1996 Olympic team continues to impact women’s basketball

Atlanta 1996 women's basketball
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NEW YORK (AP) — There was much more at rise for the 1996 Olympic women’s basketball team than just winning the gold medal when they took the floor against Brazil in Atlanta.

An 18-month journey was coming to an end and anything less than a gold medal would have been considered a huge failure for the Americans. But a defeat also could have been a major blow to the two professional startup leagues in the U.S. looming on the horizon after the Atlanta Olympics.

“We knew what was at stake,” backup guard Dawn Staley said. “We knew there was a WNBA in waiting, there was the ABL in waiting. It was all depending on how successful we were as a team. And we also wanted to show America, our nation, that women playing at the peaks of their careers was truly something special.”

They didn’t disappoint the 32,987 fans at the Georgia Dome.

The U.S. cruised to an easy 111-87 victory over Brazil, capping off an 8-0 mark in the Olympics. That was the first of five straight gold medals for the Americans in the Games. That team dominated, led by Lisa Leslie, Katrina McClain and Sheryl Swoopes. They still hold several U.S. Olympic records, including scoring average (102.4), points (819) and assists (207).

“We were on a mission. We trained for a year and half together. That was the first time USA Basketball had ever put a group of women together, and we were on a mission,” said Nikki McCray, currently an assistant on Staley’s coaching staff at South Carolina. “We were machines. Credit Tara VanDerveer and her staff for just getting us ready, and we were unstoppable. To go 60-0? That’s never been done before, and we were not going to fall short of winning the gold medal and to win it was truly remarkable.”

That team, which started training together in 1995, was the foundation for the launch of the ABL and the WNBA. The ABL lasted only two years, but the WNBA is now in its 20th season. Players earned $50,000 the year the toured with the team. They traveled around the world, flying more than 100,000 miles and played 52 games before the Olympics.

“Those players, not only did they represent us on the court in winning a gold medal in such a huge fashion, but they were publicizing and promoting the women’s game and basically got two leagues off the ground and one has withstood everything, the WNBA,” said New York Liberty assistant coach Katie Smith. “So we are indebted to them, a huge `thank you’ for what they did.”

MORE: A look at all 12 players on the Atlanta 1996 team

Because of the 1996 team, Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker is part of a generation of women who grew up with a league to play in — the United States.

“I was on my couch and heard they were starting this new league, and I remember thinking how excited I was,” she said. “I went out to my driveway and started shooting and I no longer had to pretend to play in the NBA, I could pretend to play in the WNBA.”

Parker wasn’t the only current WNBA star the 1996 team influenced. Tamika Catchings was on the USA women’s Junior World Championship qualifying team. After a practice in Colorado she and her teammates were told a surprise awaited them. In walked Leslie, Swoopes, Staley and the rest of the 1996 Olympic team.

“It was so cool,” Catchings said. “It was the first time for me that I saw players like Lisa and Dawn and Sheryl. It was someone that I wanted to be like. A female basketball player to look up to. But watching the Olympic team, I was like, `Oh, my God. One day I want to be there, and I want to represent my country and have that opportunity.”‘

Catchings has been a part of the last three Olympic gold medal winning teams for the U.S. She’ll try and help the U.S. win a sixth consecutive gold medal at the Rio Games this summer.

The 1996 team didn’t just leave their impact with the WNBA and the Olympic success. Five players from that squad are coaching in college now — Jennifer Azzi, Staley, McCray, Katy Steding and Swoopes.

“It was a magical year,” coach VanDerveer said. “Although I don’t know that our players would say that. It was really a fantastic trip. I loved the whole experience.”

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Noah Lyles clips Trayvon Bromell in personal best at New Balance Indoor Grand Prix

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Noah Lyles got his 2023 off to a personal-best start, beating Trayvon Bromell in a photo finish in the 60m at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix on Boston on Saturday.

Lyles, the world 200m champion, ran 6.51 seconds. Bromell, the world 100m bronze medalist, also ran 6.51. Lyles prevailed by two thousandths of a second.

“I’ve been waiting on this for a long time,” Lyles, whose personal best was 6.55, told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “We’re not just coming for the 200m world record. We’re coming for all the world records.”

Lyles is running the 60m to better his start as he bids to add the 100m to his 200m slate come the outdoor season that starts in the spring.

Grant Holloway extended a near-nine-year, 50-plus-race win streak in the 60m hurdles, clocking 7.38 seconds, nine hundredths off his world record. Olympic teammate Daniel Roberts was second in 7.46. Trey Cunningham, who took silver behind Holloway in the 110m hurdles at last July’s world outdoor championships, was fifth in 7.67.

Aleia Hobbs won the women’s 60m in 7.02 seconds, one week after clocking a personal-best 6.98 to become the third-fastest American in history after Gail Devers and Marion Jones (both 6.95). Hobbs, 26, placed sixth in the 100m at last July’s world championships.

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, the Olympic and world 400m hurdles champion competing for the first time since August, and Jamaican Shericka Jackson, the world 200m champion, were ninth and 10th in the 60m heats, just missing the eight-woman final.

In the women’s pole vault, Bridget Williams, seventh at last year’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, upset the last two Olympic champions — American Katie Moon and Greek Katerina Stefanidi. Williams won with a 4.63-meter clearance (and then cleared 4.71 and a personal-best 4.77). Stefanidi missed three attempts at 4.63, while Moon went out at 4.55.

The indoor track and field season continues with the Millrose Games in New York City next Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.

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Birk Irving, last man on Olympic team, extends breakout season with Mammoth win

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One year ago, Birk Irving was the last man to make the four-man U.S. Olympic ski halfpipe team. Since, he continued to climb the ranks in arguably the nation’s strongest discipline across skiing and snowboarding.

Irving earned his second World Cup win this season, taking the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, California, on Friday.

Irving posted a 94-point final run, edging Canadian Brendan Mackay by one point. David Wise, the two-time Olympic champion who won his fifth X Games Aspen title last Sunday, was third.

A tribute was held to 2015 World champion Kyle Smaine, a U.S. halfpipe skier who died in an avalanche in Japan last Sunday.

“We’re all skiing the best we have because we’re all skiing with Kyle in our hearts,” Irving said, according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “We’re skiing for him, and we know he’s looking down on us. We miss you Kyle. We love you. Thank you for keeping us safe in the pipe today.”

Irving also won the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colorado, on Dec. 17. Plus, the 23-year-old from Colorado had his best career X Games Aspen finish last Sunday, taking second.

The next major event is the world championships in Georgia (the country, not the state) in early March. Irving was third at the last worlds in 2021, then fifth at the Olympics last February.

The U.S. has been the strongest nation in men’s ski halfpipe since it debuted at the Olympics in 2014. Wise won the first two gold medals. Alex Ferreira won silver and bronze at the last two Olympics. Aaron Blunck is a world champion and X Games champion.

Irving is younger than all of them and has beaten all of them at multiple competitions this season.

New Zealand’s Nico Porteous, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, hasn’t competed since the Games after undergoing offseason knee surgery.

In snowboarding events at Mammoth, Americans Julia Marino and Lyon Farrell earned slopestyle wins by posting the top qualification scores. The finals were canceled due to wind.

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