about the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona -- the first time the Dream Team was assembled -- was that the men's presence was very distracting for the women. I don't think anyone was prepared that year for the hype that would surround the men. The women on that team tell stories about Michael Jordan being helicoptered off to play golf every day...the whole scene took everyone's mind off the games ahead, which for the women in part translated to a loss. However, in 1996, the women were well prepared for the entrance of the men. The team trained for the last ten days before opening ceremonies in Orlando, and the men joined them there. It was a strange time, because when the Dream Team arrived it was also the NBA's free-agent signing period, and suddenly the media and the fans cared a lot more about whether Shaquille O'Neal was going to sign with the L.A. Lakers which he did, for $121 million over seven years than how the Dream Team was going to do in Atlanta. For the women, at least for a day or two, it was a little depressing. They'd worked a full year to get to Atlanta, and sometimes the focus on the Dream Team was frustrating. On a personal level, they did really enjoy the male players. Lisa Leslie and Shaq are good buddies. They all shared a lot of meals and played some vicious Ping-Pong in the hotel rec room. Also, the men were very supportive, attending many of the women's games.
Sara Corbett: I think the first thing to be said about Tara, and the most important, is that she got the job done. The pressure on her last year was unimaginable. She was told when she first took the Olympic coaching job by her boss the president of USA Basketball, "This isn't about silver...it's about gold." Likewise, NBA Commissioner David Stern made a comment like, "Well, there's only one thing that could go wrong: You could screw it up." That said, Tara is an extremely tough coach. Her teams win because they outwork their opponents, not just during a game but in preparation as well. At times, her relentless work ethic was unpopular with the Olympic players, and I think by the end of the experience, they were all pretty ready to be out from under her thumb. It's interesting, though, because I saw Dawn Staley a few days ago, and she said that she disagreed with the way Tara worked them while she was going through it, but now, nearly after winning the gold, she understands that it was necessary. "Kind of like all those ridiculous things your mother tells you when you're a kid," said Dawn, "things you don't understand as wise until years later."
Sara Corbett: Nicole, the NBA had a close relationship with the women's national team last year. Essentially, the NBA did a lot of the team's marketing legwork, securing corporate sponsors, selling television ad time, overseeing the merchandising at games, and so on. All of this, really, was to give the league a good view of how the public responded to the women's game...what worked and what didn't. The goal from the start was to test-market the concept of a women's professional league. I think the team's overwhelming success gave the NBA a good dose of confidence that it could launch the WNBA. What we're seeing this summer -- the large crowds and significant amount of hype -- for the WNBA is really the direct legacy of the Olympic team.
Sara Corbett: Well, thanks, Marianne! Tell your family I appreciate the support. I've followed both the professional leagues -- the ABL and WNBA -- fairly closely, and on some level I wish the two were one. What the ABL lacks is marketing muscle, and that's the WNBA's absolute strength. Meanwhile, what the WNBA lacks at least right now is top-level players playing great basketball, which the ABL had during its first season, at least to a greater extent. At the same time, it's hard to complain about having women's basketball out there year-round.
Sara Corbett: At first, I was skeptical about a summer league, but when I see the amount of coverage the WNBA's getting in the media as well as the league's great opportunities for televised games, I think summer is the right time.
Sara Corbett: Actually, Lisa Leslie is the only player from the Olympic team who can dunk. There are a handful of women in this country who are capable of dunking. Dunking's become a political issue in women's basketball, though. While it's exciting to watch a woman dunk the ball, it also tends to encourage comparisons between men's and women's basketball -- something many players and coaches feel is unproductive.
Sara Corbett: That's a good question, Pete. Nine of the original 11 women on the team had committed to the ABL back in September 1995...long before anyone knew the NBA was going to announce a league of its own. For most of the year, the team had an "all for one, one for all" attitude about the ABL. They worked very hard to help the ABL organizers make administrative decisions. When the WNBA announced its intentions to start a league in April 1996, suddenly the women had choices to make. It was undeniably tough on all of them. At the moment they most needed to be thinking and acting like a team, they also had to contend with their futures as individuals. It's a real testament to the women, though, that they finally came to respect one another's various choices.
Sara Corbett: The women are still a long way off in terms of equity when it comes to pay. But the leagues are new, and really women's sports is new territory for everyone involved -- from the shoe companies handing out sponsorship deals to the marketing folks negotiating endorsements to the league officials who determine salaries. Lisa Leslie probably makes more than any other woman out there. Her package of endorsements and salary comes to in the neighborhood of $3 million. Keep in mind, though, there are players in the WNBA who are making less than $10,000.
Sara Corbett: Good question, Dick. The WNBA did get some of the top talent internationally. Michele Timms of Australia is one of the best point guards ever to play the women's game. Elena Baranova from Russia is a phenomenal post player. However, the best players from the U.S., notably 8 of 12 Olympians, the majority of the top college players graduating in '97, and a number of American veterans of overseas teams have opted to play in the ABL.
Sara Corbett: I agree with you that Rebecca is a well-rounded person with a great attitude. She's also a well-rounded basketball player. On the Olympic team, though, she was one of two rookies. It was actually a very tough year for her, coming off a great undefeated championship season and then being tossed into a team of much older, much more experienced players. Beyond that, the coach strongly felt and voiced publicly that Rebecca didn't belong on the team. This is where Rebecca's sterling character comes into play. She handled those pressures, along with the pressure of being the most popular member of the team, but not the most talented, with real maturity. I'm happy to see, also, that she's really worked hard in the last year to beef up her playing. She's playing wonderfully for the WNBA's New York Liberty and is, once again, a real team leader the way she was at UConn.
Sara Corbett: One of the greatest parts of the year for me was going to China with the team. For everyone, it was like going to another planet, almost. I'll never forget sitting down to eat with Rebecca Lobo and some of the others and being served deep-fried chicken claws! I also loved hanging around airports with the team as we did often, traveling that much. Dawn Staley loves to fill empty time by betting. In airports, she'd either get high-stakes card games going or stand at the luggage carousel taking bets on whose luggage would come out first.
Sara Corbett: Jen, I like to hope that someday women's professional sports will thrive in the U.S. -- not just basketball but soccer, softball, field hockey, volleyball, etc. At the moment, however, even women's basketball, which is the fastest-growing sport for women and girls in this country, has a tentative future. I do think women's basketball is here to stay, and I'm hoping it will help pave the way for other professional opportunities for women athletes.
Sara Corbett: I think the WNBA's chances of survival are extremely good. There's a lot of speculation that the two leagues will eventually merge, similar to what happened with the ABA, but neither group is talking about a merger at this point. It'll be interesting to see if the WNBA ever feels that it needs anything from the ABL. Right now the WNBA holds the trump card -- television contracts -- and while the ABL has great talent, the WNBA can either wait for contracts to expire or hope to attract new talent in seasons to come. I think we're seeing several WNBA players emerge with the kind of star power that Bird and Johnson had way back when. Lisa Leslie tends to electrify people. Teresa Weatherspoon is really exciting the New York fans, as well.
Sara Corbett: I think the women, most of whom grew up being picked on for playing basketball -- having to push themselves into boys' playground games and so forth -- have become fairly impervious to criticism. It's a shame that sexist attitudes continue to exist about women playing what's traditionally been considered a man's game, but the women on the Olympic team have seen and heard enough of it not to let it get them down.
Sara Corbett: I think that's a debatable point, actually. The women you see playing in the pro leagues have played with regulation-sized hoops their entire lives... why change it now? To make the scores higher? To encourage dunking? To my knowledge there has been no discussion in either league about lowering the rims. I think most players would tell you they feel that "cheapens" the game. They play a fast-paced, team-oriented, and highly physical game with standard rims. I don't think there's a lot of support for the notion of lowering them.
Sara Corbett: I did try to do a lot of research, Tiffany, and you're right: There's very little out there. I was lucky to come across some great resources, though, many of which were academic texts and not easy to find in bookstores. It's encouraging, though, to see a new flood of women's sports books coming on the market. I know that this year alone there are several women's basketball books in the works.
Sara Corbett: Thanks for the compliment, Maria. While writing the book, I sometimes vowed to myself that I'd take a big break from women's basketball when I was done. But I'm happy to say I'm hooked! I think the story's very much still unfolding, and I've really been glued to what's happening with the two leagues, the players, and the situation of women athletes. I am a contributing editor for Condé Nast Sports for Women, a monthly magazine that's launching in October. I'll be covering women's basketball and other sports for them, as well as doing some other magazine work on the side.
Sara Corbett: Thanks very much for having me. Sorry I couldn't get to everyone's questions tonight, but I really appreciate your interest!
Posted February 3, 2013
I love basketball. I am the besr player on the team. Our last game was 1 day ago and man the other team was phyical in a bad way. Putting there elbows in our stomachs. Knocking us down. I was going after the ball amd this girl fell amd when i got the ball i stepped on her arm. She started crinh and i feel really bad. Who ever likes playing basketball. Challenge me amd i might beat you. You have to be in 6th or 7th grade. Girls only. Maybe boys. But not for now.
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