‘People need to know Katrina McClain’: ‘Dream On’ documentary spotlights women’s basketball legend
The 30 for 30 on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team is an opportunity to provide perspective on the Basketball Hall of Famer
For recent generations of women’s basketball players and fans, hearing the name Katrina McClain may not resonate.
Many won’t play back a mental highlight reel or instantaneously associate the name with basketball greatness. It’s a name some will swear they’ve heard before, but can’t quite place. Others may associate the McClain name with some of the top collegiate power forwards in the country, many of whom become finalists for the annual award that bears her name and was first awarded in 2018.
But to glance past McClain’s name is to pass over a crucial figure in the sport’s history, one of the most dominant and talented players the game has ever seen. Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer, who coached McClain on multiple USA Basketball teams, including the 1996 Olympic team, calls her one of the five best women’s basketball players.
And yet, McClain’s name doesn’t reverberate amongst women’s basketball circles with the same fervor as Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley or Sheryl Swoopes, McClain’s teammates on the 1996 Olympic team.
“She’s a multi-gold medalist and yet there’s probably a lot of players in the league now that are younger that just don’t know who she is,” said Marianne Stanley, who coached McClain as an assistant on the 1986 gold-medal-winning world championship team. “Katrina was one of those quieter players that just went out and did a great job at doing her job and didn’t seek the limelight, but was as good a power forward as there was in her time.”
The premiere of Dream On, a new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team’s storied run in Atlanta (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN), presents a renewed opportunity to reintroduce McClain, and her impact, to a national audience.
McClain falls into a familiar bucket for many women’s basketball pioneers whose professional primes predated the formation of the WNBA. The benefits of their contributions were reaped by the generations that followed, but their legacies were muted by a lack of visibility.
McClain played an instrumental role on the 1996 team, which was a catalyst for the creation of the WNBA, a league that has since become the most successful women’s sports league. But it would be a league that McClain would never herself play in.
“Katrina does not get enough publicity for what she’s done, especially because she didn’t get to do it in the USA,” said Bridgette Gordon, who won a gold medal with McClain on the 1988 Olympic team. “There’s so much more to who Katrina McClain was as a player.”
The 1996 Olympic team was a marriage of the old guard and the new. There were 10 first-time Olympians such as Staley, Leslie and Swoopes, the future of the Olympic team. Rounding out the team was Teresa Edwards, who was playing on her fourth Olympic team and McClain, playing on her third. McClain and Edwards were the only two returning Olympians on the team, and the only two who had experienced winning an Olympic gold medal.
The duo took it upon themselves to shepherd in the new generation and prepare them for what was to come.
“It wasn’t going to be a cakewalk and we recognized that,” said McClain of the path to gold in Atlanta. “For us to pull together and help bring along the younger ones who didn’t really understand what it took, it was something that had to be done.”
But just as the first-time Olympians were making their adjustments, there was one aspect of the team’s Olympic preparation that McClain and Edwards had never experienced themselves. The 1996 Olympics would be the first year that the team trained for an entire year leading up to the Games, a decision made by USA Basketball following bronze medal finishes in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and 1994 World Championships in Australia.
Previously, the Olympic team had assembled just weeks before the start of the Games, got on the road and, as McClain said, started “kicking some butt.” But times had changed at the international level. Talent had improved and teams had gotten smarter in how they matched up against the United States.
“That’s really different, they had to buy into that,” VanDerveer said of the change in Olympic preparation. “I don’t know that there was instant buy-in really from anyone, myself included.”
McClain was a bit more blunt.
“I didn’t like it at all,” she said. “I made that very clear.”
The team trained together for 10 months and between October 1995 and July 1996 played 52 games in five countries, including a three-month NCAA tour in the lead-up to the Olympics Games. It won every single game.
“We built a great team, everyone spent a lot of time together.” said McClain, who played in at least 40 of those exhibitions (official stats were kept for 49 of the 52 games). “Tara really worked us, and we really worked hard. We were like machines that summer.”
“When she got the ball, you’d be like, ‘Aww, they’re in trouble.’ ”— Team USA’s Carla McGhee on teammate Katrina McClain
McClain almost didn’t play on the 1996 team. Following the bronze medal finish at the World Championships in 1994, McClain said, she and Edwards were labeled as a reason the team had lost.
“It really hurt,” said McClain, who totaled 29 points and 19 rebounds in a semifinal loss to Brazil. “I didn’t like the vibes that we had gotten after ’94.”
“They got a lot of flak, they did,” said Carla McGhee, McClain’s teammate on both the 1994 World Championship and 1996 Olympic teams. “The criticism came from the fact that we didn’t lose those types of tournaments. There was a lot of blame gaming and throwing people under the bus. There were unsaid rumors that … the team should infuse new blood. It wasn’t fair because if you look at the stat sheet, Trina did everything she was supposed to do.”
At that point, McClain didn’t have much interest in trying out for the 1996 team, instead preferring to maintain her personal peace than to continue on a team where she might feel unwanted. McClain said she had grown accustomed to the overseas lifestyle and the thought of dropping that to then practice for a year wasn’t very enticing.
The $50,000 take-home pay for each national team member paled in comparison to the $200,000-$300,000 that McGhee says players such as McClain and Edwards were receiving in overseas markets.
“Katrina was one of the top players in the world,” McGhee said. “I’m pretty sure she left a lot of money on the table.”
McClain talked to several people before making a decision, including her brother and Edwards. Ultimately, McClain did decide to play – in large part because she wanted to be a part of pushing women’s basketball in the U.S. forward.
It’s a decision McClain said she was glad she made.
“I think she gave everyone that kind of confidence, the confidence that there was no way she was going to let the team lose. She didn’t need to be the star but she was ready to step up any time you needed her.” — former USA women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer
To watch McClain play was to have a front-row seat to what VanDerveer described as a “basketball ballet.” McClain’s game had no wasted movement. It was smooth and incredibly efficient. During the 1996 Olympics, she shot a whopping 73.9% from the field, averaged 14.1 points and 8.3 rebounds, and started all eight of the team’s games. McClain led the team in rebounding and was second on the team in scoring behind Leslie.
McClain’s game wasn’t fancy, said McGhee, but it was as effective and mastered as they come. McClain had a jumper she could knock down anywhere from 12 to 18 feet. She could convert in the high post and was almost automatic on the low block. Her command of the game was so effortless that it often looked like it came easy for her.
“When she got the ball, you’d be like, ‘Aww, they’re in trouble,’ ” joked McGhee.
McClain brought a steadiness and sense of reliability to the 1996 team. She was always ready for the game ahead, displaying a level of confidence that could calm the nerves of her teammates. McGhee said every time the team stepped on the court, they knew they could trust McClain to start them off the right way.
McClain’s consistent performances provided much needed comfort for a team that felt the weight of the future of the sport.
“I think she gave everyone that kind of confidence,” VanDerveer said. “The confidence that there was no way she was going to let the team lose. She would put that team on her back. She didn’t need to be the star but she was ready to step up anytime you needed her.”
Perhaps McClain’s most impressive skill was her leaping ability, which made her a nightmare for opponents on the boards. McClain led each of her three Olympic teams in rebounding.
McGhee compared McClain’s knack for rebounding to NBA great Dennis Rodman, emphasizing her magnetlike nature when the ball goes up. Gordon, who compared McClain’s leaping ability to a pogo stick, added that the arm span of the 6-foot-2 McClain made it feel like she presented more like a 7-footer – living up to her nickname “Tree.” She played with a quickness that made her hard to box out, had great timing around the rim and contained the explosiveness of a high jumper.
“There was kind of a joke about Katrina,” VanDerveer said. “She would jump high, and then higher. She would be up and you think she was going down but she kept going up.”
McClain’s dominance on the court was juxtaposed with an often soft-spoken demeanor, so much so that many tagged McClain as being a kind of silent assassin by the way she could unassumingly take over every aspect of a game. Opponents often had no idea how lethal McClain was on the court until they looked up at a scoreboard or checked a box score.
“You look up and you’ll be like, ‘Damn, Tree had 22 and 15. When did she do that?’ ” recalled McGhee.
“If we were playing an easy team, she didn’t want any part of that. Some people like to pad their stats; no, [not Katrina].”— Former U.S. women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer
McClain was the ultimate competitor, driven by winning. It didn’t matter which country she was in or which court she was playing on. If there was time on the board, a ball in her hands and a game to be won, she was going to give her team her best effort to end in the winner’s circle.
But there was one condition.
“They had to be good,” McClain said. “I hated playing teams that weren’t going to compete or weren’t worth playing.”
“If we were playing an easy team, she didn’t want any part of that,” VanDerveer said. “Some people like to pad their stats; no, [not Katrina].”
No opponent pushed McClain to her competitive peak, however, than when she played against the men.
“When I played against the guys, I’m just competitive,” McClain said. “It brings out everything in me, it’s like I go to another level.”
VanDerveer recalled a game played in Chicago in June 1996 against Russia, just a month away from the start of the Olympics. The game had been one of the closest of the preseason, and the two powerhouses went down to the wire. VanDerveer needed an extra edge from her power forward.
“I remember kind of saying ‘Katrina, pretend they’re guys; we need this one,’ ” said VanDerveer, trying to motivate McClain to play how she would against the male practice team. “She just played hard.”
Playing against the boys is where her roots within the sport were built.
When McClain was growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, her mother always told her she had to be back inside the house before the streetlights came on. At the same time, she never had to guess where McClain was. Across the street, she’d find McClain, the same as any other day, hooping in her neighbors’ backyard. Most times it would just be McClain and the boys.
McClain would go on to star at the University of Georgia from 1983 to 1987, where she helped lead the Bulldogs to two SEC titles, two Sweet 16 appearances, an Elite Eight and an appearance in the 1985 NCAA championship game. McClain was the first SEC Freshman of the Year in 1983-84, the first SEC Player of the Year in 1986-87, a two-time All-American (1986-87) and the 1987 National Player of the Year.
“I knew I had my work cut out for me every time we would play the University of Georgia,” said Gordon, who starred at the University of Tennessee from 1985 to 1989. “That was who I was envisioning the nights leading up to the game.”
In 1996, it had been nine years since McClain had an opportunity to play basketball in front of an American crowd. Her pro career had allowed her to play in front of big crowds in Japan, Italy, Spain and Turkey, but never in the United States, which was still without a viable league for pro players.
Playing with the national team during its NCAA tour and later for the Olympic team in Georgia, the same state where she made herself a national name, was like a breath of fresh air for McClain. To win a gold medal in Atlanta, where she moved after college, in front of 33,000 at the Georgia Dome, made the moment a true homecoming.
“It couldn’t have been more perfect,” McClain said. “The fact that my mom, dad and family got to see us play. For me that was more rewarding than anything else. Our family got to be a part of our success.”
Between the year of training and the Olympic competition itself, the wear and tear that came with such a heavy training regimen began to take a toll on McClain’s body.
Following the Olympics, she returned overseas, playing for Galatasaray in Turkey. But while in Turkey, McClain wasn’t feeling right on the court, hampered by a pain in her knee. It bothered her jumping to the point where bending down brought excruciating pain.
McClain returned home to the United States, where she’d discover she had torn her meniscus. Instead of having sufficient time to rehab and recover from her injury, McClain returned to Turkey just a few weeks later and was back on a court competing.
“It was downhill from there,” said McClain who was clearly not at 100% upon her return.
McClain would be able to play stateside – she played one season for the Atlanta Glory of the American Basketball League. But the injuries wouldn’t subside.
“I can get through an ankle sprain, I can get through a broken finger, but when you have knee injuries, every time I turned around, that was difficult,” McClain said. “It was really sad. I said no, this is not me, I’m not having fun anymore doing this.”
“I think I played in the time when I was supposed to have played. Whatever help that was to get women’s basketball on the map or put it where it needed to be, then I was in my right time.”
McClain, who is now an educator at Fort Dorchester High School in South Carolina, was never one who played basketball for the limelight or the accolades. Whenever cameras were around, McClain was not. She often hid from that kind of attention or found herself walking away because she never cared for it. McClain played the game because she loved it.
While a part of her would have liked to play in the United States a bit longer, McClain believes the time she spent playing was more than rewarding.
“Some people ask me, ‘Don’t you wish you could be playing today when they’re playing on TV and the cameras are big and women’s basketball has gotten so far?’ and I say no,” said McClain, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012. “I think I played in the time when I was supposed to have played. Whatever help that was to get women’s basketball on the map or put it where it needed to be, then I was in my right time.”
For the generations that didn’t have the opportunity to watch McClain star on the 1996 Olympic team in Atlanta or long before, it’s hard to visualize the impact that she had on the team and the sport as a whole. Except for some grainy YouTube videos of the national team during its NCAA tour, it’s hard to find footage of McClain’s dominance.
Coupled with the fact that McClain never played in the WNBA like all of her peers from 1996 who are often used today as a measure of social relevance, it’s not a surprise that McClain’s impact has largely been underappreciated.
“The thing that saddens me is that a lot of the young kids will never know a Trina McClain because she’s not going to toot her own horn, she didn’t play during social media or relevant TV contracts. All you got is box scores,” McGhee said. “Kids these days, they are of a generation of ‘I need receipts, I need to see it.’ That’s the unfortunate thing. People need to know Katrina McClain. She needs to get her flowers while she’s alive.”
Gordon, now an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati, hopes that renewed recognition for McClain’s impact serves as a starting point for the other pioneers and history-making teams of the sport whose legacies haven’t been adequately celebrated.
“That would be my cry,” Gordon said. “This 30 for 30, let it be the beginning. Now go back in history to all the teams that came before 1996.
“We need to continue to preach history and the pioneers of the game.”