An illustration of a WNBA player for the USA at the Olympics
Illustration by Laura Browning, University of Colorado, Denver
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An illustration of a WNBA player for the USA at the Olympics
Illustration by Laura Browning, University of Colorado, Denver

For women’s basketball, the stakes had never been higher.

It started in 1992 when the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team lost in the semifinal round following their back-to-back wins at the two previous Summer Olympics. Then in 1994, they lost the World Cup. For a time, it seemed like the United States’ dominance in the world of women’s basketball might come to an end. But not everybody was ready to throw in the towel, and that gutsy determination propelled the 1996 Olympic team. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits gender-based discrimination in sports, ESPN released a three-part documentary about the rise of the team, titled “Dream On.

In a world in which sports documentaries are a dime a dozen, “Dream On” feels fresh despite its somewhat-dated subject. Pulling from over 500 hours of unreleased footage of the ’96 team, as well recent interviews from those involved, director Kristen Lappas created a film that, for fans of the game of women’s basketball, can only ever be viewed as an absolute masterpiece.

One of the strongest aspects of the film was its honesty. Lappas — and those she interviewed — did not pull any punches when describing the team dynamics or the pressure to succeed that they faced. After several previous attempts to create a professional women’s basketball league in the United States, the NBA decided that they were potentially willing to fund the creation of a new one — but only if the 1996 team could pull in enough fans to justify the cost, and only if they proved that they were going to win.

In the 60 games they played to get to that gold medal, they did not lose a single time. The result of that winning streak was the creation of the Women’s National Basketball Association — better known these days as the WNBA, and “the longest-running women’s professional sports league in the United States.”

Though they did not know what exactly would come from their success, they knew that the fate of U.S. women’s basketball rested on their shoulders. They were under enormous amounts of pressure to not only win but also to live their lives in a specifically marketable way to draw in fans.

It was a messy situation, and Lappas did not shy away from highlighting that mess. In 2021, she interviewed the players of the 1996 team, and they were honest about their experiences. A common thread between almost all the players’ interviews was how they were treated by their coach, Tara VanDerveer, who led the Stanford women’s basketball team to two championships before the formation of the 1996 team. Players remembered her as being an incredibly harsh coach — the pressure was on for her too, and it showed in the way she treated the team.

“Tara told us that people were basically disposable. There isn’t one player on the team who didn’t break down at some point,” point guard Jennifer Azzi said in Part One of “Dream On.”

Another player, Rebecca Lobo, was specifically singled out by VanDerveer. Lobo was fresh out of college when she made the team, and despite her success at the University of Connecticut, she had a very difficult time at the beginning of their pre-Olympics playing tour.

“Our level of enjoyment while we were playing didn’t matter, because all that mattered was winning. That was her singular focus,” Lobo explained.

It was this honesty — this tell-it-like-it-is, nothing-held-back attitude — that not only steered the film but also elevated it. There was a rawness to it, an authenticity that shone through ESPN’s highly polished packaging. Many of these women still work together and cross paths regularly; for example, VanDerveer still coaches at Stanford, while point guard Dawn Staley coaches at the University of South Carolina. The two teams have crossed paths several times in the past few years, and each time, Lobo has been one of the ESPN analysts calling the game. Despite this, they were still willing to be forthright about each other in “Dream On,” and this shared commitment to truth is arguably the documentary’s greatest strength.

If honesty is the primary winning quality of “Dream On,” then its balance is a very close second. Lappas did a magnificent job at balancing the personal and professional, expertly weaving in threads from players’ lives while also reflecting on not just the team, but also the world they existed in.

This quality was especially noteworthy because it perfectly mirrored how the women on the team had to create their own balance between their personal struggles and the expectations that their country had placed upon them. Many of them were dealing with very serious matters behind the scenes, but still showed up and played to win day after day.

The aforementioned Azzi, for example, publicly came out as gay in 2016 but knew that she was queer even during the early ’90s. In the documentary, she discussed the pressure to conform to certain marketability standards and to stay in the closet; in order to keep the team on the wanted trajectory, she chose to hide that part of herself. As her teammate Carla McGhee explained, “We were a product that had to be sold.”

Ruthie Bolton, another player on the team, was dealing with her own struggles. Her then-husband was abusive, and she kept it a secret and stayed in the marriage for the duration of her time with the team. When the team did interviews in 2021, Bolton’s teammates admitted that despite living together and playing all those games in a relatively short time span, they never knew what was going on in her marriage. In order to keep the team at the forefront, Bolton tucked her life outside of the sport away.

“Dream On” is a documentary full of grit and greatness, a masterful blend of history, identity, and courage. It is not just a story of an exceptional group of women on an exceptional run. It is also a story full of hope, representing all the work that has been done for women’s basketball — and all the work that is still left to do. Most of all, it is a reminder of how greatness begins.

The U.S Women’s National Team has won the last seven Olympic gold medals in the sport. That streak started in 1996.

As Staley put it, “We were servants for what the game has become today… we’ve given them an opportunity to dream.”

Writer Profile

Jo Stephens

Georgetown University
History major, Journalism minor

Jo Stephens is originally from Columbia, South Carolina, but is now a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She's studying history and journalism and hopes to one day become a sports journalist.

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