Hall of Fame Game: The 1996 U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team

Having just recommended that a Soviet national team be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, we’re not bowing to any form of public or internal pressure — we promise.

We’re not urging that a different American Olympic basketball team should be honored in Springfield to counter the Soviets. This isn’t geopolitics… and it shouldn’t be.

It’s more a matter of giving women’s basketball more of a central place in James Naismith’s Hall of immortals.


The WNBA’s conference finals are taking place right now. The basketball writer in me would like to cover those playoff series, but budgetary and programming restrictions don’t make that feasible just yet. Parachuting in to comment on a few weeks of basketball, without covering the whole of the WNBA regular season, would be slapdash, patchwork, and therefore not worth doing. Perhaps the future will give us the chance to expand our reach.

In the meantime, we do hope you’ll enjoy the final two rounds of the WNBA playoffs. Seeing Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore go at it in the West finals between the Phoenix Mercury and the Minnesota Lynx is as good as it gets in modern women’s basketball. This leads us to our Hall of Fame recommendation today.


The WNBA might not be a commercial powerhouse, but the league — all things considered — has done quite well for itself.

Now 18 years old in terms of game action, and 19 years old in terms of its founding, the WNBA has far outdistanced the worst fears and predictions about the league. Originally held together by the NBA and its backing, the WNBA has grown into a league with more private ownership and more self-sustained franchises.

It’s true that the NBA Finals and NBA Draft cut into the WNBA’s visibility in June, when the regular season begins. This is something NBA TV needs to figure out in the near future. Yet, despite that limitation, an ESPN2 platform for the playoffs gives the league as much as it realistically could have expected when its first season launched in 1997.

One year before that first season, the most important and impactful American women’s basketball team left an enduring mark on the sport in the United States. What the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup team was for soccer in this country, the 1996 U.S. Women’s Olympic team was to basketball in this country. That might not be a clean or neat comparison, but the 1996 Olympic basketball team in Atlanta — coached by Tara VanDerveer — probably comes closer than the powerhouse 1984 Olympic team in Los Angeles, coached by Pat Summitt.

This isn’t empirical fact, but it’s a claim which appears to stand up under scrutiny.

First, the 1984 women’s Olympic team wasn’t accompanied by a very intentional push — and public relations blitz — to establish a professional women’s basketball league in this country. The wheels of the WNBA, in its early organizational stages, were turning when the 1996 Olympic team began its run in Atlanta. The rousing success of that 1996 team — which destroyed the competition with a roster that’s among the greatest ever assembled in women’s basketball — certainly had a role in not only helping the WNBA to exist, but to gain credibility as a product. (How great a role? That’s what’s up for debate. The reality of having a part in the larger process is indisputable.)

The second main reason why the 1996 Olympic women’s team probably deserves a ticket to Springfield more than the 1984 team (though since two U.S. men’s teams are in Springfield, inducting both would certainly not be unreasonable) is that the Soviets, a force in women’s basketball since the sport debuted at the Olympics in 1976, boycotted the 1984 games. The absence of the Americans from the 1980 Moscow games, followed by the absence of the Soviets in 1984 in L.A., makes it harder to judge and weigh the merits of those great teams from both nations.

With 1996, the picture is much clearer.

The third core reason why the 1996 U.S. women’s team deserves its place in the Hall is that it was the author and originator of a prolonged period of dominance in international women’s basketball. Ever since that 1996 team dominated in Atlanta — its smallest margin of victory was 15 points over Japan in the quarterfinals — no subsequent American team has lost a women’s basketball game at the Olympics. The Americans have lost one game since 1996 at the FIBA Women’s World Cup of Basketball.


The 1992 Dream Team dramatically raised the bar for international basketball, so that men’s Olympic team is rightly given a place in Springfield, where basketball’s legends dwell. If there’s a women’s counterpart to that team, the 1996 U.S. Olympic team fits the bill. The 1984 team would deserve the honor as well, but it seems that in the spirit of giving women’s basketball a proper and more central place in the Basketball Hall of Fame, the 1996 United States Olympic women’s basketball team should receive a Hall pass.

If inducted in 2016, it certainly would make for the perfect 20th anniversary gift to those players and coaches, and to the people who helped assemble that roster. It would also mark a great way to celebrate the WNBA’s 20th year of existence after its founding in April of 1996.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |