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Interview with Dawn Staley in ESPNW (USA)

 

An excerpt of this story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s April 2 issue, The Dominant 20. Subscribe today!

Dawn Staley drives her Jeep with a purpose, old-school R&B playing from the stereo, “WB 1” on the license plate, windows down, the thick Southern air of South Carolina swirling through. She screams into her reserved spot at the women’s Gamecocks building, recently renovated in happy creams and classy glass, parks and hops from the vehicle, slinging a handbag over her petite 5-foot-6 (“She wishes,” friends joke) frame and loping toward basketball HQ, knees buckling inward like broken sticks.

Inside, down the hall, past hagiographic portraits of Staley and trophy cases holding some of her SEC and tournament bounty, sits her University of South Carolina office. The commodious space is lined with windows along one side, the view partially obscured by no fewer than 18 basketballs. Behind her desk, a table displays more memorabilia, including a slew of hand forms, their metal fingers stacked with various championship rings, some unadorned, for now. There also are photos: Staley with former President Barack Obama, his arm clasped warmly around her shoulder; Staley mugging with Gamecocks star forward and local hero A’ja Wilson; Staley, mouth agape, after coaching South Carolina to the 2017 NCAA title. On a neighboring wall, her three Olympic jerseys hang side by side in frames: USA, USA, USA. Amidst it all, a riot of lilies.

“My mother passed away seven months ago from Alzheimer’s,” explains Staley, who is 47. “They were her favorite flower.”

Staley notes her parents were from South Carolina, (her father died in 2006 from an illness) a connection that tipped her toward Gamecocks country. She gently pushes one of the vases she buys every month in remembrance a few inches to the left, then shuffles to her couch and takes a seat, her 5-month-old Havanese puppy, Champion, trotting behind and curling at her sneakered feet.

The dog is a new and unexpected addition to her life, and anyone hoping to meet Staley meets Champ first. He scampers ahead, sniffs you out. During practices, he chews the plastic cones set out for drills, running loose and making general doggy mischief. He is often tailed by Hays, the toddler son of the Gamecocks’ director of recruiting operations. In the early days of Staley’s now decade-long South Carolina tenure, there were no dogs on the court. No kids, either. The vibe was strict, intentional, Staley a woman needing to prove herself. The championship changed that. Time, too. Staley has at last settled in, adjusted.

“As a point guard, you figure out whose buttons to push and when to push, when to pull back,” she says of her former position. “I kind of lost those qualities when I started. I hit the ground running. It was like, ‘Yo, we have to be successful, and this is how we need to be successful!'” Staley pauses to stroke Champ’s fur. “He’s softened me.”

 

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