The evolution of Dawn Staley

It's springtime in 1991, and Virginia junior guard Tammi Reiss returns home to a rerun once again. There's her roommate, teammate and close friend, Dawn Staley, viewing the tape of the Cavaliers' 70-67 overtime loss to Tennessee in the national championship game on March 31 of that year.

"Every day for weeks she watched it, over and over," Reiss remembered. "I'd come in from working out, and I'd be like, 'Oh my god, Dawn, you're watching this again?'

"Dawn is a perfectionist, and it just ate her up alive that we didn't win that game. She had to study it. She had to get better. She had to come up with the reason why we lost. It was like, 'Look at this possession, Tammi, what we didn't do.' Right then and there, I should have said, 'This woman is going to be a coach.'"

Twenty-four years later, Staley is indeed a coach and is taking her South Carolina program to its first Women's Final Four. Staley recalls a time she couldn't imagine such a thing, thinking it was a job that wouldn't allow for enough balance in life.

"Not one ounce in me wanted to be a coach," Staley said, chuckling about it now.

She is the first former WNBA player to guide a team to the Final Four. And she's just the second person to both play and be a head coach in this season-ending event, following Kim Mulkey, who played for Louisiana Tech in four Final Fours and has coached Baylor to three.

Staley's Final Fours while a guard at Virginia were in 1990, '91 and '92. Then she played professionally -- overseas, for USA Basketball, in the ABL and then the WNBA -- until 2006. During that time, she managed to squeeze in the start of her coaching career at Temple in 2000.

All of these things are on her Naismith Hall of Fame résumé, which her players have read. Her All-American guard, Tiffany Mitchell, used to watch Staley in person when the WNBA had a franchise in Mitchell's hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina.

So the Gamecocks know all about how a very talented but warily shy young woman went from her hometown of Philadelphia to the University of Virginia to ... well, to the whole rest of the world. Basketball was her passport.

Staley progressed from "almost non-communicative" at the start of her freshman year, according to her college coach, Debbie Ryan, to an ambassador of the sport who is "like the pied piper of Columbia, South Carolina, now."

"Her true personality shines through now and everybody is getting to see it. That's the evolution, and it's a neat thing to watch." Tammi Reiss, on former Virginia teammate Dawn Staley

"If they are 90 years old or 3 years old, they're talking about Dawn there," Ryan said. "She has become a phenomenon at that school and in that region."

Sure, the Gamecocks understand their coach's journey -- or do they? "History" can be dusty and musty, words on a page that convey importance but not vibrancy.

There is a passage near the end of Willa Cather's magnificent ode to a strong woman, "My Antonia," in which narrator Jim Burden tells Antonia's sons, "Sometimes it doesn't occur to boys that their mother was ever young ... I couldn't stand it if you were inconsiderate, or thought of her as if she were just somebody who looked after you."

Jim Burden wants them to envision their mother as young, free-spirited, hopeful, uncertain, curious. In other words, not unlike them.

Those who knew the Dawn Staley who played in the Final Four might feel a little like Burden now, striving to connect the dots for those who don't have those images in their heads. Not because Staley would ever want or need that; her thoughts are focused on facing Sunday's foe, Notre Dame (ESPN/WatchESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET).

But rather because they relish the pride and poignancy that comes with reaching into the past and saying, "I remember when ..."

Two of a kind

Reiss, now an assistant coach at Cal State Fullerton, recounts her first "conversation" with Staley, at a Blue Star camp when they were high school juniors in the 1980s.

"She said, 'Hi,' and walked away," Reiss said, laughing.

Reiss is from New York state and gained the nickname "Hollywood" at Virginia because she was instantly at ease in front of the cameras, chatting with the media, fans or anyone she encountered. Staley was, ostensibly, her complete opposite.

Except, not really. Staley seemed far quieter, more cautious, very insular -- but that was just the wall she put up on the outside. Staley and Reiss didn't live together initially as freshman at Virginia, in the fall of 1988, but soon became roommates.

Because they were both stay-up-all-night-if-we-can goofballs who loved playing pranks on teammates, coaches and each other. Who, at all hours, might say, "Let's go to the rec" to play ball.

"I'm sure the seniors hated us, because they didn't think we were serious enough," Reiss said. "We pranked people so much, it was ridiculous. You know, stealing people's clothes when they were in the shower, shaving-creaming somebody's door, the silliest stuff.

"When we were on the court, though, we were really serious. That was everything to us. But the rest of the time ... those four years at Virginia were some of the best, most fun years of my life, and I know Dawn would say the same thing. She grew up there."

Ryan remembers that early on Staley would talk extensively to her on the phone but clam up in person.

"Right about the middle of her freshman year, she started to open up," Ryan said. "She was so bright and holding so much intelligence inside her, I would talk to her about just saying what she felt. She had a great compass and knew what was right; she sensed the temperature of any situation and how to respond. Dawn saw things that other people didn't see."

There was this dichotomy with Staley that remains now. Ryan said Staley could turn anything into a fierce competition in which she burned to be the best -- from playing cards in the back of the team bus to learning to drive while in college. There was that intensity that provided Staley with nonstop fuel.

Yet the relentless, go-for-the-jugular competitor was the first to spot a lonely soul in a roomful of people and go straight there. Staley was the one who couldn't bypass a senior citizen without making sure he or she was doing OK. The one whom little kids flocked around as if powerfully magnetized to her.

"Dawn is the type who, if she walked into the school cafeteria and saw someone sitting by herself, she'd always go sit with her," Ryan said. "She is empathetic and soft-hearted and always has this thing about inclusion. It's why everyone relates to her, from all walks of life."

A quest in college

Staley's Virginia squads were the kind of teams their fans will never forget. It was the talent, the blend of diverse and humorous personalities, the effervescent peaks and even the tear-filled valleys.

During Staley's time at Virginia, her teammates included current head coaches such as Temple's Tonya Cardoza, who has also been a longtime UConn assistant, and Clemson's Audra Smith. There was the steely Texan, Dena Evans, joining Staley and Reiss in the backcourt. There were the 6-foot-5 Burge sisters from California, Heather and Heidi, who at the time were in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's tallest female identical twins.

"They just had a lot of great, great players," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, whose Huskies battled Virginia in the 1991 national semifinals.

Staley was the consensus national player of the year as a junior and senior, although she didn't care for that hoopla.

"Dawn is very humble and gracious; she's never liked the spotlight," Reiss said. "But she has no choice, because she just happens to be great. She can't help it."

In Staley's first NCAA tournament, in 1989, the Cavaliers were pounded 80-47 in the Sweet 16 by eventual national champion Tennessee.

The next year, though, the Cavaliers handed Tennessee what coach Pat Summitt always called her most painful loss. In the regional final at Norfolk, Virginia, the Cavaliers outlasted Tennessee 79-75 in overtime, preventing the Lady Vols from playing on their home court in the Final Four.

Reiss recalls that victory and the days heading into Virginia's first Final Four as the very best memory of her entire playing career. It was as if the Cavaliers were walking on air all the way to Knoxville, Tennessee, and even a national semifinal loss to eventual champ Stanford didn't ruin it.

After all, Staley and Reiss still had two more years. But that's when the recollections tend to be tinged by regret. The aforementioned overtime loss to Tennessee in the 1991 final in New Orleans. A devastating 66-65 national semifinal loss to Stanford in Los Angeles in 1992 that ended Staley's and Reiss' college careers.

It turned out that each year, they fell in the NCAA tournament to the team that won the title. How that prize eluded them, though, is a question that lingers.

"It just hurt so bad then," Reiss said. "And to this day, March Madness comes and I get this little twinge like, 'Damn it! We didn't do it.' It still kills me, and I know it eats at Dawn.

"'We all wanted so badly to get Debbie a championship, and Dawn really deserved it. It still stings, and I'm, what, 44 years old now?"

Staley will say now it doesn't really "haunt" her, and like most great coaches, she prefers to talk about the present and the players whose dreams are going on right now. But yeah, of course it's there. Staley can still describe every crucial sequence of that 1991 final. You can see the tape rewinding again and again in her mind, trying to get to a different outcome.

"Maybe it wasn't in the cards," Staley said. "Maybe there's something bigger that will affect a lot more people than my Virginia days. Hopefully, I'll be able to hoist that trophy for all those people that played an integral role in my life."

Still on 'Team Staley'

Reiss will be in Tampa on Sunday wearing a South Carolina T-shirt and cheering her heart out. Ryan will be there, too. So will many other former teammates and friends, along with some Virginia fans from "back in the day" who will join Gamecock Nation because where Staley goes, they go.

Staley won three Olympic gold medals and is enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame. Her place is set in basketball history even if she never does another thing.

"She doesn't need a national championship to put her stamp on the game," Ryan said. "But I know that's still there, sitting in her craw."

Back in 2012, Staley asked Ryan to talk to her team before a game against Tennessee in Knoxville. Ryan said the players were especially eager to hear what she said, because they were hoping for any and all stories with which to later tease Staley. By the way, the Gamecocks then won, the program's second victory ever against the Lady Vols.

"She is empathetic and soft-hearted and always has this thing about inclusion. It's why everyone relates to her, from all walks of life." Former Virginia coach Debbie Ryan, on Dawn Staley

Reiss loves seeing Staley the stateswoman now, taking the microphone after games to thank the crowd, constantly engaging fans on Twitter and in restaurants and stores in Columbia, going on every TV or radio show that asks her.

"Dawn was able to get comfortable with being uncomfortable," Reiss said of how Staley defeated her shyness. "Her true personality shines through now and everybody is getting to see it. That's the evolution, and it's a neat thing to watch."

Nine-time champion UConn is the favorite this year in Tampa; everyone knows that. UConn, Notre Dame and Maryland have all been at the Final Four before; they are programs that have national championships. South Carolina is the newcomer.

But Staley isn't. She can draw on her memories, good and bad, from her own Final Fours. She was so close she could taste a title, but is still left hungering for one.

Reiss recalls two other tapes Staley watched again and again in college, along with that loss to Tennessee: the 1980s movies "About Last Night" and "Dirty Dancing." Turns out Staley also had a soft spot for the happy endings of rom-coms.

Is there somehow, in some way, still a chance for a happy ending of sorts for her Virginia teams of long ago?

"It's going to happen for Dawn -- if not this year, sometime in the next few years. I believe that," Reiss said. "If Dawn gets a championship, no, it's not the same as when we were players and we actually did it on court together. But I will feel vindicated that she got one. I will feel much better that one of us did it. I will feel a little bit at peace."

It's the same for Ryan, who said all those who've played with or coached or been a fan of Staley will celebrate if she wins a championship

"It will be a win for everybody," Ryan said. "Because that's how Dawn is. She shares everything."