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 1996 U.S. Olympic team was honored Saturday as trailblazers of the game during the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony for 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. Tipps, who died in 2011, was inducted posthumously.
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. The Hall of Fame induction ceremony included a short videotape saluting the WNBA's milestone.
''That team and that experience, it was the platform for the WNBA,'' said Jennifer Azzi, a 1996 Olympian 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.''
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, a 1996 Olympian 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 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 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.''
The 1996 Olympic squad wasn't the only team to gather in Knoxville this weekend.
Stiles led Missouri State (then known as Southwest Missouri State) to a 2001 Final Four and now is an assistant coach at her alma mater. Missouri State's current team made a surprise 600-mile bus trip to watch Stiles' induction.
''I had no idea they were coming,'' Stiles said. ''It just meant the world. They rode 12 hours on a bus to be here tonight.''
The Hall of Fame gave its inaugural ''For The Love Of The Game'' inspiration and courage award to Lauren Hill, who played for Division III school Mount St. Joseph after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 2014. Hill died at the age of 19 on April 10, 2015. Mount St. Joseph coach Dan Benjamin accepted the award on Hill's behalf.