Three Olympics ago, most Americans had never heard of Lisa Leslie or Sheryl Swoopes. They had never watched a woman dunk a basketball, and had certainly never considered the possibility of a women’s professional basketball league — but in 1996, 11 women embarked on a mission to change all of that.
Prior to the Atlanta Olympics, the U.S. Women’s Basketball Team toured together for 14 months, hitting every major college town for exhibition games; signing autographs until no one was left in line; traveling to Siberia, where the players on the bench had to wear parkas and gloves when they weren’t in the game; holding a team-wide clothing drive for the penniless Cuban national team; and hosting workshops at high schools all across America. They covered 100,000 miles before they landed in Atlanta for the ’96 Summer Olympics.
When the final buzzer sounded, they had won 60 games, a gold medal, and the hearts of an entire nation.
A few months later the Women’s National Basketball Association was born.
These days, the WNBA is the pool from which all Olympians are plucked. In fact, the U.S. has brought home every Olympic gold medal since the league’s inception in 1997. Each year the talent gets deeper, and the choices for the national team get harder to make. Last week USA Basketball finally narrowed down this year’s team, and announced the roster of women they hope will bring home a fourth consecutive gold medal.
In addition to newcomers Candace Parker, Cappie Pondexter, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowels, the team boasts vets like Tina Thompson, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, and three-time gold medalist Lisa Leslie. Kara Lawson, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Katie Smith make it an even 12.
Much of the leadership for the Olympic team is sure to come from WNBA teammates Parker and Leslie. Upon being named to the roster, Parker told reporters that when she watched the 1996 team claim their gold medals, she said to her parents that she’d be there one day.
When reporters asked Lisa Leslie what it felt like to know that Parker was just a child when Leslie won her first gold medal, she chuckled and said, “It’s so weird, because when you count the years, it’s true. I remember giving speeches after the ’96 Olympics to little girls and boys, ‘This is what it’s about: that dream of believing you can do anything you want and be anything you want.’
“And then you have [Candace] on her couch at home believing that.”
When the U.S. women take the floor in Beijing this summer their roster will have come full-circle: dreamers and dream-makers. Three Olympics later, America knows their names.