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."
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.
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."
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.
We can be. Be and bebetter. 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.