Dawn Staley serves as an Assistant Coach for Team USA Basketball, and on Wednesday helped guide USA to its 44th consecutive Olympic victory. Team USA has not lost an Olympic contest since 1992, a record that precedes Dawn’s first appearance on the National Team. However, Staley is one person who has impacted the record consistently since the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
In Staley’s last Olympics, she was chosen to be the flag bearer. Dawn reflected on that honor in Greece during her Hall of Fame enshrinement speech. For this week’s Women’s History Wednesday, we highlight Staley’s story from that night in 2013. Staley opened by saying, “I think the best way for me to explain how I feel today, and give tribute to the people, and the experiences that led me to here, is to describe an honor that came in 2004. This is a true story.”
The First Curve
For Staley, being born to North Philadelphia is what made her career possible. Dawn Michelle Staley was born May 4th, 1970 and was raised, along with her brothers and sister – by her mother, Estelle. She was raised in the Raymond Rosen Housing Projects. She grew up, like many girls wanting to hoop, playing with boys from her neighborhood. Between that, and the occasional “tough love” from her older brothers, Staley gained the confidence she needed when playing in high school. Staley attended Dobbins Tech, and during her time there, girls basketball was a hot commodity. “It was 30 years ago and girls’ basketball was packed in our gym. It was a beautiful thing,” commented Staley for Philly.com earlier this year. From 1986-1989, the Lady Mustangs were Public League Champions. In her senior year, Staley was named National High School Player of the Year by USA Today. Her ability to play basketball was beginning to lead to other opportunities. Opportunities that would open an entire world to a girl from North Philly. That fall, Staley left home and entered her freshman year at the University of Virginia.
Midway through the First Straight
“There was no bigger contrast in going from the projects of Philly to the properness of UVA”
Debbie Ryan was the Head Coach at the University of Virginia from 1977 to 2011. By the time Staley arrived, Ryan and UVA were two seasons into an impressive 11 straight NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearances. Staley went to the Final Four each year of her college career. In her first year, Dawn and the Cavaliers were defeated by SEC powerhouse Tennessee in the Final Four. The Lady Vols defeated UVA by 33 points in the 1989 NCAA Tournament.
The next year UVA would have to go through the Lady Vols to reach the Final Four. The Cavaliers did just that, winning 79-75 in overtime. What’s more, the Cavaliers prevented Tennessee from advancing to the 1990 Final Four, to be held in Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1991, Tennessee defeated UVA in overtime to win their 3rd NCAA title. Despite the loss, Dawn Staley was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player. In 1992, Stanford narrowly edged out UVA 65-64 to advance to the NCAA National Championship. Staley was named the Honda Sports Award Winner in basketball in the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons. Staley is the only ACC player in history history with over 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 700 assists and 400 steals. She ranks 2nd in points (2,135) scoring average (16.3 ppg) and assists (729). Dawn is also 1st in career free throws (505).
On and off the court, Staley is thankful for her experience at Virginia. “There was no bigger contrast in going from the projects of Philly to the properness of UVA,” remarked Dawn at her enshrinement, “it took a lot of patience from Debbie to get me through. When I arrived at UVA, all I knew was Philly and basketball. When I left, I knew there was much more.”
The Second Curve
“I hope they knew I was once where they were. Through me, I hope they saw the possibilities that lie within them.”
As Dawn continued to tell her story at her enshrinement, she thanked her Team USA Head Coach, Tara Vanderveer. Staley joked that after she realized Coach Vanderveer wasn’t, “out to kill us”, she recognized the genius of her style. “She made us depend on each other, and in doing so, took a group of individual talent and molded us into a team.” After receiving her first gold medal in 1996, Staley went on to win two more medals as a player.
Dawn began her professional career in 1996 with the American Basketball League (ABL). Staley joined the Richmond Rage in the first season of the ABL, along with Adrienne Goodson, Taj McWilliams and track Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The team was moved to Philadelphia for the second and final full season. By December of 1998, the league shutdown, declaring bankruptcy. The ABL could not compete with the newly formed Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). Staley was a two-time All-Star in the ABL.
In 1999, Staley was selected 9th overall by the Charlotte Sting. Staley played six years with Charlotte and two with the Houston Comets. She was named a WNBA All-Star six consecutive years (2001-2006). Staley played in the WNBA All-Star game five times and was the first player in league history to represent both the East and West teams during her career. Staley won the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award in 1999 (predating the current name) and 2006. Staley also won the WNBA Entrepreneurial Spirit Award in 1999.
Although Staley only appeared in the WNBA Finals once, she continues to leave her mark to this day. In 2006, the WNBA announced the creation of the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award. “Dawn Staley possesses an unbelievable passion for basketball and for giving back to the community in the hope of inspiring young lives,” said then league President, Donna Orender.
“As a player and coach she has continually looked to support and impact the dreams of young people. Women’s basketball is certainly richer for her many contributions, but so are the lives of the many people Dawn has reached out to in her hometown of Philadelphia and in the cities where she has played, Charlotte and Houston. It is only fitting that the WNBA create an award that celebrates her spirit of generosity and character.”
The Dawn Staley Foundation was just one of the contributions Staley has made to her hometown. As Dawn soaked in her first Olympic experience, she thought about a young girl in Philadelphia, or somewhere like her neighborhood, that was watching, and dreaming. That fall, Staley decided to begin The Dawn Staley Foundation. Through academic and athletic afterschool programming, the foundation aimed to help at-risk youth realize their dreams, while becoming responsible citizens. “I hope they knew I was once where they were. Through me, I hope they saw the possibilities that lie within them.”
In 14 years, The Dawn Staley Foundation had a 99.4% completion rate, ensuring that girls from North Philly, “finished high school and followed their dreams”. Staley counts herself among the success stories.
Down the Last Straight
“It makes you think and know that you’ve been a pioneer. Basketball has been a gift that keeps on giving.”
Towards the end of her playing career, Dawn embarked on a new, if not always welcomed, challenge. In 2000, her hometown of Philadelphia came calling, wanting her to again work her magic and impact the lives of young women learning and playing within its city limits. Temple University looked to recruit Staley to reconstruct its women’s program. Staley openly acknowledges that she was reluctant to get into coaching, “I politely declined the offer (pauses) three times.”
However, Temple eventually appealed to Dawn’s competitive nature, offering Staley the driver’s seat for a program looking to drastically and rapidly improve. The Temple Owls went 10-18 the season before Staley arrived, closing out a decade without a winning season. By the 2000-01 season, Temple improved to 19-10 and earned an invitation to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). By 2002, Temple reached the NCAA Tournament, and did so consecutively from 2004-2008. During her tenure, Staley led the Owls to 4 Atlantic Ten Conference Championships, five Philadelphia Big Five Championships and six NCAA tournament berths. She is the winningest women’s basketball coach for Temple University, and the first to reach 100 wins. Staley and her players earned a 172-80 record in eight seasons, or a .683 winning percentage. In six of her eight seasons, the Owls won 20 or more games. “Staley was the winningest coach ever at Temple,” wrote Mel Greenberg for Philly.com, “(s)he upgraded the schedule and recruited big-time players. Two of them – Candice Dupree and Kamesha Hairston – were A-10 players of the year and first-round WNBA picks.”
From Temple, Staley joined the University of South Carolina and the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Staley joined USC on May 10, 2008, and in four years, the Gamecocks were one of seven teams to be ranked in every Associated Press Top 25 poll. Staley has coached USC to 3 SEC regular-season championships (2014 -2016), 2 SEC Tournament titles (2015, 2016), and three NCAA Sweet 16 seasons (2012, 2014, 2016). Additionally, Staley still knows how to put on a show, USC has led the nation is home attendance in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. In her 16 seasons as a coach, Staley has amassed a 360-156 record, led her teams to seven 25-win seasons and 13 postseason appearances (two in the WNIT).
Staley has also coached in the USA Basketball system for ten years. She has coached the USA to gold medals in the Olympics, Pan American Games, FIBA World Championships and FIBA Americas Championships. The 2016 Olympic Games mark the anniversary of the 1996 “Dream Team”. In her first year with the senior team, Staley played on one of the most historic teams in USA Basketball history.
Now, Staley looks to continue the undefeated streak that began with the 1992 team. “It makes you think and know that you’ve been a pioneer,” Staley told MyWSports last month, “basketball has been a gift that keeps on giving. Opportunity after opportunity presents itself to all of us that have played the game. I’m just enjoying it, I’m learning, I’m embracing it, and hopefully will be part of another gold medal team.” As Team USA prepares for the final match of the Olympic preliminary round, Staley is doing what she does best, she is leading by example. She is showing some of the best American players how to be leaders in every aspect of the game, as well as life.