A New Dawn

A New Dawn

For South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley, with age comes wisdom, a tiny dog and hopefully, a second NCAA championship.

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."

Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley and South Carolina poet (and Staley superfan) Nikky Finney get real about basketball, power and what legacy really means.

"Soft" is not a word Staley particularly likes. "I get a lot of help around here," she says wanly, gesturing to the coaching staff outside her office. Assistance that makes her "uncomfortable."

"I don't want to get in the mode of having help every which way I turn. I think it weakens you. And I don't ever want to be looked at as being weak," Staley says as she flashes a look of moderate disgust, her eyes narrowing. "To grow as a person, you have to make yourself uncomfortable."

Staley is suspicious of easy; she feels in her gut that effort rewards, laziness kills and discipline is the lover that will never let you down. She favors a tough row, savors the character it builds. To Staley, going soft is as foolish as pants on a pig.

"It's a pet peeve," she acknowledges. "If a player shows signs of weakness, I sometimes have to walk away. Because I don't understand. And you're not going to make me understand. You got cramps? You had a hard test today?" She laughs. "I know I can come off as being not empathetic. I have mean looks." Staley pulls an exaggerated grimace, laughs again. "I just know how I would handle things, and it's wrong for me to project, but that's my mode."

Her players can attest to that.

"If she tells me to do something on the court and I'm out of it, she really can't stand it," explains Wilson. "She likes to yell. I could do something great, she's still yelling."

"If she's not yelling at me, then I'm not doing something right," seconds point guard Tyasha Harris.

Staley is no tyrant. Her brain just can't compute not giving your all, all of the time. There are those who don't suffer fools. And then there is coach Dawn Staley, a woman downright allergic to nonsense. "Most people, they work around conditions." She says the last word like she's spitting poison from her mouth.

Staley is not hobbled by circumstance. She registers adversity the way a statue registers weather. Impervious. Impenetrable. It's a handy stratagem as she prepares to defend South Carolina's NCAA title this month, battling long odds, external criticism and long-buried internal trials.

"Dawn tells people, when you disrespect the game, the game disrespects you," says longtime friend Angela O'Neal, a lawyer and the director of operations for Innersole, the sneaker charity Staley co-founded. "She really believes that."

In 2017, Dawn Staley became the second African-American to coach a women's team to an NCAA title. (The first was Carolyn Peck of Purdue in 1999.) Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

FOR STALEY, COACHING is akin to acting as minister in the church of ball. It's a method and a mindset Staley has honed to unassailable excellence since her childhood in the Raymond Rosen projects of Philadelphia, a hard-knock place she embraced. "People that didn't live there would look in, think it was poor, trashy." Staley felt differently. She was not trying to get out of North Philly. She was trying to inhabit. To grow where she was planted, a born point guard, sizing up and seizing on the resources around her and forging them into greatness -- herself included.

"We would make a crate court in the street between the buildings," she recalls. "Cut the bottom out of milk crates and nail them to the light poles for a backboard."

Then Staley would stay outside and shoot until she could no longer see the basket. "I didn't even come in the house to eat. I'd go to the corner store, get three chicken wings and some cheese fries. That way I could play longer."

Clarence and Estelle Staley moved to North Philadelphia from South Carolina in the 1950s, when they were still teenagers. They married young and in 1967 moved into a three-bedroom, single-bath row house, where they raised five kids -- three boys, two girls, the youngest their daughter Dawn.

"I was a really good student, because if I got good grades, my mom would let me play basketball. I feared my mother. She didn't spare the rod. I had parameters." Life lessons taught, Staley recalls, "through beatings, extension cords, switches. We called them switches. Pick your switch, pick your switch."

Staley rarely suffered lashings, staying on the straight and narrow. "I was really close to my mother," she says. Even as a kid, she welcomed order, restraint, sensed the long tail of personal responsibility. "I'm thankful. Because the life lessons taught in my house? They stuck. My parents made me. My foundation is rooted in discipline. They gave me that."

Her self-control was aided in part by her profound natural shyness: "I don't think I'm normal. I'm socially inept. I still don't have very many friends. As a kid, I was really closed. Quiet. I expressed myself through my game. I thought that should be good enough for people to understand."

On the project courts, Staley played only with boys. "I would take my basketball and say, 'You guys can't use my ball unless I'm in the game,'" she says. In the beginning, her pickup teammates would dismiss her, tease "about how I need to be in a kitchen somewhere, that type of crap, like, 'Go put on a skirt.'" But then Staley would play and the comments would stop. "I had to let them know that I was serious about what I was doing."

Even from girlhood, Staley's seriousness was clear from space. At 10 years old, she joined the Police Athletic League, traveling neighborhood to neighborhood playing with the boys' team. "I considered myself one of the guys. That's where I learned thick skin." In middle school, she received her first letter of college interest, from an Ivy League school, her soon-to-be storied future unfolding before it had even begun.

“I'm indebted to the game, I owe basketball. I mean, look at me.”

Dawn Staley

In short order, she became USA high school player of the year, going on to lead three Final Four teams at the University of Virginia, then three Olympic gold-medal teams, receiving her first gold in 1996 in Atlanta at age 26. After playing eight pro seasons (for Houston and Charlotte) and being an All-Star six times, Staley ranks fifth overall in career assists per game and was named by the WNBA as one of its 15 most influential players of all time, before reluctantly entering coaching in 2000 on a virtual dare to save Temple's program (she did), becoming the then-winningest coach in the school's history.

Staley was named the U.S. women's national team coach for 2017-20 during the same season she led South Carolina to a championship, becoming the second African-American to coach a women's team to an NCAA title. (Carolyn Peck coached Purdue to the 1999 title and gave Staley a piece of her championship net, which she carried in her purse for years.) Shortly after bringing home the NCAA trophy, Staley commissioned miniature replicas for every former player, coach and teammate she'd worked with since high school, adding a plaque on the back engraved, simply, "Because of you."

When she landed in Columbia in 2008, wooed from Temple by a fresh challenge, Staley made it a priority to involve the community in the game, to make a team of the whole town, Philly style. Her door was always open. Her phone never went unanswered. She worked to make people feel a part of something bigger than themselves, a part of victory. Her team mantra, "We All We Got, We All We Need," reinforcing her intention to coach up rather than just import stars.

Her efforts paid off. The Gamecocks' fan base tripled over three seasons, and, for 2016-17, South Carolina led the nation in women's basketball attendance, averaging 12,277 per game. (Enthusiasm likely will continue after the team snagged a record fourth SEC championship this month.) When introducing Staley as South Carolina's new coach in 2008, then-athletic director Eric Hyman recited a list of her career accomplishments. It took him four and a half minutes.

Still, South Carolina almost passed on Staley. Her bashfulness a concern. Remembers friend O'Neal: "It became a question of, 'Look, do you want a coach that's going to coach basketball, or do you want someone that's going to drink bourbon with the donors? If you want a basketball coach, you hire Dawn Staley.'"

Staley shakes off any whiff of pride. "I'm just a product of my neighborhood," she says. "My head doesn't get too big."

She pauses, glances around her office, evidence of achievement shoved in every nook and cranny. She clarifies that she is proud but not prideful. Those university posters featuring her face as big as a car door? She walks right past them.

"I don't like the light shone on me. That's why I've never liked shooting free throws. I like to get lost in the dribbling and moving. I hated even taking a layup."

She remembers her UVa coach pushing her to confront her introversion during a college rebounding drill in which players were required to shout "Rebound!" or "I got it!" when they made contact with the ball. Try as she might, Staley couldn't utter the words.

"And Coach said something like, 'Oh, what, you think you're too good to talk?'" The charge cut deep. "I never want to come off as being elitist. That's so far from who I am and where I grew up and just my existence." The next time, Staley yelled "Rebound!"

Though she's grown in the 20 years since, Staley confides that every home game when the Gamecocks emerge from the locker room through the tunnel to storm the court, her stomach still flips. She wishes it didn't.

"I'm indebted to the game, I owe basketball. I mean, look at me. But I started playing because I needed an outlet. I was extremely competitive, probably dangerously competitive. I didn't like losing. And some of that still is very well in me."

Staley reaches down, lifts Champ to her lap, gives him a squeeze.

In the early days of Staley's decade-long career at South Carolina, there were no dogs on the court at practice. Now, her Havanese puppy, Champ, follows her everywhere.

AT PRACTICE, STALEY wears black sweats, a black performance shirt, We Are Gamecocks screen-printed down the spine. Her hair is pulled high and tight in a ponytail. Diamond hoops dangle from her ears.

As she paces the court, she coughs repeatedly into her shoulder, nursing a bug she has neither the time nor the inclination to mention. She pops a Werther's butterscotch, shoves the wrapper into her pocket.

During drills, Staley claps, points, yells, mimes calling a foul, folds her arms across her chest, Sarcophagus style. She shifts her weight from foot to foot. Balls her fists. Grinds her toes into the wood floor.

"Lord help us," she mutters after a missed block. Her voice raspy, deep, like a long-lost member of TLC, like she's been shouting her whole life. "No one thinks you're shooting the ball," she says, louder now. "Come on! You gotta do better." The next drill, they do. "That's not bad, that's not bad," Staley offers, high praise, sucking a second butterscotch.

Walking off court while the team runs laps, Staley checks out injured player Bianca Cuevas-Moore's manicure. "Lee Press Ons?" she quips. Cuevas-Moore cuts her a goofy look, scrunches her forehead. They compare nails until Staley's attention shifts back to the court where Wilson has missed a shot after penetrating a screen to the basket. "I don't mind that," Staley hollers.

She'll take an error if the intention is right, preferring failed efforts to happy accidents, a loss that teaches to a victory they didn't earn. Staley is big-picture that way. Lessons for life. If the highlight of her players' lives is playing for her, even netting the national championship, then she will have failed. She wants to be a stepping-stone, a building block, a launching pad. She nurses the roots, undistracted by the flowers. More than anything, Staley wants her girls to win the long game, not just those they play for her. It is this care and generosity that make her players past and present willing to follow her off a cliff.

"Sometimes she can be misperceived as edgy," says WNBA legend Tamika Catchings, who recalls observing teammate Staley at the 2002 world championship, "how she carried herself, always professional." Even with all the stars on that team, Catchings says, "Dawn wasn't really worried about people liking her. A lot of people are concerned they are liked. People respected her for who she was."

Catchings also credits Staley with showing her how to lead.

"She made sure everybody felt important but also that everybody did their job. She wrapped all of us under her arms. She said what was more important than my game was my heart off the court."

Veteran All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw holds a similar memory of Staley, from her time training with USA Basketball when Holdsclaw was just 24.

"The coach of the team said something to me to get me in line, and it broke my spirit," she recalls. "Dawn pulled me aside and said, 'Just follow my lead.' Like, let me help you. She taught me how to be receptive, to compete in a different way. I knew she was there for me. Every time I was on the court. I looked to her. And I wasn't worried about anything else."

Staley has no patience for excuses. She says she wants her players to see the bigger picture -- and know that they're a part of something larger than themselves. Tim Gangloff/CSM/AP Photo

To be a good point guard is to be everything to every player. To intuit who needs what in any second. To be the cheerleader, the scold, the shrink, the drill sergeant, the big sister, the boss. Staley holds similar sway over her current charges, most of whom describe her as a "second mom."

"You have to stay after them. Even when you know it's bothersome," Staley says of her players. "I look at it as service to them."

For their part, her players know that, as tough as Staley is, she remains toughest on herself. And her loyalty is the stuff of legend.

"She was captain of the Olympic team," Holdsclaw says. "But she was also the chick from your neighborhood, the girl from North Philly. Like, she said, 'My name is not Dawn, it's Doooyne.'" Holdsclaw chuckles. "She knows the game. But she also knows life. You put those two together, that's powerful."

Practice ends. On the way out of the stadium, Champ pees on the hallway floor. Staley drops her bag, quickly finds a roll of paper towels, mops it up. Back in her office, Staley refills his water bowl, then takes a seat on the couch. She says she's not working out as much as she used to. Swallows hard. Coughs into her palm. She decides she has something she wants to share. A secret she's kept largely to herself for the past 18 months, not wanting to be a bother, not wanting to cause alarm.

"The pain started in August 2016 at the Rio Olympics," she begins, before detailing a near year and a half of agony from mysterious, debilitating chest cramping that was eventually diagnosed as pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining surrounding the heart.

At first, Staley found she couldn't exercise without doubling over. Reluctant to call attention to herself, she ignored the discomfort, pushed through. Then the episodes grew more frequent, more intense. "I was OD'ing on Tylenol. It debilitated me. I'm in the bed, I can't move, it hurt to even try to get comfortable."

Over the 2016-17 Gamecocks season, Staley sneaked away to specialists, got checked for digestive issues, acid reflux, lupus. She visited a pulmonary doctor, got an endoscopy. "Finally, I went to a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, a cardiologist, we did an MRI, and they said: You have a classic case of pericarditis."

"The doctor said, 'We're going to put you in the hospital,'" O'Neal recalls, having traveled with Staley to the appointment for moral support. "And Dawn's immediate reaction was, 'I'm not leaving my team. What's Option B?'"

In addition to the buckling pain, pericarditis sucks your energy, makes sound sleep nearly impossible. O'Neal remembers watching Staley at games, doubled over in her chair, coaching through the misery. "The kids didn't know; no one knew. All she cared about was work."

Staley didn't even share with her family. "I don't like to lean on them that way," she says.

The prescription was rest. Staley was told she couldn't exercise, couldn't lift anything, not even her purse. She couldn't fly. Advice she shelved. During one episode at Louisville, her chest constricted so much she couldn't talk. At her next checkup, Staley's numbers terrible, the doctor scolded her, warned of permanent damage or worse. He recommended surgery.

"I told him we're right in the middle of the season," Staley says flatly.

Instead, Staley took Prednisone, gained 15 pounds, gutted out the illness and won a national championship, never letting on that she'd done it while battling a crippling illness so pernicious that it left her breathless. She didn't want attention drawn away from the team. She didn't want to become the story. She didn't want to be seen as weak.

"The only reason I'm sharing now is that maybe it will help someone else with the same problem," she explains. (Though she will be vulnerable to flare-ups her whole life, the pericarditis is, as of last month, under control with medication and checkups every two weeks with her physician.)

"I consider myself an odds beater. That's probably what I want on my tombstone."

She says she'd like to be buried next to her mother, in South Carolina.

"But make no mistake, I'm a Philly girl through and through."

Later that night, Staley is the guest of honor at the "Carolina Calls" radio show, broadcast from the dining room of Wild Wing Cafe, a nearby sports bar. She arrives in a literal flash, running up at the last minute to rapturous applause. Staley takes the mic and explains that she was caught up at the Gamecocks' softball game versus North Carolina.

"I did my best to make it on time. On the way here, I even honked!" she says, breathless, as the crowd cheers.

The hour passes quickly, Staley answering questions from fans, posing for pictures, signing posters and balls during breaks. She speaks on strategy, gets granular, an unrivaled student of the game. Most of the callers are Southern men, good ol' boys, their respect palpable, deferring to her expertise.

The show ends, and Staley lingers, talking to diners, including a family that has driven three hours just to see her. She smiles at every visitor, meets his or her eye, listens to long-winded, down-home stories and entertains dubious game theory without a flicker of impatience. Phones snap pictures and record video, as Staley the wallflower, a woman for whom two words is a long conversation, works the room like a bride.

Staley and star senior A'ja Wilson, third from left, will be seeking to defend their 2017 NCAA championship this month. Gerry Melendez for ESPN

EVERY GAME DAY, Staley hangs an inspirational memo for the players. Tonight's against LSU reads in part, "What we do is who we are!" And, "Do not focus on the emotions of points, rebounds and championships won. Focus on the people you are and how you will leave this place better than you found it. That is what legacy is."

The evening's matchup is the Gamecocks' senior night, and emotions are at high tide, particularly for A'ja Wilson, whose final appearance has occasioned an outbreak of her signature pearls draped over every seat. (And around Champ's furry neck.)

"Coach is literally my rock," Wilson gushes, feeling the moment. "Our bond is unbreakable."

Staley, for her part, is keeping her sentiment under wraps, focusing on the task at hand, swallowing her anxiety about the pregame photo ops with the mayor and other luminaries attending Wilson's send-off. She's dressed for the occasion in a cream flared jacket, maroon lace blouse and flared pants, Louboutin ankle strap stilettos. Her glasses are mod black frames, her hair down, a picture of cool elegance. An image all the more striking given the news that broke an hour before tip-off: that Staley is suing Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk for defamation.

The suit, not to exceed $75,000 in damages, is about reputation not money. After a volatile Jan. 28 game at South Carolina, Sterk said in a radio interview two days later that Mizzou "had players spit on and called the N-word" by South Carolina fans, adding, "I mean it was not a good environment, and unfortunately, I think Coach Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere. And it's unfortunate that she felt she had to do that." He repeated the allegations in an interview with 101 ESPN in St. Louis on Feb. 1.

A subsequent internal South Carolina investigation conducted by athletic director Ray Tanner showed no evidence that the fans had in fact done what Sterk claimed. A second SEC-led review is ongoing. (Shortly after news broke of Staley's lawsuit, Sterk was fined $25,000 for making comments violating the conference's code of ethics.)

This is not the first time Sterk has accused a woman coach of unsavory behavior. In 2016, his prior employer San Diego State was forced to pay former women's basketball coach Beth Burns $3.36 million after losing a wrongful termination suit. Burns had flagged Title IX violations at the school. Sterk, then San Diego's AD, fired her, alleging he'd uncovered abusive behavior toward subordinates despite Burns' excellent performance.

"For me, I had no choice," Burns told reporters after her victory. "They were saying that I hit somebody, that I was a bad person, and I just couldn't live with at least not trying to clear my name."

Staley feels the same. Her official comment on the case is a resolute "no comment." But it's clear she believes that what Sterk did went beyond trash-talking. He vilified the fans, which, although low-rent, is hardly criminal. But when he put her name in his mouth, using it as a weapon to disparage not just a whole program but also an entire life lived under the unforgiving glare of "representation," well, that tipped not just into defamation but also into her ability to execute her job.

Says O'Neal: "If I Google Dawn Staley at some point in five years, and that statement isn't retracted, people are going to think that she caused a mini riot at the basketball game. How does that sound to a prospect for recruiting?"

Moreover, O'Neal continues, "Dawn is our Olympic coach. She is a three-time gold medalist. She carried the flag for our country. Little girls come up to her, want to be around her, just to touch her spirit. You can't find a flaw in her record. And people think she should just lie down and let this man insult her like that?" O'Neal exhales, shakes her head. "That's plantation mentality. Why are they complaining? They got to eat today."

"What Sterk did is tacky," adds Holdsclaw. "He should apologize. The idea that Dawn would do anything like that is crazy. But that's how it is. You're always fighting, as a woman, as a person of color, it's always something."

Recently South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster tweeted: "Anything short of a full retraction & apology from @SEC and @Mizzou is an insult to every South Carolinian. @dawnstaley is GOLD MEDAL role model for our daughters and sons. We stand with Dawn," echoing popular opinion -- outside of Missouri, at least -- that firmly favors Staley.

Even so, there are those who see the suit as petty, small, pointless, ill-considered, girlie. A battle Staley shouldn't fight and can't win. Those people miss the point.

"My story is a beacon of hope for someone who looks like me, who grew up like me, to help them, you know, see that they can," Staley explains.

Sterk tried to dim that light. And that, Staley will not abide.

Tonight, though, during the game versus LSU, Staley, who labels herself "a master compartmentalist," is focused only on the 94 feet in front of her. Watching from the bench, she registers every disappointment. Even as the Gamecocks are up 10, Staley sighs, drops her head, her mind a computer that can't quit logging data. When LeLe Grissett comes off the court, Staley warmly pats her arm as she passes, never taking her eyes off the game. During a timeout, she takes a dry-erase pen to the play board as if carving wood.

Soon enough, the Gamecocks win 57-48. After the game, Staley directs all media questions about the lawsuit to her attorney. She says that the team wasn't good today. That it's back to the drawing board.

Media obligations done, she huddles in the dimly lit hallway with Wilson's parents, smiling and marveling at how far they've come.

Back home, Staley often sorts laundry to calm her mind. "I fold like I work at the Gap," she jokes. "I got that from my mother. I can do a fitted sheet straight out of Restoration Hardware."

Staley is in the middle of a small renovation, building out the attic as a master closet for her clothes and shoes, which she keeps neatly labeled in boxes with Polaroids on the front. "I'm very impulsive," she says of her shopping habit. Prada, Balenciaga, Gucci, Tom Ford. Louboutin. All saved for game days and recruiting, a facet of the job she has recently made peace with.

"When you're recruiting, they want you to show the perfect scenery," she says. Staley is not about the shiny sell. "I'm completely honest. You're going to come to South Carolina because you feel who I am. Honest, uncensored me."

South Carolina has already lost two top recruits to UConn this year, including No. 1 Christyn Williams and No. 5 Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Staley doesn't linger on the lost hopes. She's a point guard. She'll take the ingredients she has and make a gumbo to die for.

"Most coaches, they tell you what you want to hear to get you there," Tyasha Harris says. "But with her it was real. Coach told me it was going to be a struggle. Nothing is going to get handed to you. But when the time comes, you're going to be one of the greats.

"Sooner or later, basketball's going to stop," Harris continues. "And I feel like, when it does, she'll help me wherever I want to be."

Staley sees the big picture because she has to. Women can't expect greatness to be enough. So they look ahead. They go long. They pitch themselves into the future, one hand behind them, pulling other women up.

"I know this woman who wrote the families of every person that died in 9/11," Staley says. "She wrote over 3,000 people personal, handwritten letters. That hits me in places where most people can't touch."

Says Staley: "My story is a beacon of hope for someone who looks like me, who grew up like me, to help them, you know, see that they can."

THE NEXT DAY at work, Staley and Champ make the rounds before settling into her office. When asked what she does for fun, Staley mentions riding her motorcycle, attending South Carolina softball games. In the stands, Staley observes the workers who mind the field. Watches as they spray the turf, paint the lines. The precision moves her, fills her with stirring appreciation.

On a small table, among water bottles, work folders and dog treats, rests the memorial booklet of her mother's passing in August at 74 years old. In it, nestled between joyful, tight photos of Staley and her siblings huddled around Estelle, is the Maya Angelou poem, "When Great Trees Fall." An ode to the loss of souls that matter, the yawning space left when lions leave this earth.

They existed, Angelou writes in the final lines. Of legacy, of what remains of a life lived right.

They existed

We can be. Be and be

better. For they existed

Allison Glock has been a writer with ESPN for more than 15 years. The author of seven books, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Outside, Men's Journal and many other publications. She has also written and produced for television and is currently developing a series with A&E.