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Legendary 1996 women’s Olympic team honored at WNBA All-Star Game

The house lights dimmed Wednesday between the third and fourth quarters at Michelob Ultra Arena. And the spotlights shined onto members of the 1996 U.S. national women’s basketball team.

Time for them to get their flowers.

Real flowers. Not the metaphorical ones.

The WNBA honored the 1996 team during the WNBA All-Star Game with a brief ceremony before the fourth quarter. Members of this year’s national team presented their predecessors with bouquets in celebration of the 25-year anniversary of the U.S. team’s dazzling performance in Atlanta that resulted in the gold medal. That team is often credited with inspiring the inception of the WNBA, also celebrating its 25th season.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert expressed a similar sentiment Wednesday during a news conference before the game.

“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them and the foundation they set for us,” Olympian and Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins said. “It’s always special for me personally when I’m able to honor the women that came before me.”

The United States finished third in the 1992 Olympics and the 1994 World Championships, prompting an unprecedented emphasis on training and development before the 1996 Olympics. The Americans embarked on a world tour to prepare for Atlanta, traveling and playing 52 exhibition games against top college programs and other countries.

They did not lose a game, winning by an average margin of 45.2 points. They cruised through group play in Atlanta and coasted through the tournament bracket. A 111-87 victory over Brazil clinched the gold medal, beginning a streak of six consecutive gold medals that this year’s group will carry into Tokyo.

“We were on a mission to win a gold medal,” said Jennifer Azzi, a point guard on the 1996 team. “We knew that we were showing the American public and the world the next level of women’s basketball.”

Azzi revealed that Lisa Leslie, a Team USA legend and former Los Angeles Sparks star, spoke to this year’s Olympic team before the WNBA All-Star Game, sharing that Leslie talked about the legacy of USA Basketball.

The 1996 team started it. The onus is on the 2021 team to continue it.

“We had to prove to people that we can play basketball,” said Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, a guard on the 1996 team. “Things evolved for women’s sports. It’s just been amazing. I’m happy to have been part of the legacy. Part of the foundation. … We changed history for women’s basketball.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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