Gamecocks basketball coach Dawn Staley is a titan on and off the court
Dawn Staley is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition for women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a follow-up to Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
For Dawn Staley, it’s always back home.
The South Carolina women’s basketball coach is a titan in the sport. A three-time Olympic gold medalist as a player and a one-time gold medalist as Team USA head coach, Staley’s led the Gamecocks to two NCAA women’s basketball championships in the past six years. They’re the big favorite to win their third title, the No. 1 seeded overall in the NCAA tournament, and an undefeated regular season.
However, their reach extends far beyond the court. Not only is she the face of women’s basketball, she is well aware of it, a passionate advocate for racial justice and equal pay, and a public figure who used her platform to raise daily awareness of Brittney Griner’s wrongful imprisonment until the WNBA superstar was at home. And she encourages women everywhere, athletes and others, to use their voice — and speak out loud.
All of this is possible, Staley says, thanks to her mother and the lessons she taught. A South Carolina native, Estelle Staley moved home when her daughter, the youngest of five children, took over the Gamecocks program in 2008.
However, Staley’s rise from the Philadelphia projects, where she honed her game, comes with great responsibility. The 52-year-old describes herself as a “dream clerk” and is determined to show everyone, especially children who look like her, that you don’t start at the bottom.
For her accomplishments, Staley is the USA TODAY Women of the Year honoree from South Carolina.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I grew up in North Philadelphia’s housing projects with a mother who was a disciplinarian and cleaned the toilets in other people’s homes to make a way for her five children. Your faith paved the way for me.
I want to pave the way for little girls and little boys who look like me. This isn’t meant to draw racial lines or anything — but I know where I come from, I know the limitations placed on people growing up the way I grew up, and I know the hopelessness that reigns in our communities.
I hope to be a beacon of hope and to let these young people know that there is another world out there for them to explore and experience. And the best way to do that is discipline, and if you don’t have a sport, use education as a guide.
My proudest moment is my ability to take care of my mother. When she died (2017) I know the last part of her life when she was happy – happy not having to work, happy to be able to go to church, pay her tithing and give money to all the children, happy, that she had her family and her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren to hold on to.
Dawn Staley and her mother, Estelle Staley, at the induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2013. A South Carolina native, Estelle Staley moved home when her daughter took over the Gamecocks program in 2008.
Courtesy University of South Carolina
It’s crazy. After we won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics and the ABL (American Basketball League) started, I just couldn’t pull myself out of the mess I was in.
My lifelong dream was to be an Olympian and a gold medalist – and I achieved it when I was 26. And then I thought, there’s really nothing else to do. I didn’t even want to touch a basketball. I didn’t even want to go to Richmond, Virginia (to play). It took me about a week before I reported to training camp. I think it was just because of mental exhaustion, physical exhaustion. It was exhausting just concentrating on my goal. I’ve never felt this before.
I think I have enough rest. I left basketball alone for a week or two and then it came back and (motivation) snapped right back.
JEFF BLAKE, USA TODAY SPORTS; ERIC GAY, AP
It’s about doing the right thing, saying the right thing, and living in your truth.
I have two mottos in life: One of them is: “You have to do what you don’t want to do to get what you want.” Super easy. It’s understandable (for everyone) from toddlers to seniors. The second is, “The disciplined person can do anything.”
Charity starts at home, so I have to start with my mother. The way I approach basketball is the way my mom approached her spirituality and her faith—she worked hard.
That’s how I’m built. I probably don’t share my faith and spirituality as much as my mother, but she’s there, she’s my foundation, I’m rooted in it. I know who controls what happens in my life. I know that God has shown favor to me in my life and in my career and I don’t throw it in people’s faces, but when we hit some milestones I let it know that it’s nothing but God.
If you grow up in inner-city projects, you don’t see anything. You only see what is in front of you. Beyond that, you can’t see. And you don’t feel like you’ll ever get beyond that. It’s an environment that draws you in and keeps you there – that’s not to say it’s not a good environment, but there’s so much more outside of it. There are so many more examples of people feeling trapped. Once outside, you have to keep reaching back and pulling people out.
I know I’m helping a lot of people who grew up the way I grew up and I need to continue that.
If you grow up in inner-city projects, you don’t see anything. You only see what is in front of you. Beyond that, you can’t see. … There are so many other examples of people feeling trapped. Once outside, you have to keep reaching back and pulling people out.
I knew that when I received my first prospective letter from a college. And it was from an Ivy League, it was Dartmouth or something. It could have just been a campus brochure; we do it all the time (in South Carolina) and think nothing of it. But for someone like me – again I’m trapped. My daily wish is to play soccer, basketball, baseball and softball on our big field. That’s all I wanted to do. That made me the happiest.
When I received that letter, I knew basketball would be my ticket to see something different.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year.
The Associated Press
I attack it. I want to protect my peace, so if something interferes with that, I have to take care of it. I need order, I like order in my life. I know that life throws some things at you that you have to navigate through – and you don’t have to be afraid to do it.
OK, that’s probably pretty funny. I would tell myself that I got the right size sneakers so my toes could look a little better (as an adult). I have big feet for my height (5ft-6). I wear 10-10.5. I think I should be taller – I have big feet, big shoulders, big hands, big head.
When I was younger I didn’t want my sneakers to look huge so I took the smaller size, took out the insole and then you basically walked on the floor because you didn’t want your feet to look big. When you are young you don’t want to have big feet!
Published March 19, 2023 at 9:02 UTC
Updated March 31, 2023 at 18:28 UTC