- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Last week, Tara VanDerveer found herself reflecting on what she'd been doing exactly 15 years before. It was then, the first week of August 1996, that she and the players on the U.S. women's basketball team had accomplished a mission all of them thought of in Apollo 13 terms. Failure was not an option.
"I can remember what I was doing practically every day there," VanDerveer said of the Atlanta Olympics, "because it made such an impression on me."
It was the culmination of a pressure-cooker period for VanDerveer that had started in 1995 when she took a leave of absence from Stanford and was introduced as coach for the national team. C.M. Newton, then president of USA Basketball, didn't mince words as he presented her to assembled media.
"He said, 'This is not about bronze. This is not about silver. This is about gold. Here's Tara VanDerveer,'" VanDerveer said, chuckling. "We knew it wasn't necessarily enough to have talented players; the Americans had that but still lost in Barcelona. We couldn't just show up and win. It was about molding a team."
One of the leaders for Team USA had gone through what was, to her, a major embarrassment when the Americans did not win a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games. In the Fall of 1995, Teresa Edwards was 31 and preparing for her fourth Olympics.
By that point, she was already a seasoned world traveler after years of playing overseas. She never went anywhere without carrying at least a small chip of disappointment on her shoulder. She didn't talk about it much, but it was there.
Edwards hadn't won an NCAA title while playing at Georgia from 1982-86 -- despite making two trips to the Final Four -- and that gnawed at her. The two Olympic gold medals she'd won, in 1984 and 1988, assuaged some of that void. But a semifinal loss in the 1992 Olympics and subsequent bronze medal still bothered her intensely.
Edwards had a lot on her mind in late 1995, because she knew the next year would be one of the most important of her career. Team USA would be trying to regain Olympic gold, and the pro women's basketball league she was invested in -- the ABL -- would be launching. Meanwhile, VanDerveer also was consumed with what she was expected to accomplish in 1996 while away from a very successful Stanford team.
"We weren't the best of buddies; it was a long year," Edwards said of she and VanDerveer. "Looking back, I think it was partly because in Tara, I met someone that shared the same intensity for the game that I did but with that came tension.
"I have respect for her, and I learned a lot about her. I learned I wasn't the only one who loved the game so much. We were part of something brilliant. We helped change the dynamics of turning the corner professionally for women's basketball in this country."
Similar yet different
We journey down this particular Memory Lane because VanDerveer and Edwards will go into the Naismith Hall of Fame this week together: The woman who was the coach on the bench for Team USA in 1996, and the woman who was typically 'Coach' on the floor.
It seems fitting that these two would be enshrined at the same time. That the celebration would allow us to examine their similarities and differences, to chronicle again how their paths overlapped at what was one of the most critical times of development in women's basketball history.
VanDerveer, born in 1953 in Boston, really didn't have the opportunity to play basketball in high school, but did compete collegiately at Indiana. Edwards, born in 1964 in Georgia, came of age in the post-Title IX era.
Their 11-year age gap made for different athletic experiences yet in some ways they actually were almost too much alike.
"To me, that relationship we had was tense," Edwards said, "but it was very rewarding in the end. It took a lot of emotion to get there."
Edwards played for a high school team in Cairo, Ga., nicknamed the Syrupmaids, but you won't find anyone less likely to sugarcoat things than she is.
VanDerveer remembers that during the national/global tour that Team USA took in 1995-96 to prepare for the Atlanta Games -- 52 contests spread over seven countries -- no one ever really took their eye off the ball. The United States didn't lose on that tour, nor at the Olympics (8-0).
"It did challenge all of us," VanDerveer said. "But I never had a time where I had to sit down with any single player and read them the riot act. We had such great leadership on that team, and Teresa was a big part of that.
"I'd say both of us are very competitive in our own way. Every day after practice then, she'd be out there playing one-on-one with whoever would stay and play. Or she'd be on the bus playing cards, wanting to win every game. I don't know if I see myself as being that competitive. But I saw my job as: 'We have to win the gold medal.'"
VanDerveer was away from her Stanford program -- which had reached the 1995 Women's Final Four -- to spend a year training and preparing the American team. USA Basketball had never done something like that before.
"What the older players were used to was two weeks of practice, and then you go and play in the Olympics," VanDerveer said. "Now it was a lot of travel, a lot of practice and a lot of games. It was not going to be 'Kumbaya' all the time."
Paving the way for U.S. pro leagues
Fifteen years. Not so long ago, but consider this when thinking about the U.S. team's 1995-96 Olympic preparation in playing at various top colleges stateside and then overseas. Technology then was, to today's mind, primitive.
"I think Carol Callan was the only person in the group who might have had a cell phone," VanDerveer said of the longtime USA Basketball executive who still oversees the organization's women's teams.
"The team was very close to each other and the players really bonded. Some of that was that they were pushed hard, and so they were saying, 'We're going to get through this no matter what.' They were some very experienced international travelers already, including Teresa."
The American Basketball League, for which Edwards would be a player-coach for Atlanta, would launch after the Olympics. The WNBA, which Edwards for a long time viewed as a menacing giant that crushed the ABL, debuted in 1997.
Thus, all the post-collegiate experience that the members of the 1996 Olympic team had came from competing internationally. Long bus rides, spartan gyms, sometimes very strange food and being achingly far from home were all just part of the deal if you wanted to stay in the sport.
These players didn't know if the ABL or WNBA would work (the ABL folded in 1998). They couldn't view what they were doing then with anything like the clarity that we have today. What Team USA did in winning the gold and playing to huge crowds, culminating in the Georgia Dome, was like building a bridge between stretches of highway that needed to be linked.
Women's college basketball had just experienced a growth accelerant when UConn won the 1995 title and truly launched Huskies mania. In 1996, Tennessee would win the first of three NCAA championships with teams that would include stars Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings.
But there still needed to be an outlet for U.S. audiences to follow elite players after college. There wasn't one when Edwards finished her career at Georgia in 1986. But there was a decade later.
"Because there was a lot of positive attention paid to the Olympic team, the WNBA and ABL were able to springboard off that excitement," VanDerveer said. "I see that now. But I'm one of those who coaches with the blinders on: 'Let's make sure we are running our offense, setting screens, boxing out, doing all the things that are going to help us win the gold medal.' That was my total focus then."
Coach to coach
At the 1996 Women's Final Four in Charlotte, N.C., Georgia met Stanford in the semifinals. So it was VanDerveer's program -- run then by Amy Tucker and Marianne Stanley in her absence -- versus Edwards' alma mater. For that matchup, VanDerveer and Edwards were just spectators.
"I was excited for Stanford and nervous; it was horrible being a fan," VanDerveer said. "I was yelling and was so into it. But all that year, I did try to keep my focus on the USA team.
"I think that in some ways, in the short term, my departure was disruptive for Stanford. It was a sacrifice for me and for Stanford, but it also did me some good to get away. Being with the Olympic team made me a better coach. But there were some tough years -- in 1998, '99, 2000 -- and it took some time [for Stanford] to get the chemistry back. We had to do that and get top-level players again."
Georgia beat Stanford at the '96 Final Four, but then fell to nemesis Tennessee in the championship game. It was a painful loss to observe for Edwards, who wanted to see her college coach, Andy Landers, win a title.
Later that year, though, he got to see Edwards win it all not at Georgia, but in Georgia. She won the third of what would ultimately be four Olympic gold medals.
"What she has accomplished and what the teams she has played on accomplished -- that all stands on its own," Landers said. "For her now to be recognized in the Hall of Fame as a special player and a special person with all those different teams is the culmination of Teresa Edwards' career."
Her playing career, that is. But Edwards is now doing what Landers and VanDerveer do: she's coaching. Edwards is at the pro level, although there might be times when she feels she's in the midst of an endless amateur hour.
Edwards took over as Tulsa's interim coach in July after Nolan Richardson resigned. The 2011 Shock won one game under Richardson, but have yet to win under Edwards. She inherited an under-talented team that, on Tuesday, suffered its 15th loss in a row. Whether that streak is snapped or stretches to 16 Thursday night at Seattle, Edwards won't be there to see it. She has to be in Springfield, Mass., for Hall of Fame obligations.
One of Edwards' Shock players is WNBA rookie Kayla Pedersen, who spent four years with VanDerveer at Stanford.
"Kayla, I know, is the kind of player Teresa can depend on," VanDerveer said. "But that situation that they're in is difficult."
What advice might VanDerveer give to Edwards?
"You have to be yourself, and you have to compartmentalize a little bit when things aren't going well," VanDerveer said. "You say, 'Let's have a great practice today.' Or, 'Let's have a great first half.' Or, 'Let's have a great second half.' But, you know, it's not so easy to coach."
With Tulsa's struggles, Edwards' future there remains open to conjecture. VanDerveer, on the other hand, knows just what the next several months entail for her: a push to try to lead Stanford to a fifth consecutive Final Four. And this time, win the championship, which would be the Cardinal's first since 1992.
VanDerveer hopes she will retire while still at Stanford although there is one other coaching role that she might someday want to take on. While watching the Women's World Cup soccer tournament this summer and seeing a coach from Sweden (Pia Sundhage) be in charge of the U.S. women's team, VanDerveer thought about a similar possibility for herself.
"I could see myself maybe coaching another country's team," she said. "I love the international game and want to continue seeing it grow. I've gone through the system with USA Basketball, but there may be other opportunities to coach abroad or do clinics."
Yes, it seems ironic that a coach who was once in charge of a "must-win" U.S. team might consider helping the sport by aiding a challenger to the United States.
Edwards represented the United States five times in the Olympics. She also played in the world championships and every other competition that the Americans entered for nearly two decades.
"A lot of women played this game when few people cared, and they carried the torch because they loved it," Edwards said. "They dreamed about the opportunities that players have today.
"It took standing for something and saying, 'I'm going to give my all and be of service to women's basketball so that somebody who comes after me can have better opportunities than I had.' It takes special people to understand those kinds of things."
Two such people joined forces in 1995-96 for Team USA. We had an idea about how special they were then. But we know that even more now as Teresa Edwards and Tara VanDerveer go into the Hall of Fame.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
12dBonnie D. Ford