By Eli Rubanenko
In honor of Black History Month, the Atlanta Dream will highlight five prominent players from the 1996 USA Women’s Basketball Team that participated in the games in Atlanta.
Sheryl Swoopes is widely considered to be one of the all-time greats. She was the first player to be signed by the WNBA, and went on to become one of the most decorated players in league history with three WNBA MVP nods and four WNBA championships. In college, she led the Texas Tech Lady Raiders to their first and only NCAA Championship, scoring an NCAA championship game record of 47 points.
She was part of the WNBA’s first dynasty, winning the first four WNBA championships with the Houston Comets as part of the Big Three with Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson. In 2005, she made major headlines as becoming one of the most high profile athletes in a team sport to come out publicly. Swoopes was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017.
Lisa Leslie was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks in the inaugural 1997 WNBA Draft and went on to play 12 years in L.A. She was named the 1994 Naismith College Player of the Year at the University of Southern California, and went on to win two WNBA Championships, two WNBA Finals MVP nods, and three WNBA MVP awards.
Leslie became the first consecutive four-time Olympic basketball gold medal winner in history, and is one of just four athletes with four Olympic basketball gold medals (Sue Bird, Teresa Edwards, Diana Taurasi). In 2001 she was declared the Sportswoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports foundation. Since retiring, Leslie has been featured in several TV shows, fashion magazines, and movies, and was even a co-owner of the LA Sparks. She was elected into both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2019.
Katrina McClain Johnson
Katrina McClain Johnson was the only member of the 1996 Olympic team to never play in the WNBA. Prior to her professional career, she played college basketball for the University of Georgia from 1983-1987, where she took the Lady Bulldogs to the NCAA Championship game in 1985, and was named National Player of the Year in 1987. In NCAA Tournament games, she holds the record for best field goal shooting percentage, hitting 60 of her 84 attempts in the 12 games she played (1984–1987).
After graduation, she earned the USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year award in both 1988 and 1992. Mcclain Johnson played overseas professionally for nine seasons before finishing her career with the ABL’s Atlanta Glory. She was elected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, and later the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
Ruthie Bolton was drafted by the Sacramento Monarchs in the inaugural 1997 WNBA Draft. Bolton played for the Auburn Tigers women’s basketball team, where she led them to the National Championship game twice. She was named the USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year in 1991. After Bolton’s career ended in 2004, she went on to work in the Monarchs’ front office, and as the head coach at William Jessup University, and now coaches at Vacaville Catholic High School.
Off the court she has served as a first lieutenant in the United States Army Reserves and has written two books — From Pain to Peace and The Ride of a Lifetime. Bolton has also been active with the U.S. Department of States SportUnited division, where she runs basketball clinics across the globe. She is currently in the process of opening “Ruthie’s Place.” a multipurpose trauma and peace center to help those in need. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, and later into the Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.
Dawn Staley was drafted by the Charlotte Sting in the 1999 WNBA Draft after playing in the ABL for two seasons. She led the Sting to the WNBA Finals in 2001 and was a seven-time all-star (twice in the ABL, five times in the WNBA). Internationally, she was named the USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year twice, and was voted by all U.S. team captains in 2004 to carry the United States flag and lead the USA’s delegation into the Athens Olympics Opening Ceremonies. Additionally, Staley was named the MVP at the 1994 Goodwill Games and served on the USA Basketball Executive Committee as an athlete representative.
Before going pro, Staley played college basketball at the University of Virginia, where she was named the Naismith College Player of the Year in 1991 and back-to-back WBCA Player of the Year awards in 1991 and 1992.
While still playing in the WNBA, she went on to coach the Temple University women’s basketball team in 2000, leading them to six NCAA tournaments, three regular season conference championships and four conference tournament titles in her six years. She now coaches the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team, which has quickly become one of the most prominent teams in NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball. She took over as the head coach of the USA women’s national team in 2017.