“We let every player know who has worn that number before,” said Carol Callan, the director of the national team. “I think it’s important they have an appreciation for that when they put that uniform on.”
A lot of credit has been given to the 1996 team , which started the American’s string of gold medals. But the list Callan is referring to starts with names like Nancy Lieberman, Pat Summitt and Ann Meyers Drysdale. Summitt, who died Tuesday morning , wore No. 14. In Rio, that number will be worn by former UConn standout and New Liberty center Tina Charles.
Lieberman, Meyers Drysdale and Summitt were part of a group of college players who 40 years ago participated in the first women’s basketball tournament at the Olympics in Canada and won the USA’s first medal in the sport — a silver.
The United States, currently on a 41-game Olympic winning streak, was not expected to qualify for the games in 1976.
The national team had finished eighth in the world championships in 1975. The U.S. was not assured a berth in the Montreal Games until two weeks before, when they won a qualifying tournament in Hamilton, Ontario.
To prepare for the Olympics they were given a budget of $500 and the use of a personal credit card belonging to Bill Wall, the executive director of what would become USA Basketball.
“We were lucky we had uniforms,” said Meyers Drysdale.
Guard Sue Rojcewicz said the team practiced at the University of Rochester, where they stayed in dorm that was under construction and had no air conditioning. They trained three times a day. When they got to Montreal, the coaches would get them up at 4 a.m. to practice, because their first game against Japan was at 9 a.m.
As a joke, Rojcewicz said, the players once showed up to the gym in their pajamas.
“One time we showed up in shower curtains and fins and goggles,” she said. “The coaches made us play like that for about a half hour.”
But all of that created a bond, the players said.
They developed a style built around a fast pace, ball movement and pressure defense.
They lost the Olympic opener of the five-game round-robin tournament to Japan and lost another game in the tournament to the dominant Soviet Union, the eventual gold medalists. But they beat Bulgaria and Canada. That set up a must-win game against Czechoslovakia to earn silver.
The game was tied at halftime, before the Americans pulled away to win by 17 points.
“We threw that press on in the second half,” said forward Gail Marquis. “I remember Nancy Lieberman. Truly, I really think she jumped over somebody or she fouled somebody with her knees or her ankles, she was jumping so high.”
Meyers Drysdale said she understands that a silver medal today would be considered a disappointment. But 40 years ago, it was an amazing achievement.
“When we realized we won our medal, we just all flopped on top of each other like a pile of puppies in a kennel or something,” said forward Mary Anne O’Connor.
Marquis said once she had that medal around her neck, she kept it there. She now wears it on a silver chain.
“Not too often do I take the medal off,” she said. “I like for people to see it.”
The win, said Callan, was bigger than that group or that year. Today’s players, she said owe a lot to the 1976 team.
“They started it all,” she said. “They set the standard for how women’s basketball teams have had success at the Olympics through great individual talent, a group that played together well as a team and enjoyed the journey along the way.”