ESPN’s ‘Dream On’ Illuminates the Buried History of Women’s Basketball

The ESPN documentary chronicles the 1996 USA Women’s Basketball team, who paved the way for the creation of the WNBA.

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ESPN’s ‘Dream On’ Illuminates the Buried History of Women’s Basketball
The 1996 USA Women’s Basketball Team. Photo:ESPN

It took 24 years after Title IX was signed into law for the NBA to consider taking a chance on an all-women’s basketball league, but on April 24, 1996, the NBA Board of Governors finally approved the concept of a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). The new league would begin playing in June 1997, on one condition: The USA women’s basketball team had to win the 1996 Olympic Games.

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of Title IX, ESPN released Dream On, the latest installment in the network’s 30 for 30 documentary series and their first-ever multiple-part film about women athletes. The three-part series, which premiered earlier this month, recounts the lost history of the 1996 gold medal women’s basketball team, also known as the “Dream Team.” (The men’s ‘96 Olympic team called themselves “Dream Team III,” because you can apparently just deem yourselves as such in perpetuity.) The team’s members went on to represent seven national players of the year honors, eight national championships, and 17 Final Four appearances. And they also deserved better.

Centered on rising basketball stars Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes, Ruthie Bolton, and more, the tale is told with nuance and stark admiration using 500 hours of previously unseen footage of the teammates. With eight wins and zero losses, the dynasty of 12—Black, white, straight, and gay—cemented a more equitable future for women athletes across America. As the film meanders between footage of the teammates goofing around in the locker room, sleeping on buses, balling in Siberia while their hands freeze, and appearing on late-night live tapings, director Kristen Lappas spotlights a dysfunctional group of hilarious, quick-witted personalities that feel like superheroes, like big sisters, like people you want to spend more time with. They became unwitting figureheads for a movement, sure, but they also represented women in every true sense of the word at a time when being a woman was a regimented practice.

Photo:Melissa Rawlins/Courtesy of ESPN

“This was a great part of history,” Staley said during a panel at the premiere of the docuseries earlier this month. “But there was history before this and history after this and those stories aren’t being told.”

After leading Texas Tech to an NCAA championship in 1993, Sheryl Swoopes, the second athlete to have a Nike shoe named for her after Michael Jordan, had two choices upon graduating: play overseas or find another job. She didn’t want to move far away, so she got a job as a banker. Swoopes, who later went on to win four WNBA titles, was working in finance when she was selected for the 1996 Olympic team. The Dream Team was given just $50,000 for ten months of preparation when they could’ve been making close to $400,000 overseas. While the women said it was the honor of a lifetime to compete in the Olympics, it was also a monetary sacrifice—one their male counterparts didn’t have to make.

Staley, who was on the team that year and is now the head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks where she has led the team to two national championship titles, is painfully aware of the lack of movement since the women made history back in 1996. “We gotta be treated like a sport. Like a sport. We’re in 2022 and we’re still talking about the ‘first,’” she said, when asked what still needs to be done for the game of women’s basketball. “How many multi-episode docs are there in the NBA? We’re happy about it, but…we should tire of watching all the many stories that are being missed.”

As the team traveled around the world during a 60-game roadshow, they lived out of suitcases, traveled in coach (something WNBA players are still doing, and part of why they’ve been catching covid so frequently), and slept in motels and on buses. Behind the scenes, starting guard Ruthie Bolton was dealing with an abusive spouse, while guard Jennifer Azzi was doing her best to hide her sexuality, because teams at the time with queer players were known as having a “gay problem.”

Women’s basketball was always there, it was just in the shadows. Because that’s the thing about women’s sports is that its history isn’t always chronicled or remembered.

“If I’m really honest about it, I think I was cut from the 1992 team because I was gay,” Azzi said. “I never wanted to say it. I would have never come out during that time because I was afraid that I would be seen differently and maybe wouldn’t be as marketable or that companies wouldn’t want to sponsor our team.”

Despite the team being composed of a litany of gender identities, USA basketball, and the NBA aimed to market the Dream Team as “cute women,” a code word for “straight women.” The teammates were instructed to remove their jewelry, pushed to wear heels and dresses, and were repeatedly nudged to “be easy on the eyes” during public appearances. The associations knew LGBTQ+ consumers were a shoo-in, but it was always the straight men advertisers were after. Which also meant trotting out the more marketable players—meaning, the white players—like college basketball’s darling Rebecca Lobo, because white media was far more comfortable interacting with her than Staley or Bolton or Swoopes.

“Playing for Team USA means a lot because as Black people, we don’t get that love from our country,” Lisa Leslie said of her blackness in the film. “In those moments, people are just people, human beings. They cheer and they celebrate together without judging. If you could see the beauty in me, then maybe you could see it in another Black woman.”

Sheryl Swoopes. Photo:Melissa Rawlins/Courtesy of ESPN

The themes that echo throughout the series are still present in today’s sporting world nearly three decades later—especially as trans girls are blocked from participating in sports; as a Black queer WNBA star is being held hostage in Russia; and as the WNBA fails to equally protect and celebrate its players, over and over again. While progress has been made, just as much progress has been rolled back. And as so much of Black history has been lost to the wind, the Dream Team’s history had been buried too.

The film rightly re-anoints the Dream Team as sporting history icons in their own right. But the celebration comes far too late. The WNBA was supposed to be the next great frontier. It was supposed to champion Black women, queer women—really, anyone who didn’t fit the boxes the NBA had built. Instead, it has continued to silo its Black stars like reigning MVP Jonquel Jones, while uplifting the more “marketable” white legends like Sue Bird. It was founded on the backs of Black women who were told to play down their Blackness. And today, it rests heavily on that foundation, while its players still struggle with the very same prejudices. In 1996, 12 women became basketball stars. But almost thirty years later, the millions of little girls who should’ve been walking around in Air Swoopes are nowhere to be found.

“Women’s basketball was always there, it was just in the shadows,” reporter Mechelle Voepel said in the film. “Because that’s the thing about women’s sports is that its history isn’t always chronicled or remembered.”

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