I didn’t want to let too much time go by before acknowledging the retirement of another great sports team coach.

Tara VanDerveer retired last week after 38 years at Stanford and three national championships. She also retired as the winningest Division I basketball coach, men’s or women’s.

But VanDeveer had a career achievement during which she held an entire sport on her shoulders. In 1995 and 1996, she coached the U.S. women’s basketball team on a 10-month, 100,000-mile journey to showcase and sell the game of women’s basketball to the general public.

That journey ended in the Georgia Dome in August of 1996 with a 111-87 win over Brazil.

Now, it’s not hyperbole that VanDerveer and the U.S. team were carrying the hopes of professional women’s basketball — encapsulated in a short-lived group called the American Basketball League, and its successor, the Women’s National Basketball Association. Any drop in form, any scandal, or (heaven forbid) a loss would have resulted in the fleeing of team owners and sponsors which were lined up to market these women.

The roster of the 1996 team featured more than its share of legendary players. Dawn Staley, Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie, Teresa Edwards, and Nikki McCray are, to this day, part of the fabric of women’s basketball.

Somehow, VanDerveer was able to balance the talents of the players, get them to check their egos, and kept them playing at a high level for 60 games without loss.

That, to me, is VanDerveer’s greatest accomplishment. Sure, there have been good and great women’s basketball players since the first Olympic basketball tournament for women in 1976, but the group of women from 1996 have shaped the way the game is played, coached, and viewed on the professional and amateur levels. Heck, you’re seeing magazines publishing lists of high-school prospects, ranking them like has been done for the men’s game.

It’s pretty amazing that all of this happened in less than 30 years. And we have VanDerveer to thank for this.


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