ESPN’s ‘Dream On’: Inside the best sports documentary I’ve seen in 2022

ESPN’s ‘Dream On’: Inside the best sports documentary I’ve seen in 2022

As she worked on “Dream On,” the sports documentary that would dominate her life over a span of 12 months, Kristen Lappas would stare each day at a yellow Post-it note affixed above an office desk at her home in southern Connecticut. On that desk sat three items — a collage of her daughter Zoey, a framed photograph of Lappas with members of the 1996 gold-medal-winning United States women’s basketball team, and a coffee mug from those same Olympics that was given to her by Renee Brown, who served as an assistant coach on that U.S. team and would later go on to work for 20 years as an executive at the WNBA. The Post-it note, which Lappas wrote to herself in April 2021 and took down in March 2022, featured five words, a daily admonition that guided her as a filmmaker.

“DON’T MAKE THIS FILM SOFT!!”

“What I meant by that note is more often than not when people tell women’s sports stories, they’re kind of flowery and rah-rah and girl power,” Lappas said. “I wanted to make sure that people really understood that this wasn’t a clean, happy story. There was complications, there was tension, there was conflict. There was a lot of obstacles that had to be overcome. If we can get past the skeptics who simply won’t watch a women’s basketball film, I think this is a really good sports movie. I hope people give it a chance.”

I hope so too, because Lappas’ upcoming film, which examines the 1996 U.S. women’s national basketball team and its 14-month odyssey across the globe that changed the landscape of women’s athletics forever, isn’t just a good sports movie.

It’s the best sports documentary I’ve watched in 2022.

It’s a worthy addition to the highest levels of the “30 for 30” brand. Ezra Edelman’s ambitious and exhaustive documentary on O.J. Simpson — “O.J.: Made In America” — remains the best content ESPN has ever produced. “Hillsborough,” the Daniel Gordon-directed film which ran under “30 for 30: Soccer Stories,” belongs in the same air. Acknowledging that these lists are subjective, my list of the best “30 for 30” films along with the two above includes, in no specific order: “Once Brothers,” “The Two Escobars,” “The Best That Never Was,” “June 17th, 1994,” “The Last Dance,” “Elway To Marino,” “Of Miracles and Men” and “The U.” (There are obviously other great films too.)

“Dream On” enters that space for me. If you make the investment as a viewer — the three-hour film premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and then will be made available on ESPN+ immediately after — you will not regret the commitment.

The basketball group that won gold in Atlanta 26 years ago was one of the best teams in U.S. sporting history. Over 10 months of play, including the Atlanta Games, they finished with a 60-0 record. The final roster featured Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers across the roster such as Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Katrina McClain, Teresa Edwards, Rebecca Lobo and coach Tara VanDerveer. The subjects of the film, in candid and sometimes painful-to-watch terms, discuss what was happening behind the scenes for them, including domestic violence issues, hiding one’s own sexual identity, the packaging of the team as straight and feminine, and a very tense and often toxic relationship between the players and VanDerveer. Each player was paid just $50,000 for the 10-month commitment.

“That year was the hardest basketball year of my life,” said Lobo, the youngest player on the team, who throughout the year had her place questioned by VanDerveer and some of her teammates. “I now also understand the enormous pressure Tara must have been under. My 22-year-old self couldn’t understand that or have perspective on that. I see things with age and perspective now. Over the years I’ve also had conversations with national team teammates and realized that they had struggles that year too. When you are living it, you feel alone. But with time, I came to understand that I wasn’t alone.

“Jennifer Azzi was probably the one teammate that I considered a friend during that year. The one person I could have non-basketball real conversations with. We were roommates. And I had no idea, until a few years ago when she came out publicly, that she was gay. Before watching the documentary, I had no idea that she felt that her sexuality was the reason she was kept off the 1992 Olympic team. I knew Carla McGhee was in a car accident in college. Until watching the film, I didn’t realize how serious the accident was or how it shaped her career. In ’95-’96, none of us knew that Ruthie (Bolton) was in an abusive relationship. We had no idea that the mentally and physically strongest member of our team was dealing with such incredible challenges personally.”

Dream On

Lappas said NBA Entertainment first approached ESPN Films executives in 2018 to inform them that an NBA Entertainment film crew had spent 10 months filming the team during its tour in 1995 and 1996, and had 500 hours of never-before-seen footage sitting in their library. Libby Geist, a former executive at ESPN Films who now works at Words + Pictures, told Lappas about the discovery of the tapes and asked how ESPN might approach examining them and turning it into a project.

“When I say nobody had seen this footage in the last 25 years, that is the absolute truth,” said Lappas, whose father Steve coached at Manhattan, Villanova and UMass before becoming a television analyst for CBS. “They did one 30-minute show on Lifetime a month after the 1996 Olympics and that’s it. My world was growing up in a basketball family. I was nine years old when they played in the Olympics in Atlanta. I had a Lisa Leslie jersey. I wanted to be all-in on this project. I hope viewers walk away from the film understanding how important this group of women was to the future of not just women’s basketball, but women’s athletics.”

The intensive work didn’t really get going until the end of 2020. The pandemic prompted a re-examination of all of ESPN’s documentary projects with live sports being limited. The exploration of the footage proved incredible for a sports documentarian. There was candid footage of the team at practices, inside hotel rooms, on bus rides, in foreign countries. The group traveled more than 100,000 air miles during their 10 months together and played games in five different countries, 20 states and Washington, D.C. During the travels, the team also went for a jog with then-president Bill Clinton.

Lappas said she put together a PowerPoint presentation for ESPN executives on how the project could work. ESPN Films originally commissioned “Dream On” as a 77-minute feature-length documentary, but Lappas said there was a much bigger story to tell given each individual’s back story, the team’s dynamic with VanDerveer and issues of gender and sexuality as it related to sports. Give credit to ESPN’s top executives: They doubled the running time of the film from its initial time. Lappas said it is the first multi-part “30 for 30″ on female athletes.

“If it was a shorter film, I felt like everything would be watered-down, and the only story that we were going to be able to flesh out is the story of a team that had a lot of success (and) influence and ended up being the impetus for both for the WNBA,” Lappas said. “To be honest, that story is the least interesting to me out of all of the different dynamics. There’s no way we’re getting to Rebecca Lobo and Tara VanDerveer’s relationship in a 77-minute film.”

Hoping to navigate multiple themes, Lappas said she reached out to Edelman, the Oscar-winning director of “O.J.: Made In America,” for advice.

“I’m not comparing this to ‘O.J.: Made In America,’ but there were parallels in terms of this is a story about a team and athletes but the real story is the sacrifices and struggles they had in terms of image, sexuality and hiding their identities,” Lappas said. “Ezra literally said to me, ‘I don’t find the story of this team on paper very interesting, but now that you explained to me all of the dynamics that were going on behind the scenes, I’m fascinated by that. Use that as your guiding light. That’s the stuff that’s going to resonate with people and that’s the stuff that people are going to be interested in.’”

Lappas said she interviewed all the players (and VanDerveer) between April and July 2021. All interviews were done in person, and most went three hours. On the issue of VanDerveer, Lappas ultimately had to ask the Stanford coach about the players disliking much of the experience of that year.

“It was a hard thing to tell someone as accomplished and as big as a legend as she is: ‘Hey, these women did not have that wonderful of an experience,’” Lappas said. “Of course, I said it more eloquently than that. She was so honest. She doesn’t back down from how she approached that year, the decisions she made, the pressure she felt. There’s one story that didn’t end up making the film. It was the hardest cut we had to make. It was a story that Tara told us about a year to the date from the Olympic gold-medal game. After she went for a jog, she was in the shower and had a panic attack. She literally had to get out of the shower because she couldn’t breathe. She was worried about, what if I fail my country? What if we don’t pull this off? She wrote on a piece of paper, ‘I am Tara VanDerveer. I am the best coach in the country. We will win gold.’ From that point forward, she said she literally never had a single ounce of doubt. She believed in her philosophy, which was all business.”

Watching the doc sent me down a YouTube rabbit hole in search for the highlights of the gold-medal-winning game. A young broadcaster named Mike Breen and Cheryl Miller did the broadcast for NBC. I ultimately found a three-minute clip of the final minute. It’s worth watching, especially for the sheer joy of the players dancing around the court after the game. Breen asked Miller on-air how this compared to her winning the gold medal in 1984, and Miller’s answer was remarkably prescient.

“What these young ladies have had to go through for the entire year is nowhere compared to what I had to go through,” Miller said. “I take my hats off to the United States women’s team. What they have achieved today will be legendary in women’s basketball.”

Miller was right. In one of the most poignant moments of the doc, as footage played of the team celebrating on the Georgia Dome floor in Atlanta following a 111-87 win over Brazil, Leslie, now a 49-year-old broadcaster, coach and part-owner of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, answered a question (not shown in the film) from interviewer Lappas about how it felt to stand up on the podium as a Black woman, with eight other Black women, representing the entire country?

“It means a lot because sometimes as Black people we don’t get that love from our country,” Leslie said through tears. “In those moments, people, just people, human beings, cheer and they celebrate together. I valued it. I didn’t do it to try to be a star. And I didn’t do it for myself. But I did it to change the minds of other people. If you can see the beauty in me, then maybe you can see it in another Black woman. But it’s an opportunity to be seen, just to be recognized, that we are just people who love this country, who value it, and we would like to be valued as well.”

The best sports documentary of the year airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. You won’t regret it if you tune in.


The Ink Report

1. The CBS Sports Network studio show “We Need To Talk,” which features a female-only on-air cast and women directors and producers, will be producing Title IX programming over the next two months, including an in-person panel discussion and mentoring event on Thursday for American University students and students from other universities in Washington, D.C.  The details on programming can be found here. The roster of commentators on the show includes broadcasters Lesley Visser, Andrea Kremer, Aditi Kinkhabwala, Tracy Wolfson, Dana Jacobson, AJ Ross, Tina Cervasio, Sarah Kustok and Jamie Erdahl; former executives Katrina Adams and Amy Trask; and some of the greatest women’s athletes in history — Swin Cash, Lisa Leslie, Renee Mongomery, Summer Sanders and Dara Torres. (Between the group, they have 22 Olympic medals, 14 Emmy Awards and two NFL Hall of Fame inductions.) The show’s coordinating producers are Emilie Deutsch and Suzanne Smith. Amy Salmanson and Julie Keryc are the producers.

1a. ESPN is running a ton of Title IX programming this month; “Dream On” is included in that initiative. NBC Sports is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX with 50 days of cross-platform content from June 4 to July 25.

1b. A couple of additional “Dream On” notes:

 • It takes a village to make a great sports documentary. Hannah Beir, Eve Wulf, and Reilly Bloom were associate producers on the project. Said Lappas: “They were in the trenches with me screening footage late into the night, traveling on shoots, sitting in on scripting, storyboard and edit sessions — the secret sauce of the project.” Lappas said editor Matt McCormick gave the film its soul. Thom McCallum and Mike Bollacke were the cinematographers who filmed all the interviews and scenes with the women. Lappas said ESPN Films producer Marquis Daisy, Gentry Kirby and Cath Sankey fought for the vision of the film. Kudos to all.

• The film features an amusing story of McGhee thinking her teammates were pranking her about then-President Bill Clinton being on the phone with her. (It was him — Clinton has long been a big women’s basketball fan.). Lappas interviewed Clinton for 40 minutes at his office in Harlem, and he plays an important role in the film as Clinton was President during the Atlanta Games, which included the 1996 Olympic bombing. Lappas said following her interview with the former President, Clinton said he planned on writing each of the members of the team a personal note about their impact.

• Venus Lacy was the last person interviewed for “Dream On,” and the doc starts with Lacy’s son showing her scrapbooks of the team’s success. Lacy was involved in a car accident in 1997 and has little recall of being part of the team. Her story is among the most poignant of the group.

“Venus was the 12th woman added to the team and, according to everybody, the missing puzzle piece that really helped them capture gold,” Lappas said. “I’ll never forget interviewing her in a hotel room at the WNBA All-Star Game and within five minutes she broke down. She said she had never really done an interview about this team because ‘I don’t remember anything.’ That’s when she told us about how her son shows her scrapbooks with all of the articles and photos from that year. He sits with her to help her feel like that was a part of her life. It almost spoke to me as the title because for her it is like a dream. But it’s still a sisterhood for her, even though she doesn’t kind of remember all the details.”

• Lappas and Geist now work at Words + Pictures, which is a nonfiction content studio founded by former ESPN content head Connor Schell and Chernin Entertainment. Lappas left ESPN last month to join the studio and will serve as an in-house director. Words + Pictures is an executive producer on an upcoming “30 for 30” documentary on famed professional pool player Jeanette Lee. That film is being directed by Ursula Liang.

• I asked Lobo if the team understood at the time how the NBA was packaging them as straight, feminine and falling under a certain beauty aesthetic. “I think we understood it to a degree,” Lobo said. “We felt the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we were being presented. But I think we also understood that was a realistic strategy for the mid-’90s. I don’t know if it was the NBA or the team sponsors who pushed it. It needs to be viewed in the context of the time. In 1996, there were very few “out” female athletes. Gay women didn’t talk about their sexuality like female athletes do now. They didn’t “own” their fashion choices like they do now. They certainly weren’t celebrated for them. There has been great change in the last 25 years in the way female athletes and lesbian athletes are viewed, covered and celebrated. Women in 2022 live their authentic lives in a way they couldn’t in 1996. I think this film does a good job giving context to that.”

2. Episode 213 of the Sports Media Podcast features two segments. First up is Haley Rosen, the founder and CEO of Just Women’s Sports. She is followed by a sports media panel with Boston Globe media writer Chad Finn and Sports Business Journal managing editor/digital Austin Karp.

In this podcast, Rosen discusses Just Women’s Sports, a women’s sports-focused media platform featuring news and analysis, interviews, podcasts, videos and other media content; why she feels this is a moment where a women’s sports media brand can be built to last; how she soft-launched her company and then launched with investment including from Elena Delle Donne and Kevin Durant among others; how teams and players have reacted to JWS; softball and volleyball as underserved media markets; advocacy versus journalism and how to approach that; her thoughts on gambling on women’s sports and an underserved market in that space; long-term possibilities for the site and more. Finn and Karp discuss NBA viewership through three games of the NBA Finals; why the NBA should feel mixed on the data so far; the importance of length, particularly for this series; whether the Celtics’ stars play nationally; the viewership for Turner and ESPN in their first year of the NHL deal; why people did not tune into Rafael Nadal but did for Coco Gauff; the debut of LIV Golf and the potential for a U.S. TV deal; sportswashing; how viewers might feel about Arlo White taking LIV’s money; if there is a non-Tiger golfer who moves the needle and more.

You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and more.

2a. Episode 212 of the Sports Media Podcast features Edward Keenan, the Washington bureau chief of The Toronto Star and former local and political columnist in Toronto. In this podcast, Keenan discusses covering the United States from a foreign perspective; how he landed a job; covering America at one of its most fraught times; how he decides on stories; traveling to Uvalde, Texas, and reporting from that tragedy; how he views repeated mass shootings in America; the professional wrestling and political entertainment element on American politics; straddling opinion and reporting; how much longer he wants to cover the beat and more.

3. The Athletic’s Sam Amick talked to Draymond Green this week on the subject of his sports podcasting. Suggesting that Green’s podcast work after games is somehow hurting his basketball play is some Grade A malarkey given we live in a world of multi-tasking. Human beings are capable of doing multiple things, and that includes any sports media member who provides content for multiple mediums, including doing podcasts. This from Isiah Thomas, who has credibility on the subject, was interesting and offered an opposite perspective. The one thing that’s abundantly clear is that we are only at the infancy of athlete-created content.

3a. Speaking of podcasts: Meadowlark Media has added four new podcasts to its company, including “Too Many Men” with hockey analysts Sara Civian, Shayna Goldman and Alison Lukan (Civian and Goldman are colleagues at The Athletic); “The Cooligans” with soccer-focused comedians Alexis Guerreros and Christian Polanco; the college football-centric Shutdown Fullcast (with Spencer Hall, Holly Anderson, Jason Kirk and Ryan Nanni) and “DNF” (Did Not Finish), an F1 show with Meadowlark’s Jessica Smetana and Hall.

3b. Nice piece of thoughtful television here from Sage Steele on returning to ESPN after she was struck in the face by a golf ball on May 19 at the PGA Championship.

3c. Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions signed a deal with Caesars Entertainment to launch video and audio content, including a podcast business through a new division, the Omaha Audio Network, per The Hollywood Reporter. One of the new podcast series will be hosted by former ESPN host Kenny Mayne, who joined Caesars last year after ESPN asked him to take a 61 percent pay cut.

4. LIV Golf provided a clinic last week on cynical and retrograde public relations. The Athletic UK’s Matt Slater went in-depth on the sportswashing series’ first stop in London.

4a. Jonathan Jones has been elevated to lead NFL Insider across CBS Sports’ multiple platforms and will be the insider for The NFL Today this fall. He replaces Jason LaCanfora on that program.

5. Sports pieces of note:

• The rise of youth cage-fighting. By Roman Stubbs of The Washington Post.

• How the Texans and a Spa Enabled Deshaun Watson’s Troubling Behavior. By Jenny Vrentas of The New York Times.

• One sport, two visions: The state of professional women’s hockey. By Alex Silverman of Sports Business Journal.

The Athletic’s David Aldridge on Jack Del Rio’s comments.

• Longtime golf writer Alan Shipnuck on being physically removed from Phil Mickelson’s press conference at LIV’s event in London.

• Canadian teams stopped winning the Stanley Cup in 1993. What’s going on? By Sean McIndoe of The Athletic.

• Phil Mickelson, PGA Tour both proving they’ve always been about the money. By Ian O’Connor of The New York Post.

• Behind the visible queerness in women’s sports — and why it matters. By Frankie de la Cretaz of The Washington Post.

• Via The Wall Street Journal: How Misha, a 19-Year-Old With Down Syndrome, Escaped Ukraine — and met John Cena.

• Is The Juice Worth The Squeeze? By Joe Favorito.

• Moneyball: The LIV Golf era begins in London amid a flood of cash and moral complications. By Kevin Van Valkenburg of ESPN.

Oakland Is Down to Its Last Strike as a Sports Town. By Jared Diamond of The Wall Street Journal.

• In the Club and the Clubhouse, a Coach Adds Some Flavor. By James Wagner of The New York Times.

• A minor league announcer reported an assault, and ‘In the end, it hurt me’ By Britt Ghiroli of The Athletic.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• The Surreal Case of a C.I.A. Hacker’s Revenge. By Patrick Radden Keefe of The New Yorker.

• White supremacists are riling up thousands on social media. .

• Medvedev: Russia’s Reforming President Turned Arch Hawk. By Stuart Williams for AFP.

• A Harrowing Journey From Cornell to Addiction to Prison. By.

• ‘The Wire’ — Game Day. A play-by-play of that afternoon when a basketball game was more important than the drug game. By Kelley L. Carter of Andscape.

• How smarter AI will change creativity. By The Economist.

• ‘Sailing’ Was Supposed to Save Christopher Cross. It Drowned Him Instead. By Rob Tannenbaum of Texas Monthly.

The Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop had an in-depth piece on journalists covering the pandemic.

• How one-third of “The Watergate Three” got written out of journalism history. By Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab.

• Why Congress Won’t Ban Assault Weapons. By Lindsay Wise and Zusha Elinson of The Wall Street Journal.

• ‘This is the story of a crime,’ father of boy who drowned at Martha’s Vineyard club tells court in video. By Mike Damiano and Danny McDonald of The Boston Globe.

• Anger and heartbreak on Bus No. 15. By Eli Saslow of The Washington Post.

• This Land Was Promised for Housing. Instead It’s Going to a Pro Soccer Team Owned by a Billionaire. By Mick Dumke of ProPublica and video by Nick Blumberg of WTTW/Chicago PBS.

• Getting Sober Again. By Natalie Lima of Catapult.

(Top photo of “Dream On” producer Kristen Lappas (green shirt) with Rebecca Lobo, Jennifer Azzi, Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie and Ruthie Bolton / Courtesy of ESPN)

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