LANE ONE: Which of the three team nominees for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame was the best of them all?

Matriarchs of the WNBA: the 1996 U.S. women's Olympic Basketball Team (Photo: USA Basketball)

You still have time for vote for the Class of 2019 for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame – click here – but you must vote by next Tuesday, 3 September.

We’ve already listed our picks for the five individual Olympians, out of the list of 15 nominees for 2019 (here), but there is still the question of which one of the three nominated teams should get into the Hall of Fame this time.

You can see the resumes of all of the finalists here, but in the team classification the nominees are:

1996 U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team

Though it played almost a quarter-century ago, the names still resonate today: Jennifer Azzi, Teresa Edwards, Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, Nikki McCray, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and more. They didn’t just win their games, they crushed their eight opponents by a combined score of 819-590, or an average score of 102-74:

21 July: U.S. 101, Cuba 84
23 July: U.S. 98, Ukraine 68
25 July: U.S. 107, Zaire 47
27 July: U.S. 96, Australia 79
29 July: U.S. 105, South Korea 64 ~ end of group play (5-0)

31 July: U.S. 108, Japan 93 ~ Quarterfinals
2 August: U.S. 93, Australia 71 ~ Semifinals
4 August: U.S. 111, Brazil 87 ~ Championship

Coached by Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, Leslie led the scoring parade at 19.5 points a game, with three more averaging in double figures: McClain (14.1), Swoopes (13.0) and Ruthie Bolton (12.8). The U.S. shot 57% from the floor in its games to 39% for its opponents, and the American squad out-rebounded its opponents by an average of 43-28 each game.

1998 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team

Winners of the first Olympic women’s hockey tournament, the U.S. performance in Nagano (JPN) was a huge hit on television and brought special attention to women’s hockey, leading to significant growth in participation.

Cammi Granato became one of the recognized stars of the game in Nagano and Angela Ruggiero began an Olympic odyssey which later saw her serve eight years as a member of the International Olympic Committee.

But the battles with favored Canada were what made this team special. The Canadians were favored, having won the IIHF World Championship in each of the four prior years, but the two teams met in the final of round-robin play, both with 4-0 records. But in the final match of the round-robin, the U.S. and Canada played, struggling to a 1-1 tie after two periods. Then came a memorable third period.

Canada scored three times in the first six minutes to take a commanding 4-1 lead, but the U.S. rallied. Laurie Baker scored with 12:55 to play, than Granato for her second power-play goal of the game with 9:03 left and Jenny Schmidgall tied it on a pass from Granato on another power play with 7:35 to go. Just 23 seconds later, Tricia Dunn scored and gave the U.S. a lead it would not relinquish. Two more goals made the final 7-4 and the U.S. had scored six against Canada in about 12 minutes … more than they had given up in their prior four games!

That left the two teams in a rematch in the gold-medal final. This one was tighter, but after a scoreless first period, Gretchen Ulion scored for a 1-0 lead and Shelley Looney made it 2-0 after five minutes of their third period. Careful defense in front of keeper Sarah Tueting kept Canada scoreless until 4:01 to go and then an empty-netter gave the U.S. a 3-1 win and the first gold medals in the history of Olympic women’s hockey.

2010 U.S. Olympic Four-Man Bobsled Team

This was a remarkable quartet of Steven Holcomb, Steve Mesler, Justin Olsen and Curt Tomasevicz, led by Holcomb as driver. Competing in an event dominated by other countries – especially Germany – these four men combined to win the 2009 World Championship and the 2010 World Cup seasonal title. So they came into the 2010 Winter Games as medal favorites, if not the outright favorites for the gold medal.

However, the U.S. record in Olympic sledding was abysmal and no American team had won a medal in four-man since 1948! And they had overcome a lot, with Holcomb’s eyesight so problematic that he almost retired three years before. But his teammates helped find the right diagnosis and treatment and the team’s cohesion was a key factor in their success.

Germany’s Andre Lange was the driver to fear, as the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist in the event. But his crew was no match for the American stars. Holcomb & Co. ripped off track-record times in their first two runs, creating a 0.44-second edge after the first day.

They followed up with another win in the third race, and even as Lange’s crew posted the fastest time in race four, the U.S. had the gold in hand with a 0.38-second edge, 3:24.46-3:24.84, with Canada 1/100th behind.

This inspiring story ended sadly some seven years later when Holcomb – still a medal winner at the Olympic and World Championships level – died suddenly in his room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York in May 2017, at just 37.

But the achievement remains; Olsen continued with the team and became one of the U.S.’s top drivers.

So who to choose?

The bobsled team was inspiring and historic, but was the odds-on favorites after winning the world title the year before. Its story is made more poignant by Holcomb’s untimely death, but it’s no. 3 on the list.

The 1998 women’s hockey winners and the Atlanta basketball team both have history on their side. For the hockey team, it was a win in the first-ever Olympic women’s tournament and the exposure had an important impact on interest in the sport.

But it’s not well remembered that the 1996 women’s hoops squad was trying to regain the Olympic title after the U.S. had lost to the Unified Team (ex-USSR) at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Moreover, a new women’s professional league – the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) – had been announced in April, prior to the Games, and a failure by the U.S. to win the gold medal in Atlanta could have been a serious blow to the credibility of the league, which began play in 1997.

Today, the WNBA is an important women’s professional league in the U.S. and the American women’s basketball team is among the most unbeatable – along with the U.S. women’s water polo team – in the Olympic world. Starting with Atlanta, the U.S. women have won six Olympic golds in a row, and are heavy favorites for Tokyo 2020 as well.

That’s why the 1996 Olympic women’s basketball squad will get my vote for the U.S. Olympic Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame later today. Be sure to cast your vote here.

Rich Perelman
Editor

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