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Venus Lacy, Carla McGhee, Members of the ‘96 Dream Team reflect on newly released 30 for 30

Aug. 1, 2022 Updated Tue., Aug. 2, 2022 at 9:42 a.m.

College and Olympic basketball star Venus Lacy directs drills on the basketball court last month at Rogers High School for the Rise Above sports camp. Sports celebrities attended to help coach the kids through drills and conditioning.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
College and Olympic basketball star Venus Lacy directs drills on the basketball court last month at Rogers High School for the Rise Above sports camp. Sports celebrities attended to help coach the kids through drills and conditioning. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

With the weight of a pending professional league on their backs, along with the reputation of their country, the 1996 Olympic team pulled it off in the heart of Atlanta. Eight straight wins, no losses and a dozen gold medals, along with the star power and attention to begin the league we know today as the WNBA.

“Dream On,” an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary released in May, intricately details the Olympic journey. The highs of avenging their 1992 Olympic and ’94 world championship losses against Brazil and Russia, the lows of playing in ice-cold Serbian exhibition games and player-coach relationships roughed up by intruding sports media.

Though they witnessed the moments together, Carla McGhee discovered some things she didn’t know about her teammates. The documentary even goes into how Sheryl Swoopes, one of the youngest players, likely built an audition tape in her 47-game performance for Texas Tech, culminating in the 1993 NCAA National Championship against Ohio State.

For Venus Lacy, who joined the ’96 USA Olympic team months after everyone else, “Dream On” was a cinematic explanation of what original members were fighting for.

“We actually found a lot of stuff out when this ‘30 for 30’ came out,” McGhee said. “But the things that we did know, it was enough to keep us bonded and to have that relationship. We can go 25 years and not talk and it’s not like we’ve missed a beat when we do talk. For me, that’s a true sense of friendship and sisterhood.”

The relationship between Lacy and McGhee speaks to this bond. Both members of the ’96 dream team were in Spokane in early July to coach at Rise Above’s second annual sports and wellness clinic.

McGhee brings a stern, engaging presence that grabs the attention of children’s wandering minds and refuses to let them cut any corners. Lacy – playful, gentle, bubbly – provided a softness to let Rise Above kids know vulnerability is part of being a basketball warrior too as she taught them how to shoot free throws and shuffle their feet.

The women joke about their aging hips and legs as Lacy attempts to sit in Roger High School’s low gray, rounded cafeteria seats.

“Nope,” Lacy says in a deep, Chattanooga drawl, immediately jolting up and opting for a singular wooden chair. “Not even trying that one.”

“And here she go,” McGhee says, sporting a playful tiredness of their 25-year friendship.

These days they sit back and indulge in the fruit of the labor that is the league they battled into existence. McGhee and Lacy both agreed that the WNBA is faster, stronger and better than ever before. On July 7, New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu posted a WNBA first: a 30-point triple double. (The highest mark was at 29 points by Lisa Leslie, a prominent member of the ’96 dream team).

Lacy went to the June 21 Dallas Wings -Atlanta Dream matchup, where she was able to witness the current state of the league at the Gateway Center Arena.

“Ah man, I couldn’t believe it. The athletes that I saw? I’d probably be sitting and getting rebounds,” Lacy said. “They wouldn’t have to worry about me because they’re so athletic. Everybody is playing their role, getting rebounds. I wanted to be out there playing with them. They give you that spirit.”

McGhee loves to see how other stars interact with the game too. In a place like Atlanta or Los Angeles, where stardom is the norm, she loves to see a change in attitude from fathers who didn’t want their daughters to watch the WNBA in fear of the portrayal of lesbianism .

“Now it’s like, the game has evolved, it’s basketball. They want their daughters to see what we do for the game, what we give for the game,” McGhee said. “To go out and see the Jay-Zs, the Beyoncés, the Blues, one of their kids in the stands? I think that’s good for the game because it’s a product. The WNBA is a product that needs to be sold and when it’s selling out, that’s a great feeling.”

McGhee and Lacy both admired how WNBA players are active in their communities and rallying together for social causes, including support of Phoenix Mercury forward Brittany Griner, who is detained in Russia on drug charges.

With quality pay still an issue for WNBA players, Griner splits her time between the Mercury and UMMC Ekaterinburg, a professional women’s team in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Russian officials found hashish oil in her bag at the airport. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

On July 26, President Joe Biden offered to trade Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner’s freedom. There is no word on that deal or the state of Griner’s trial.

With Griner detained since mid February, she’s missed the entire WNBA season, including the All-Star Game in Chicago where every player wore the number 42 and changed their nameplates to “Griner” in the second half. Griner has made the All-Star game six times in her nine-year career. Lacy attended the event, as it brought tears to her eyes.

“I was just happy that we were supporting her. Did you see the T-shirts?” McGhee said. “Everything was amazing. Everything they did to show her ‘Hey, we’re right here, waiting on you to come back and we know you’re coming back,’ it was the support of us as women.”

Many players of the ’96 team are still involved, peppering throughout specialized pockets of modern basketball culture.

Rebecca Lobo is an ESPN analyst. Dawn Staley just won her second national championship at the helm of South Carolina’s women’s basketball powerhouse program. Leslie is still Black America’s basketball sweetheart, with a pair of purple and gold dunks, a tribute to her WNBA career on the Los Angeles Sparks, that were released on July 9.

Even without the stardom of basketball broadcasting and street fashion, the ’96 dream team members are still active in their community, some coaching on the college level, others nurturing players on the high school and AAU levels.

McGhee was one of Staley’s assistant coaches at Temple and South Carolina. Lacy, labeling herself as a mother first, is still into teaching younger children about the game of basketball and its perks beyond the hardwood floors, just as she was for Rise Above’s basketball clinics.

McGhee recognized the excellence the WNBA exudes and other female athletes as an example of powerful women .

These athletes and coaches, sisters and mothers, scholars and teachers are committed to doing things commonly associated with femininity and women: nurturing children’s skill sets and confidence, pushing them to be more than what is in front of them, guiding them to greatness, affirming them beyond what children can see in themselves.

“While we have the platform, we use it and that’s all we’re doing at some point or level,” McGhee said. “We’re just using … the platform that we poured into and the platform that’s done for us. I’m excited that so many of us have been able to stay in the game, nurture the game and keep the game going. I think we were prepared to handle the roles of being that vessel of the youth and showing what basketball can do. You can play the game, but don’t let the game play you.” 

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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