- Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
Dawn Staley was 22 years old, fresh out of college and on the verge of what should have been the peak years of her basketball career.
But instead of preparing to play in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the 5-foot-6 point guard was endlessly refolding clothes working at a Philadelphia department store.
The Olympics could have helped ease the sting of losing in three consecutive Final Four appearances. But Staley didn’t make the United States team. And with the WNBA still five years from launching, the two-time NCAA player of the year was at an unfamiliar crossroads if she wanted to make a living playing basketball.
“There was so much uncertainty,” Staley said. “I had graduated in May, and then basically had nowhere to go.”
When USA Basketball left Staley off the 1992 Summer Games roster, “They told me there were two reasons why I got cut,” Staley recently said with a rueful laugh that implied she still doesn’t buy either of them. “One was I was too short. Two, I didn’t have enough international experience.
“I couldn’t do anything about my height, but I surely could check off going overseas and playing internationally. But guards were a dime a dozen.”
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The agent she had hired promised he could get her a job with a team overseas but wasn’t sure when. A limited number of Americans were allowed on each team. So she waited. And kept folding. That she didn’t mind. But the retail aspect of the job was hell for a natural introvert.
“I was actually running away from the customers,” the U.S. women’s basketball coach said. “If they messed up a pile of T-shirts, I’d be quick to go make it look nice and neat again. But the interaction? I wanted no part of that.”
Nearly three decades later, Staley has won three Olympic gold medals as a player and has coached Team USA in Tokyo to within a victory of its seventh consecutive gold in the Summer Games. With the win, Staley would become the first Black head coach to guide an Olympic women’s team to a 5-on-5 championship (Earlier in these Summer Games, Kara Lawson coached the U.S. women to gold in 3×3’s Olympic debut.) Staley and Lawson have also joined late legends Pat Summitt and Anne Donovan in being part of medal-winning Olympic basketball teams as both a player and a head coach.
And when the Tokyo Games end, Staley will return to her South Carolina program that won the 2017 national championship, reached its third women’s Final Four last season and will be a strong title contender again in 2021-22. Staley was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 2013, and odds are good she’ll be inducted as a coach as well someday.
Yet Staley’s fire is still stoked by that summer 29 years ago, when it all could have been over before it really started.
That July and August, she doesn’t recall watching much Olympic basketball, which was primarily televised on pay-per-view. But she caught what she could, wanted the U.S. women to do well and felt the disappointment of their bronze medal, vowing, “I wasn’t gonna be left off the next Olympic team.”
How was she going to get there, with no job and no daily coaching to guide her, making up her own training regimen?
“I didn’t know,” she said. “But I didn’t want anybody else to know that I didn’t know.” So she played basketball whenever she could, indoor or outdoor, day or night. In October, the call finally came: a job with a team in Spain. It was an isolating experience in the days before the ubiquitous Internet connection and cell phones. Her “$2,000 phone bills” helped with homesickness but ate up her paycheck. She accepted the need to be a high-volume scorer, even though it meant sacrificing some of her playmaking creativity.
“I sucked it up because I wanted to be an Olympian,” Staley said. “I wasn’t going to leave. I had to be an Olympian.”
That unquenchable drive is part of what makes Staley so strong a leader, former teammates and current players say.
“Dawn has always been a coach to me,” said Lisa Leslie, who has won four Olympic gold medals, three of them with close friend Staley. “Her leadership, her heart, her fight, her knowledge of the game. That’s someone you can trust.
“And there’s her ability to motivate and inspire others. I’d run through a wall for her, and I felt that way from day one of meeting her. Because that was the effort she gave.”
U.S. guard Sue Bird — who is on a joint quest with Diana Taurasi for an unprecedented fifth Olympic gold medal in basketball — has experienced having Staley as both an Olympic teammate and a coach.
“A coach’s identity is going to trickle onto the team, no matter which players are there,” said Bird, who has played for four Olympic coaches. “With Dawn, what makes her unique is she does have the player’s perspective of all this. She’s experienced it and knows what it’s like.”
Seeds planted long ago
Amy Lofstedt Gusky was a freshman, and Staley a senior, when they played together on Virginia’s women’s basketball team in 1991-92. A one-point loss to Stanford in the national semifinals that season crushed the Cavaliers, but most of all Staley.
Staley eventually became a national team fixture, and played in the short-lived American Basketball League from 1996 to ’98, and then the WNBA, where she was a five-time All-Star from 1999 to 2006. Like many players her age and older, she had no U.S.-based league to play in during some of the peak years in her 20s, joining the ABL at 26 and the WNBA at 29.
Even so, she played for the Charlotte Sting and Houston Comets and finished her eight-season WNBA career averaging 8.5 points and 5.1 assists, making a WNBA Finals appearance in 2001 with the Sting. She was a starter throughout her time in the league, including her final season at age 36 in 2006. While still a pro player, she began her coaching career at Temple in 2000, then in 2008 went to South Carolina, now a premiere program in the powerful SEC.
Yet falling short of a national championship as a player stuck with her. When South Carolina claimed the 2017 NCAA title, it exorcised some long-held demons for Staley, who had miniature replicas of the trophy made and sent, along with a note of gratitude, to all those who had been a part of her journey, going back to high school.
Gusky was surprised, and touched, by the trophy — now displayed in her home office. A deputy vice president for the Federal Aviation Administration, she’s far from the sports world these days, other than coaching her 9-year-old son’s basketball team. But this symbol of the forever bond between teammates brought back great memories, including all she admired about Staley.
“She had a remarkable impact on me,” Gusky said. “Everyone talks about Dawn’s competitiveness, but she was a big part of what felt like a very professional atmosphere at [Virginia]. We treated basketball respectfully. We had fun as well, but we knew what we were there to accomplish. If you had told me back then who Dawn was going to become, it would have been no surprise whatsoever.”
Yet even after Staley got that first pro job in Spain, the path was still rocky. She had a series of short playing contracts in the winter of 1993-94, taking her to Europe and South America. Her USA Basketball breakthrough came when she made the senior team for the 1994 FIBA World Championship (now called the World Cup), but the U.S. women were upset by Brazil in the semifinals and had to settle for a bronze medal.
Something had to change. The men’s “Dream Team” of NBA stars had steamrollered its Olympic basketball competition in 1992 and become the toast of the Barcelona Games, while the U.S. women had back-to-back bronzes in major competitions. It came in 1995, when the NBA backed a traveling women’s team that toured the world in preparation for the 1996 Atlanta Games — an endeavor that helped launch the WNBA.
In February 1995, Staley was playing in France on her most stable contract to date when she started experiencing knee pain. Not now, she thought, aware the trials were that spring to make the USA squad. She had to leave her French team.
She was able to get treatment on her knee back home in the United States, and managed to make Team USA. But even the 1996 Olympic tournament, in which the Americans started their current gold-medal streak, was another learning experience for Staley, who came off the bench behind Teresa Edwards.
“I didn’t know when I was going to play, but I knew I had to stay ready,” she said. “I just had to wait my turn.”
Edwards was still the starter in the 2000 Olympics, too, although Staley led the team in assists in the Sydney Games. By 2004, Staley was the venerable vet, moving into the starting role. She led in assists again, was the U.S. flag bearer and handed off the symbolic torch to fellow guards Bird and Taurasi.
Guard Ruthie Bolton played with Staley on two Olympic and two World Championship teams. She remembers a brief period of losing her shooting confidence at the 1998 World Championship. Staley wouldn’t have it.
“She said, ‘When I pass you the ball, I want you to shoot it. I believe in you. I don’t care how many shots you miss,'” Bolton said. “That did so much for me. How she orchestrated a game and could impose her will in a big moment, took ownership … she’s done the same thing as a coach.”
Another possible milestone
Staley was just the second Black head coach to win an NCAA women’s basketball title, following Carolyn Peck at Purdue in 1999, and the first to win a World Championship (2018).
For Leslie, Bolton and others who played alongside Staley, there is a sense of great pride in their teammate and close friend now being the national team coach. When Leslie won her first WNBA title with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001, she cried both with happiness and sadness — because it came at the expense of Staley’s Charlotte Sting team.
Leslie, a USC sophomore at the time, attended the 1992 women’s Final Four in Los Angeles when Staley lost her last college game. Leslie never made the Final Four, and that feeling of unfinished business in college motivated both women as professionals.
“I don’t know that I’d say it haunts you, but when you’ve won so much, the losses stick out,” Leslie said. “You may have some that are heartbreaking, and even career-changing. It can affect you mentally, where you’re trying to figure out, ‘Is it me? What could I have done better?’
“Dawn never settled. She was always self-evaluating.”
Staley was an assistant to Donovan for the 2008 Olympics and to Geno Auriemma for the 2016 Olympics. But she has said this coaching experience is a different kind of pressure. At Team USA’s brief training camp in Las Vegas before the Olympics, the U.S. women lost in exhibitions to Team WNBA in the league’s All-Star Game, and then to Australia. The losses created a buzz because they are so rare.
The last time the United States lost in the Olympics was in the 1992 semifinals, when Staley was still on the outside looking in. The Americans’ only loss in a major competition in the past 25 years was in the 2006 World Championship semifinals; Staley was an assistant coach then, and it still bugs her.
And even though she wore the Team USA jersey for so many years, it’s not quite the same as directing others who are wearing it. The buck now stops with Staley. She’s used to that at South Carolina, but …
“Here, you are representing an entire country,” she said. “I watch more and more film. You’re trying to create an edge, some separation from your opponents. The margin of error is smaller and smaller.
“They’re just feelings that aren’t as familiar to me. It’s cool, though, because I welcome newness. This is my 22nd year now coaching. It’s just different, it’s not frightening.”
Not much can really scare you when you’ve been where Staley was in 1992: having so much talent and drive but nowhere to take it. Asked how she got through it all, she recalls what she said in her Hall of Fame induction speech.
“My path was divinely ordered,” she said. “I could not have navigated it. I didn’t know what to do between ’92 and ’95, other than going overseas to play, and that was spotty. All that time, some higher power covered me.”
A’ja Wilson, who led the Gamecocks to their NCAA title and has been the top scorer for the U.S. team in these Olympics, usually has a light-hearted, teasing relationship with Staley, whom she calls her second mother.
But Wilson also knows how much Staley has meant to women’s basketball, and what this Olympic title would mean, too.
“I feel like this one’s very personal,” Wilson said. “It matters. Sometimes I’m just in awe when I look at her as coach of the USA team. Just seeing her in her element, and how much she’s given to this game, I’m just glad to be a part of her life. It’s so special. It’s literally history right in front of our eyes.”
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