DAWN STALEY STARTS the game against Stanford on the bench. Clad in a Burberry hoodie, the South Carolina women's basketball coach claps and encourages the Gamecocks from her seated position, occasionally getting up to relay instructions or give a referee an earful. You know, as she does.
It's a brisk December night in Columbia, just a few days before Christmas, and No. 1 South Carolina is hosting No. 2 and reigning national champion Stanford in a rematch of the 2021 national semifinals. The holiday cheer quickly dissipates in Colonial Life Arena as the Cardinal bury South Carolina under an 18-point deficit in the second quarter. Clutching a rolled-up piece of paper, Staley furiously points to the spots on the floor where she wants her players to go. Doubling as a stress ball and operating as an extension of her hand, this poor rolled-up tube is getting crushed underneath the pressure of Staley's palm. South Carolina's scars from the tournament loss a season ago might never heal, but a win on this night would certainly help. Though the scoreboard is increasingly making even that look unlikely.
As South Carolina begins to chip away at Stanford's lead in the third quarter, Staley rises to her feet. She stomps, clenches her arms and shakes the paper in her hand. For good measure, she pulls her mask down just to make sure her team can hear what she's saying. You know, so there ain't no misunderstanding. She demands more from her team, and she's matching their energy.
Staley occupies a unique place in women's basketball. The star player-turned-star coach built South Carolina from an SEC afterthought to a perennial championship contender that has led the nation in attendance every season since 2015. As a Black woman with a youthful spirit who has accomplished everything her players hope to accomplish for themselves, Staley reflects possibility. She's a champion, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, an advocate for fellow Black coaches. She's been called "America's point guard" by the only other Black woman to coach a Division I women's basketball national champion, Carolyn Peck.
Staley reflects possibility, but she now needs her players to absorb it. Five years after winning their first national title, South Carolina and Staley are still seeking a second. There have been deep runs, heartbreaks and a COVID-19-canceled tournament, but a coach with Staley's substance -- and style -- certainly requires an encore or two (or three or four). This team, this group of players, has the goods to do it. She reflects. They must absorb. On this night, at last, they do. South Carolina rallies from 18 points down, the biggest comeback in program history, and preserves its perfect season with a 65-61 victory. Staley bows to the crowd, walks onto the court and delivers a few pats on the back to her players.
Staley's time in the sport has created an endless stream of wisdom. Sometimes that stream takes the form of a tranquil fountain for her players to soak up, and sometimes it sprays upon her players like a fire hose.
"She loves on them hard," associate head coach and longtime confidante Lisa Boyer says. "She's playful with them, she's hugging them, she's there for them. I think they sense the fairness. I think they sense the genuineness of her. She speaks to them -- it's not some fairy tale. She's telling them the deal."
It's the hug she gives a struggling Zia Cooke ahead of a conference game; the crashing of Destanni Henderson's postgame interview following a win; the legendary burgers off her home grill (says Aliyah Boston, "I'm not in her business and I don't want to be in her business, but I will eat those burgers"). But it's also the insistence on accountability after an unexpected loss; the demand for discipline after a close win; the benching of a budding star for the greater good of the team. Fountain and fire hose; swim upstream and go with the flow. It's what she expects of them, and it's what the game, she says, expects of her.
"I owe basketball," Staley says. "I'm forever indebted to it. It engulfed my life for the positive. The game has gotten more of my time than my friends and my family. I feel like on a smaller or larger scale, it can impact my players' lives in some kind of way."
STALEY GREW UP in North Philadelphia as the youngest of five children to her parents, Clarence and Estelle. Staley cut her hoop-head teeth on the legendary Philly asphalt, often playing with boys. She'd bring her ball to the court and withhold it unless they let her play too.
As a guard at Dobbins Technical High School, Staley rose to national prominence. She was named the national player of the year by USA Today in 1988. She embodied the discipline she learned from her parents by putting a rubber band on one wrist. She'd snap it each time she committed a turnover.
"She'd have welts on her wrists," says former University of Virginia teammate Tammi Reiss.
Reiss, who still likes to refer to Staley as "Dawnie," now coaches at the University of Rhode Island. She met Staley when they were high schoolers. They both attended Mike Flynn's Blue Star Invitational Camp, which was still in its infancy in the mid-1980s. "She was a bit of a celebrity," Reiss recalls.
After the day camp, the top players scrimmaged at night in front of college coaches. It was during those games that Reiss got to know Staley, both the player and the person. During the day, despite the stream of people always approaching her to say hi, Staley wouldn't say much. "She was very shy," Reiss says.
Reiss and Staley ended up at the University of Virginia, first in the same suite with different roommates. They eventually traded their roommates in for each other. Staley and Reiss were both night owls and mischievous. And, well, their original roommates were not. "They were like old ladies," Reiss says. "They were in bed by 10 p.m."
As a student at Virginia, Staley started off as the same shy player Reiss met at camp. She hated doing news conferences and interviews; she didn't seek the spotlight. But on the court, she dazzled. Staley led Virginia to three straight Final Four appearances. Each time, however, she came up short. All of those losses were painful, but the 1991 championship loss against Tennessee in overtime was the worst. Since 1982, it is one of just two championship games to go into overtime. Three decades later, former Virginia head coach Debbie Ryan still doesn't like talking about it. "We had that game taken away from us," Ryan says. "It was gut-wrenching."
Staley was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, but she fixated on the result. Reiss would often find Staley reviewing that game in her apartment, pouring over the grainy VHS. "It was over and over," Reiss says.
That championship proved elusive for Staley, but eventually she felt what it was like to cut down the net. It just wasn't where she expected. Or in the role she expected.
STALEY PULLS HER jacket close as she hurries to get out of the rain. It's Jan. 3, and although she has flipped the calendar to 2022, she's not yet ready to close the book on 2021. Champ, her 4-year-old Havanese, scurries in front of her toward the door. She brushes off the raindrops as she enters the South Carolina women's basketball offices alongside Boyer.
Boyer was the head coach of the American Basketball League's Richmond Rage when Staley was assigned to the team in 1996, a move designed to capitalize on Staley's name recognition in Virginia thanks to her career in Charlottesville. Boyer coached Staley until the ABL folded in 1998. Staley went on to be drafted ninth overall by the Charlotte Sting in the 1999 WNBA draft. Boyer landed in Cleveland as a Rockers assistant coach. That's where she was in 2000 when Staley, 29 at the time, called her to talk shop. Temple, Staley said, wanted her to coach the women's basketball team there.
"I'm like, 'Hell, no, you're not doing that,'" Boyer says. When Staley told her that Temple wanted her to go in and talk during the 2000 women's Final Four, which was in Philadelphia, Boyer was adamant. "I said, 'Do not take it,'" Boyer says now, almost laughing as she tells the story. Because she knows, as we all do, how it ended.
Staley took the job at Temple -- while still playing in the WNBA. And she really wanted Boyer to go with her, but Boyer had no intentions of leaving her job with Cleveland. Staley, however, was insistent. She tried in the summer of 2000 to get Boyer. No dice. She tried again in 2001. Boyer declined again. In the spring and summer of 2002, she called almost every day. "Doesn't even say hello," Boyer says. "'You comin' to Temple? You comin' to Temple?'"
Boyer relented just in time for the 2002-03 season, but on one condition. "I'll come, but we got to try to win a national championship,'" Boyer said.
"Boyer," Staley responded, "that's what we're going to do."
It took a few seasons -- 14 to be exact -- and a relocation, but now whenever Boyer and Staley enter their offices, as they do on this Jan. 3 morning, they pass South Carolina's 2017 national championship trophy sitting encased in a cylindrical tower of glass just outside the entrance to the women's basketball office. And just as Staley sent a piece of the net to every Black woman coach in Division I, she sent a replica national trophy to all of her former players at South Carolina and Temple, along with her University of Virginia teammates, at her own expense. Each one has a plaque inscribed with the words "Because of you."
Shuffling papers in her office, Staley takes a seat behind her desk. Champ laps at the water and chows down the food Staley put in his bowls resting in the middle of the office floor. The coffee table in one corner of the rectangular room is cluttered with books. A tote with the words "My vice president is a woman" rests on a chair. Each of Staley's three Olympic No. 5 jerseys hangs framed on the wall -- a reminder of where she's been and where she wants her players to go. A photo of her with former President Barack Obama sits by her printer, just out of view for everyone but her.
She combs her hair into a tight ponytail before sipping on a skinny vanilla latte, a recent switch from a skinny caramel macchiato. Her hair is jet black except for the few hints of gray visible only from a few feet away. Today is a good day. The night before, South Carolina rebounded from its lone loss of the season -- a stunning 70-69 defeat to unranked Missouri on Dec. 30 -- with an 80-68 victory over Mississippi State. And there's good news out of Philly, too:
"The Eagles are in the playoffs," Staley says.
As the coaching staff files into her office for a debrief of the previous night's win, Staley asks for a few different shot charts. Staley is joined in her office by Boyer, Fred Chmiel and Jolette Law. Chmiel met Staley while he was an assistant for the Charlotte Sting in 2005, Staley's penultimate season playing in the WNBA. He joined Staley's staff at Temple from 2006 to '08 and then rejoined her in Columbia in 2015. Law, a South Carolina native and former Iowa star who started her coaching career in 1994, joined Staley's staff in 2017 after serving as an assistant at Tennessee.
Even though South Carolina wound up with a win against Mississippi State, Staley is not entering this meeting satisfied. "I might change some stuff up," she says.
Staley has an idea, and it's a little different. She's not sure if it's going to work. But as the film session goes on, it becomes clear to Staley that there is a problem. Well, a couple of problems. The first is that Boston, a 6-foot-5 forward, isn't getting as many purposeful touches early enough in the game for Staley's liking. Boston, the favorite to win national player of the year, took only two shots in the first half against Mississippi State. And then there's also the problem of Boston's defender routinely sagging off of her during fast breaks and clogging the lane. Staley wants to move that defender out of there and make the opposing team guard Boston everywhere.
Her solution is to put in a new set. Excuse me, a break, not a set in South Carolina parlance. The back-and-forth between Staley and her admittedly skeptical coaching staff underscores the technical precision in how they all approach coaching. When Staley says the game has gotten more from her than her family, this is the stuff she means. Staley is obsessive about basketball. Her mind is always going. If she didn't put the TV on true crime documentaries before bed, she'd never fall asleep; she'd still be up thinking about this new set. Excuse me, break. It doesn't matter to Staley that she's often highlighted for her top-notch recruiting classes and ability to connect with and motivate players, rather than being praised from a basketball perspective. She knows her commitment to basketball and the debt she's trying to pay.
"I don't really care," Staley says. "For people to even say that is disregarding me as a player. And I think it's coming up more now because we're winning on a bigger stage. You can't have the same success without knowing the game and X-ing and O-ing. It's flattering when you can make the game look as easy that anybody can do it. That's when you've arrived."
Her players know that truth. It's why they signed up to come to South Carolina. All that experience and knowledge lives within Staley and it lives on the walls of her office. "She knows exactly what we're going through because she's already been through it," Boston says. "And having somebody with that much experience, it can only benefit you. She knows what she's talking about."
Often, Staley feels like she makes the right adjustment, but against Missouri just a few days ago, that wasn't the case. She thought that maybe the Gamecocks should try out the zone they'd been working on, just to do something different. She brought it up in a huddle with her staff but ultimately decided against it. The zone wasn't ready. "I did not adjust, because I believed in the things that we did well -- our man-to-man defense," Staley says. "And it wasn't working that night, but it's more of a pride thing too. I'm just like, 'This is what we do -- don't falter.'"
Missouri. That game, that loss, is omnipresent in the days after. Staley approaches her coaching through three simple words: look, sound, feel. And Missouri didn't feel good. It still doesn't. Losing is something Staley cannot abide. "I'm a sore loser," she says. It eats her up. And the Missouri loss, the only one to date for South Carolina this season, is staying with her. "We seem to lose at Missouri a lot over the past couple of years."
There's history with Missouri, both on the court and off. There are the four losses in Columbia, Missouri, a 2018 on-court brawl, Staley getting ejected, a war of words, a lawsuit that resulted in a $50,000 settlement for Staley, half of which went to her attorneys and half to her Innersole foundation. South Carolina and Missouri have been drama city. So the fact that South Carolina has only lost one game this season and it came against a short-handed Missouri squad in the other Columbia is at once unsurprising, and, for Staley, deeply annoying.
"I always thank God for the wins and losses," Staley says. "I was so mad after the Missouri game that after a few days I'm just like, 'Really, I ain't even think about God.' I didn't because I wanted that one. As much as I pray and as much as I know who's the leading force in my life, for a moment, I just blacked out and I couldn't snap out of it because it was just all me. And if I thought about my higher power, I could have snapped out of it a little bit quicker."
Sitting behind her desk, she talks as if she's gotten over the Missouri loss. She hasn't, though. Tomorrow is going to be a fire hose kind of a day.
A GREEN STARBUCKS stirrer clenched between her teeth, Staley sits in a cushioned, black folding chair with her legs crossed, and the scouting report for the Jan. 6 game at LSU rests in her lap. Champ curls up on the floor next to her. Team members are scattered in front of her in their own chairs facing the two large television screens anchored to a wall in the film area of South Carolina's practice facility at the Carolina Coliseum. Before diving into LSU, however, Staley and the coaching staff first want to confront the mistakes -- and show off the good stuff too -- made during the Mississippi State game two nights before.
As Chmiel moves through the clips, Staley calls out commentary, bringing attention to what she sees as most important. When junior guard Brea Beal cuts to the basket and scores thanks to a seal from sophomore transfer Kamilla Cardoso, Staley is elated. "It's the little things," she says.
She praises good execution, and needles when it's lacking. As Chmiel rolls the tape on the game's turnovers, a continuous source of frustration for the coaching staff, Staley waits for her players to say something. Anything.
"How do we get better?" she asks.
"I need an answer," she demands when no one answers. "I'm not just asking."
Senior guard Destiny Littleton speaks up. "Can't just go through the motions."
Staley nods her approval, and Chmiel resumes the film. Not five minutes later, in the middle of a section highlighting offensive execution from South Carolina, Staley chews faster on the stirrer still resting in a corner of her mouth. She's stewing. Something doesn't feel right.
"Y'all turn the page too fast," she says. The group is quiet. The comment doesn't apply to the specific moment on film. They aren't talking about turnovers anymore, and it's not immediately clear what Staley is talking about. Then it becomes very clear. Staley is talking about Missouri -- the loss Staley said she was over yesterday -- and how the Gamecocks responded immediately after that loss.
"We lose to Missouri and we're worried about sandwiches?!" she says. "If losing doesn't take your f---in' appetite away, you're playing the wrong sport and your goals will not be met."
Your goals will not be met. That's what this is about -- a championship, but more than that. It's not just about the goals each player has for the season; it's about the goals each player has for herself. Goals Staley desperately wants them to achieve. But she needs them to invest now, in this season, and that's what is lacking in this moment.
She calls out senior forward Victaria Saxton for the improvement she has made. She praises Boston for her hard work and commitment. And she tells the story of how when Henderson, Henny for short, was a sophomore, Staley told her she'd be coming off the bench, even when she was good enough to start.
"What you say, Henny?" Staley asks. Henderson doesn't respond loudly. Staley chuckles. "She don't say much."
Staley continues to the lesson of the day. "Find out who your favorite is on this team and ask yourself why," she says. "And then start doing those things. People in here got stories and testimonies. Time to tap in."
In this moment, getting the most out of all of her players is a challenge for Staley. They aren't quite responding the way she wants them to, not executing at the level she expects them to. And not everyone is getting it. That's what she was talking about during the film session.
"They want you to play them without the work, without the discipline, without the success, without the data that backs up why you play," Staley says. "It's weird. I can't get them to understand. I can't get that part of it. I can make them come to [my office]; I don't want to, though. I want it to be them, so they can know later on in life, whether they're playing professionally or in a different profession, that when you take the initiative, you're showing somebody you want more."
Demanding the effort, the commitment and the discipline is the hallmark of Staley's coaching style. "She doesn't relax, she wants the best for us," Henderson says. "So anything she feels, she's going to get off her chest. I feel like those challenges help mold us, and help mentally and physically make us stronger."
The expectations, however, are also clear. Staley provides a blueprint. She tells you where she wants you to go, and what she wants you to do. "Coach Staley's very simple," Boston says. "Do what she says. If she says set a screen and roll, I'm setting a screen and roll. I don't even care who's in my way. I'm getting down there."
Simple. Boston reiterates that word a few times, and it's one of Staley's favorites. It calls back to a moment in practice, where South Carolina was running through a set -- an actual set, not a break -- but the guards kept throwing up shots when Staley wanted them to pass into the high post.
"On this play," she said. "I want a post touch. It's simple."
When they executed it properly, she let them know she was happy. Simple.
"These young people, that's how they operate now. But if you add a little old school to it, it works out," Staley smirks, a barely perceptible twinkle in her eye. "A little old school doesn't hurt anybody."
HOURS BEFORE STALEY and the Gamecocks depart for their game at LSU -- a game in which they would squeak out a six-point win after trailing throughout the first half -- freshman Sania Feagin walks into the film area for a final session to prepare for Kim Mulkey's Tigers. As Feagin starts to settle in, Staley calls out.
"Ankle works today!" Staley says, chuckling at her own joke. "Thought we'd have to get you a wheelchair yesterday."
Feagin rolled the ankle in the previous day's practice. The whole practice stopped and she was supported as she limped off the court. Staley led the team in a chorus of "Walk It Out," as Feagin was able to walk.
Feagin looks over to Littleton for help. "It was pretty dramatic," Littleton says.
There's more drama when the players move to the court for drills. Staley tries to pry more and more out of them. More effort. More focus. A second national championship, Staley knows, won't come practicing like this. She needs more. More from everyone.
During a timed three-player weave drill, each group of three must make five layups during the time allotted. If they miss a layup, they have to start over from zero. The last group -- Bree Hall, Eniya Russell and Cooke -- struggles. They have to restart once.
"You've got plenty of time," Staley says. The same group has to restart again. "Now you don't."
As time runs out, the group pulls up, exhausted from running up and down the floor. Staley walks over and gives Cooke instructions for running in the middle. She needs to get out ahead instead of trailing behind. The pep talk both provides help and gives the group some respite. They finish the drill in five consecutive trips. No restart required.
Staley scoots onto the scorer's table on the sideline, Starbucks stirrer hanging out of a corner of her mouth. Champ runs by her feet. She nods as practice continues. "I'm good," she says.