USA TODAY has been recognizing the nation's top high school athletes for more than 30 years. As we prepare to announce the 2014 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Preseason Girls Basketball Team in a few months, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades. Today, we’re catching up with South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, who was the ALL-USA Girls Player of the Year in 1988 from Dobbins Tech (Philadelphia).
Dawn Staley’s ability to deal with failure has shaped her as much as her abundant success in basketball.
Staley never lost a game in high school and was a two-time national player of the year and three-time All-America guard at Virginia. She won three Olympic gold medals as a player and was a seven-time All-Star as a pro player. As a women’s basketball coach, she has led Temple and South Carolina to the NCAA tournament and won an Olympic gold medal as an assistant. In September, she was inducted the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But she never forgets 1992, when, despite playing well in the Olympic Trials, she was left off the Olympic team.
Last month, she had to give similarly bad news to some of the players at the trials for USA Basketball U18 Women’s National Team, which she will coach in the FIBA Americas championships this summer.
“That was pretty tough,” Staley said. “I told the entire group at the beginning of the sessions, ‘Some of you are going to walk away from here and be disappointed just as I was in 1992. Sometimes, it’s those moments that define you and fuel you to greater things.’ Being cut changed my life. I can remember all of my gold-medal ceremonies, but for motivation, I can still go back to that place in 1992.”
When Staley was the ALL-USA Player of the Year as a 5-5 point guard at Dobbins Tech, women’s basketball recruiting was significantly quieter than it is today. Staley, who coached South Carolina to a 29-5 record and an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance last season, recently signed this year’s ALL-USA Player of the Year, A’ja Wilson of Heathwood Hall (Columbia, S.C).
“When I was being recruited, I didn’t even involve my parents,” Staley said. “I didn’t want them to go through all of that. I was really mature for my age and used my intuition a great deal to make my decisions. Nowadays, when you recruit, you have to go through so many people and you have to make sure all of them are in your camp. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just becoming like the men and gives the girls equal footing. If they’re the No. 1 player in the country, they’re going to have an immediate impact. Why shouldn’t they get the notoriety that the top men’s recruits get?”
In her five seasons coaching at South Carolina, the Gamecocks have improved every year. This fall, with Wilson and two other former South Carolina high school players of the year on the roster, Staley isn’t afraid to say the team could contend for a national championship.
“The focus is on winning the national championship,” Staley said. “At this point, we’re bringing in a lot of great players. Some of them may have questions about playing time, but when you forge a bond that is greater than yourself, it helps when you can keep your eye on the prize.”
Growing up near the Moylan Recreation Center (now the Hank Gathers Recreation Center) at 25th and Diamond Streets in North Philadelphia, Staley played against boys from a young age and learned not to back down, even against players more than a foot taller than she was.
“There’s no woman who’s going to be able to challenge me,” she said. “If you allow things to limit you, you’re always going to be second-guessing yourself. There’s always going to be a place on the court for a passer. If you master something, you create value. I really didn’t understand that until I got older, and I had to explain to recruits and parents about adding value. You have to be able to find your place on a team, to add value in some way.”
Current Temple women’s basketball coach Tonya Cardoza has been friends with Staley since they were teammates at Virginia, pooling their meager resources. Cardoza said that coaching was the farthest thing from Staley’s mind then.
“She didn’t see that in her foreseeable future,” Cardoza said. “It’s not something that she set out to do. She used to joke all the time that she would never be a coach.”
Despite that, Cardoza isn’t surprised at Staley’s success at Temple and South Carolina.
“She’s turned out to be a hell of a coach,” Cardoza said. “I think it’s because of how she was brought up in Philly, the drive that she has in her. I don’t think she would get into something thinking she wasn’t going to be the very best. She always wants to be at the very top. Her mom was like that and her family is like that.”
Staley keeps her family and her friends close. Her mother Estelle moved to nearby Irmo when Staley took the job in Columbia. All but one member of Staley’s staff had a prior connection before South Carolina. Associate head coach Lisa Boyer was Staley’s first professional coach with the Richmond Rage of the American Basketball League. Assistant coach Nikki McCray played alongside Staley on several Olympic teams. Assistant coach Darius Taylor was on Staley’s staff at Temple. Basketball director of operations Cynthia Jordan played for Staley at Temple and was a graduate assistant with the Owls under Staley. Ariana Moore, the team’s special assistant to the head coach, also played for Staley at Temple.
Staley said the only basketball-related memento in her home is a photo of her carrying the U.S. flag at the Opening Ceremony for the 2004 Summer Olympics. For recruiting purposes, her office is full of things that flout her accomplishments, but she says it’s the connections to former players and teammates that she’s most proud of.
“I have players who I coached who are in their 30s and they’re some of my best friends,” she said. “When your players become your best friends, some of them are confidantes. That’s when it comes full circle. I could have easily have walked away from basketball after my playing career and it would have been fulfilling. Now that I am taking on a new career as a coach, the fulfillment grows every time we see one of our players graduate.”