1996 Olympians confident in future of pro women's basketball
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Members of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team are proud of how their gold-medal performance helped launch professional women's basketball in their home country.
Two decades later, they have their own ideas on how to make sure that legacy endures.
The team will be honored Saturday as trailblazers of the game as part of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Joining them in the hall are Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, NCAA Division I career scoring leader Jackie Stiles, former official June Courteau, Texas high school coach Joe Lombard, former AAU girls basketball chairman Bill Tipps and former UCLA and WNBA star Natalie Williams.
The American Basketball League started in 1996 - the same year as the Atlanta Games - and the WNBA opened play the following year. The ABL folded in 1998, but the WNBA has survived and is celebrating its 20th season.
''That team and that experience, it was the platform for the WNBA,'' said Jennifer Azzi, a star at Stanford who joined the ABL before playing in the WNBA from 1999-2003. ''For people in this country to see women play beyond the age of 21 was exciting because everyone thought when you're 21, you're done playing and that's it.
''Our ages spanned from - we've got Rebecca Lobo right out of college to Teresa (Edwards) and Katrina (McClain who) were in their 30s. No one had seen that before. It was exciting. We changed the course of women's basketball.''
The WNBA is going through growing pains with attendance and the relocation of teams heading into its third decade, not unlike the NBA at that point.
Carla McGhee, who played for the WNBA's Orlando Miracle (now the Connecticut Sun) from 1999-2002, likes the WNBA's product but would like to see more marketing of the game. She praised the commercials the WNBA aired this year saluting the league's history in its 20th year.
''I just wish people would understand that it's the cheapest ticket in town and it's probably the best bang for the buck you're going to get hands down,'' McGhee said. ''I just think we have to keep understanding that we're going to keep evolving.''
Former NBA Commissioner David Stern started the league in 1997, saying he was backing it for the long haul. New WNBA president Lisa Borders took over before this season began in May.
''Nobody expected us to be around for 20,'' McGhee said. ''Maybe they thought when commissioner Stern stepped down, it would be the end. But we're still alive and kicking. We have a great president who's ready to take the baton of what all the others have done.''
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer led the 1996 team to a 52-0 record in a yearlong tour before the Olympics, where the Americans finished 8-0. She offered some advice on how the WNBA games should be officiated.
''I'm a very big fan of finesse basketball,'' VanDerveer said. ''I think the WNBA would help itself by not allowing it to be so physical. Have more of a skill game than a wrestling match.''
But the team members were confident overall in the league's future.
VanDerveer noted that the quality of play is improving and called the WNBA a ''great league (with) great players.'' She envisioned a day when the WNBA could expand beyond the league's current 12 teams.
''It's hard to compare women's basketball to men's basketball when men's basketball has had like a 50-year head start,'' VanDerveer said. ''Give it time to grow. It's going to be great. It's real exciting that it's had 20 years.
''Let's talk in 20 more years. Let's see how they're doing in 20 more years.''