July 23, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - This is the seventh in a 10-part series highlighting Stanford's achievements in the Olympic Games. This series is limited to gold-medal accomplishments by athletes who were current or former Stanford students at the time of their performances.
At Stanford, Tara VanDerveer and Jennifer Azzi helped transform women’s basketball from a virtual club program into a headliner and a must-have ticket at Maples Pavilion. Of course, two national championships and a pipeline of outstanding talent perpetuated the success and the popularity of the game at Stanford.
But on a national or international scale, women’s basketball had not quite caught up to what was happening in the college game, at least in pockets like Stanford. The U.S. women’s team had produced a series of disappointing results heading into 1996 – bronze medals in the 1991 Pan Am Games, ‘92 Olympics and ’94 world championships.
With the 1996 Olympics to be held in Atlanta, a concerted effort was made to raise the profile of the women’s team, which paled in the public's imagination to the resounding success of the 1992 men’s Olympic team – the “Dream Team.”
In an effort to create a “Dream Team” of its own, the women’s Olympic team hired VanDerveer as coach, encouraged its biggest stars to forego lucrative foreign club contracts, and bankrolled a 52-game exhibition schedule against college and international teams.
Adding to the pressure placed on the U.S. team was the formation of two U.S. pro women’s leagues – the American Basketball League and the Women’s NBA -- whose launches were to be boosted by the performance of the Olympic team. The ABL was set to launch in the fall of 1996 and the WNBA in the spring of 1997. Momentum from the Olympics would greatly enhance the survival chances of each.
VanDerveer took a year leave from Stanford and brought two members of her Cardinal national championship teams: Azzi, her standout guard, and power forward Katy Steding.
The team’s 102,245-mile, 14-month pre-Olympic odyssey included games in Siberia, China, and Australia, and tested the resolve of players and coaches alike. At first, not everyone was on board with VanDerveer’s intense practice sessions and her emphasis on weight training, conditioning, and film study.
But, in the end, the team became a team.
“We don't always do the right things,” VanDerveer said to Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated. “There are rebounds to be gotten and better defense to be played. But you know the saying, Either you're in or you're out? They're all in.”
The U.S. definitely was all in, going 52-0 during its exhibition tour, and then 8-0 during the Games themselves, outscoring opponents by an average of 28.6 points.
The Americans capped it off with a 111-87 gold-medal victory over Brazil that was sublime in its efficiency. The U.S. shot 66 percent from the field, combined for 30 assists, and all 12 players scored. And, illustrating the togetherness they cultivated during those long months, they took the medal stand holding hands.
The best part: 32,987 witnessed the game at the Georgia Dome. Dream Team, indeed.
If women’s team sports can point to a singular event that proved the wisdom of Title IX and its potential, it should look no further than the VanDerveer-led United States basketball team of 1996.
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Long before the concept of the professional “Dream Team” took shape, previous U.S. basketball teams had some headline-grabbing individuals too.
At the 1956 Melbourne Games, that meant Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, as well Stanford’s Ron Tomsic and Jim Walsh.
Most impressive about that ’56 team was the fact that it dominated the Olympics like no other men's basketball team before or since -- including the 1992 U.S. Dream Team. The '56ers outscored opponents by an average of 53.5 points per game.
The closest of its nine games was an 85-55 preliminary round victory over the Soviet Union. In the gold medal game between the two teams, the U.S. won 89-55, with Walsh scoring 14 points.
Tomsic was the quintessential shooting guard at Stanford. In 1953-54, he broke Hank Luisetti’s school record for total points in a season and graduated as Stanford’s all-time leading scorer (1,416). He had scoring games of 38, 39, and 40 points, and averaged as much as 19.3 points in a season.
After his Stanford career, Tomsic bypassed the NBA to play AAU ball, playing mostly for the Olympic Club in San Francisco, and was named to the Helms Amateur Hall of Fame.
Walsh, a 1952 Stanford graduate, also played several years in AAU ball, as well as one season with the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics
Previously in the series:
Captain Comeback: Swimmer Pablo Morales in 1992
The Golden Spike: Volleyballer Scott Fortune in 1988
Training Day: Stanford rowers in 1956 and 1960
The World Greatest Athlete: Decathlete Bob Mathias in 1948 and 1952
American Brandsten: Ernst Brandsten's Divers and Swimmers in 1920, 1924, and 1928
Rugby Mania: Stanford-influenced teams in 1920 and 1924