Directors: Kristen Lappas
Length: 152 minutes without commercials (airing in a three-hour window with commercials)
Airs: June 15, 2022, at 8:00 PM ET on ESPN. On ESPN+ the day after.
Most Similar To: The Last Dance, The ’85 Bears
Grade/Ranking: Mid-teens out of 119 30 for 30 Installments, which I’d give an A on my 30 for 30 grading curve.
Review: In an attempt to not bury the lede, Dream On is one of the top two or three 30 for 30’s of the last five years. If you like 30 for 30s and sports documentaries in general, you should 100% watch this one. The two criteria I have for ratings these films are a) How good of a story is it? b) How well was it told? On both fronts, Dream On is a very high-level 30 for 30 installment.
I’m more expediently and concisely delivering my opinion on this installment, because the elephant in the room is that a considerable amount of sports fans/ESPN viewers simply will see a new 30 for 30 airing and go “Oh, it’s about women’s sports?” or “I don’t know what this is about” and will flip away. Go ahead, but you’re going to be missing a really great installment.
I came into Dream On with a little bit more information on the topic (the story of the 1996 USA Women’s basketball team) than the average viewer. As a kid, I used to go to some Stanford Women’s basketball games, and this past March still vaguely knew that Tara VanDerveer actually stepped away from Stanford for a full season to coach the Olympic team. If I had to fill in the blanks beyond that, I would probably say that VanDerveer taking a year off to coach the women’s Dream Team was kind of a weird thing, where I couldn’t explain why it was necessary.
I would have had no idea that the women’s national team would play a total of 60 games that season under VanDerveer. It was essentially near a full year of arduous practice, training, and extensive travel. I would have had no idea that the women’s national team was not, in fact, the women’s version of the Dream Team. They’d in fact picked up third place in the most recent Olympics and world championships. What Dream On centers on is that that ’96 team wasn’t at all a coronation or a celebration of the US’s dominance of the sport the way the men’s ’92 Dream Team was.
The 1996 team was necessary. It was necessary to launch the WNBA, it was necessary to assert national dominance and stature across the sport, it was necessary to further the growth and interest in the collegiate level of the sport. It was a gritty slog from start to finish that is not sugarcoated in any way in the film.
There was tension, friction, doubt, pressure, unkind expectations, and conflicting priorities throughout the entirety of that year. Not a single player from that team gives off the vibe that it was a wonderful year in their life, given the amount of time the team was traveling and doing so with a very demanding coach and less-than-ideal travel conditions.
The film doesn’t lionize VanDerveer, who to her credit acknowledges that she pushed the team to the brink throughout, to the point of bordering on being somewhat cruel. Specifically, her relationship with Rebecca Lobo gets a lot of attention, and seems to be told with honesty and fairness to both parties. Dream On is frankly just a much more honest film in that you don’t get the sense that the players were close or friendly with VanDerveer and you also get the sense that VanDerveer was aware of this and didn’t care. This was an arrangement and that arrangement was strictly business for all parties involved with shared sacrifice being a non negotiable requirement.
There just isn’t a lot of warm fuzzies like you might be expecting which makes sense given the filmmaker’s guiding objective through out the process. The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch did a deeper dive into the film and shared that director Kristen Lappas had a Post It note that simply said “DON’T MAKE THIS FILM SOFT!!”. Suffice to say, Lappas was very successful: this is a very tense and gritty installment.
A huge part of the success of Dream On comes from the extensive amount of footage of the team from that long year together. It very much felt like The Last Dance in that we were getting huge doses of behind the scenes footage of the team practicing, playing, traveling, enduring and bonding. Deitsch’s piece shares what I was wondering throughout on “Where did this all come from?”
“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. “
“When I say nobody had seen this footage in the last 25 years, that is the absolute truth,”
“They did one 30-minute show on Lifetime a month after the 1996 Olympics, and that’s it.”
It’s very hard to imagine Dream On being anywhere near as potent or even possible without all of this footage, especially considering game footage and archival news footage of the women’s team was pretty limited back then. I think the amount of game footage actually used might be under two minutes, which is kind of crazy given the length of the film. So many of these games were just not televised or considered that noteworthy at the time.
Speaking of length (which has increasingly become where I’ve focused more and more of my feedback on for these films), Deitsch also shared that the film was originally commissioned to fit a 90-minute broadcast window but it was later extended to the full three hours that it is now. This film absolutely fills that three-hour window, and given that I’m constantly commenting on films being awkwardly stretched or condensed to fit ESPN broadcast windows, this is one they absolutely nailed in terms of finding the right length.
For most, the majority of this story is going to be almost entirely new, and it’s certainly subject matter that I believe is worthy of viewers time compared to some of the other installments. This is a gritty comprehensive retelling that is certainly amongst elite company within the 30 for 30 universe. Regardless of your interest in this story or women’s sports in general, if you like good stories, good characters, a great filmmaking, this is one you should make it a priority to watch.