Tara VanDerveer had the best basketball in her neighborhood so all the guys had no choice but to let her play.
At school it was different.
Growing up in a pre-Title IX world, the legendary Stanford women’s basketball coach often watched from the sidelines. At that time there were no teams for girls. No stock. No college scholarships.
In 1972, the year that Title IX passed, VanDerveer began playing point guard for Indiana. Her team played a seven-game regular season and trained at 10 p.m. after the men finished at the gym. She and her teammates provided their own game gear and traveled in vans. They paid for their meals.
“It was very, very different,” said VanDerveer.
Two decades later, while VanDerveer was finding success at Stanford, she took a year off from the Cardinal during the 1995-96 season to coach the US women’s national basketball team. The gold medal winning team, featured on ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 “Dream On,” paved the way for the formation of the WNBA.
The three-part documentary, released June 15 and directed by Kristen Lappas, follows the team’s 52-0 run to the Olympics and all the trials the players faced. Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley, Rebecca Lobo and the rest of the star-studded team never flew first class. The players received a $50,000 stipend for one year of cross country and international play. One woman on the team noted that her NBA peers were fined for violations like this.
It wasn’t enough to sell their game on the pitch – they also had to be marketable off it. That meant looking conventionally feminine and attractive. Gentler on the eye and less harsh. The assumption was that men wouldn’t bother watching if they didn’t look like it. That formula of athletic success and palatability worked, however—the WNBA began league play the following summer of 1997.
“I look at the women going into Title IX – they had us on their shoulders,” said Ruthie Bolton, a player on the 1995-96 team. “The ones who weren’t allowed to play. Those who, even when they started playing, played in half the court. … It’s very amazing to see how far the game has come, even if we still have a long way to go. But I’m glad I was one of the players who helped change the way women’s basketball evolved.”
Since the founding years of VanDerveer, Title IX has passed, the WNBA was formed and women’s sport has gained visibility. A strong crowd shows up for the women’s basketball games at Stanford, but VanDerveer said she doesn’t see media swarms in the arena to cover the athletes, who have only gotten smarter.
“I think we’re creatures of habit, and it’s something new and different,” VanDerveer said. “It will take time to build the fan base. … people they’re used to mostly just reading about men’s pro sports because many even colleges aren’t covered anymore. We just have to keep demanding really really good reporting.”
Adding to a lack of media coverage, Nneka Ogwumike, a former Stanford star and Los Angeles Sparks star, pointed to an issue she believes is critical to the advancement of women’s soccer: “pays equity.”
After her stint on the US women’s national basketball team, Bolton and some of her teammates joined the WNBA. Nevertheless, they played abroad to earn better money. WNBA salaries are low compared to those in the NBA, but Bolton said they were even lower during her playing days.
Current WNBA stars continue to play overseas for the same reasons. That’s what All-Star Brittney Griner did in Russia before officers arrested her in February and she began her ongoing detention.
“It’s kind of disappointing to me that people don’t know what our experiences are like over there. People have been wondering why she was over there and I think that brings into question a bigger conversation about pay equity,” Ogwumike said Tuesday after a win over the Washington Mystics. “We don’t necessarily go there because we want to, but because we need to supplement our income. … So that’s the difficulty in the life of many women athletes. … We are risking our lives for a living, and that needs to change.”
People don’t know. That’s one of the reasons Lappas continued the story of “Dream On,” a story that hadn’t been fully told yet. She was a fan of the team herself and wore a Lisa Leslie jersey, but didn’t know much beyond what she thought the players were achieving.
After learning more about the women, their stories, and their trials, she asked ESPN to double the film’s length because she felt they deserved more runtime. Lappas hopes viewers of the documentary will understand all the sacrifices the team has made.
“We’ve come a long way since 1995-96 when they were asked to disguise aspects of their identity… and obviously female athletes are empowered to be their authentic selves, which is amazing,” Lappas said.
But just existing is not enough for Ogwumike and her colleagues. They plan to continue the fight for real justice.