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The fires that forged Dawn Staley

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has survived, and thrived, through fires. Now, she’s lighting a spark under the women’s basketball establishment.

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Under the glare of the Carolina Coliseum’s floodlights, the rapturous harmony of basketball echoed off the golden hardwood. There stood Dawn Staley, beaming. She motioned to her salt-and-pepper Havanese puppy, Champ, and launched a plastic bone across the facility for him to fetch. It was the day before Halloween. Eighteen months after capturing a national championship for the South Carolina Gamecocks, she laughed with her team following a three-hour practice. Diamond hoops swung from her ears while she paraded the sidelines of her queendom.

She walked Champ through the basement of the old Coliseum. Toughness, Discipline, Family, Passion, and Sacrifice were inscribed in bold over top the training rooms. Through the double doors Carolina’s volleyball team was in practice, until they saw Champ tugging at a neon toy. The women swarmed the pup while staffers chased him, and he was eventually scooped up while Staley smiled and waved at her pet.

This is the lifestyle that Staley, the head coach of South Carolina’s women’s basketball, came to adopt in the recesses of the national championship and a subsequent Elite Eight finish. Forty-eight years old, a dog momma, a less gruff demeanor to her players — things she never expected for herself. “I got soft. Ahhhhhhh,” she says. “All of my former players who work with me now said I’m like Charmin.”

The lively manner belies Staley’s strenuous last year. Publicly, there’s never been this much fire surrounding her. A self-proclaimed “master compartmentalizer” found herself in a challenging position. Like many black athletes, she had a publicized scuffle with the presidency. She took on the new challenge of being the first black woman to lead Team USA. Disastrously, she was accused of athletic malpractice. A rival SEC athletic director said Staley promoted a hostile, racist atmosphere during an in-conference clash with Missouri in January, where he alleged his players were spit on and called n——rs.

“Behind closed doors, it pissed me off,” she says of the accusations. Her identity was under attack. “You usually handle truth in two different manners to me, OK: fightin’ mad or happy, glad. OK? I was really upset. He didn’t know me. He didn’t know anything about me.”

But Staley has always soared when challenged, rumbled when provoked. From scraping with ballers in Philly, to adjusting to life outside of the city. From building programs while simultaneously playing for others, to lawsuits and squaring up with the president of the United States. These moments catapulted her legend and modeled her into an indefatigable worker.

Staley thrives when ablaze; less a casualty of poisonous circumstance than a phoenix rising from the ashes.

In January 2018, Mizzou won the first of two rivalry games against South Carolina, beating the Gamecocks by nine in a temperamental contest.

During that meeting on Jan. 7, Mizzou players were filmed going after Carolina players repeatedly. Yet, Staley was ejected for arguing calls and failing to substitute a player quickly enough. A’Ja Wilson, the 2018 national player of the year in college basketball and the WNBA’s 2018 No. 1-overall pick, fouled out after playing only 19 minutes. Staley was furious by game’s end.

“I can’t remember a year when we played Missouri at Missouri and it was actually a clean, cool game,” says Wilson.

As Staley left the court, South Carolina players were heckled by opposing fans. “You’re thugs like your coach,” fans reportedly said.

“It’s a team full of black girls, a black coach, a lot of people just don’t wanna see black women in charge and actually doing well,” says Tiffany Mitchell, a two-time SEC player of the year for the Gamecocks. “That’s with anything, not just coaching. A black person in power, with any type of authority, the world is taken back by it.”

The tension continued for weeks, and people who knew Staley at every level of the game fumed. Two days before their second scrape, Staley suggested Mizzou’s on-court actions crossed a line. The rematch elevated in aggression, with an on-court brawl during the Jan. 28 contest. Punches and elbows were thrown and two Mizzou players were ejected. Carolina won by 10 and the atmosphere turned nuclear.

Following the game, Mizzou’s athletic director Jim Sterk made an appearance on a local radio station. “I was really thankful you got out of Columbia, South Carolina, alive on Sunday night,” one host said.

“It wasn’t a great atmosphere. It was really kind of unhealthy, if you will,” Sterk said. “We had players spit on and called the N-word and things like that. It was not a good environment, and unfortunately I think Coach Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere, and it’s unfortunate she felt she had to do that. It wasn’t good.”

Internally, players, staffers, and Staley herself were enraged.

“That’s just not who she is,” says Doniyah Cliney, a forward on the team. “She doesn’t teach us to be thugs or [discriminatory] because we’re black and they’re white. She teaches us to win regardless of who comes in our gym or wherever we go. That’s her main goal. That’s her baby: winning. She loves to win. If you ever get in the way of her winning a game — then that’s between you and her.”

The incident also acted as a stark reminder of the ignorant racial divide that exists within the country.

“White people using the word ‘thug,’ on so many levels, it makes me embarrassed as a white person,” says Cheryl Reeve, the head coach of the Minnesota Lynx and assistant coach for Team USA. “When a white person is using the word directed at black people, there’s no other thing that can be assigned to it than racism.”

Days after Sterk’s comments, Staley was on the phone with Angela O’Neal, one of her closest confidants. O’Neal travels with Staley and the two boast a friendship spanning decades.

“How dare this man fix his mouth to say stuff like that?” O’Neal said. “Girl, you have to sue!”

On Feb. 22, Staley sued Sterk in Richmond County Court for making “tortious and defamatory statements,” for $75,000 — a suit more about reputation than money. The SEC fined Sterk an additional $25,000 for his comments, which violated the conference’s code of ethics. Sterk apologized in May for his accusations, and Missouri paid a settlement of $50,000 — half of which went to Staley’s foundation, InnerSole, while the other half went to her lawyers. But the damage had been done.

“Around that time you really did feel the gears kind of shift,” says Wilson, who noticed Staley being more reclusive. “She was like, ‘everything’s fine.’ But we were like, ‘No! No! We wanna know!’

“Coach Staley’s not always gonna have her best days. But she’s gonna put on her smile. Do a lil’ pimp walk. And keep on going. She does do a great job of hiding it. You have to dig down deep to find something wrong with Coach Staley. She’s never gonna let you see weakness.”

Dawn Staley and her pup, Champ, pose for the camera.
Photo courtesy of University of South Carolina Athletics | Photo Illustration by Tyson Whiting

Staley believes she had to sue to right her ship and confidently profess that no person could hold such a lie over her and her program. Even still, it cut her deeply. “To the heart,” she says. “I said out loud what I was going to do without processing it. That’s the one time I didn’t. I just followed my heart because I knew it was furthest from the truth.”

Everything she had built hung in the balance: her reputation, her family, her future. The attack on her legacy is the first thing that’s forced her hand in 30 years. Staley prides herself as willful and deliberate in all of her actions. Whatever is thrown her way, she believes she can take time to answer. But this sort of slander? That’ll make her rush.

“[Sterk] thought he could say that without any consequence,” O’Neal says. “He thought there would be no action. He’s not the only one in America who has those thoughts about Dawn. Dawn didn’t do this for money. She did this for her name. She’s worked her entire career to be scandal-free, to be respected, but in a few words she could’ve lost it all.

“She had to fight for her name. Her mother would’ve turned over in the crypt if she didn’t.”

Like many black families during the 20th Century, Clarence and Estelle Staley were looking for a new life. The Great Migration carried millions of black folks north in search of jobs and an escape from segregationist laws. Clarence, a carpenter, and Estelle, a caretaker, came to Philadelphia from Woodward, South Carolina, in the 1950s. They married soon thereafter. By 1967 they put together the funds for a three-bedroom, one-bath rowhome under the shadow of the Raymond Rosen projects.

The late writer Acel Moore once opined in the Philadelphia Inquirer that those blocks were “an island — a black township — where crime, violence, and drugs flourished.” They were “filled with trash, garbage, and dead rodents that rotted in hallways and stairways.”

Estelle did what she could, often keeping a manicured lawn and sterling home for her expanding family — daughters Dawn and Tracey and three sons Lawrence, Anthony, and Eric. As the youngest, Dawn followed her brothers everywhere, forcing them to respect her ambition for basketball. She’d often shoot until the streetlights blinked, her only meal a bodega special: chicken wings and cheese fries.

She graduated to afternoons at the Moylan Recreation Center, often bringing a basketball for the boys to use. When they’d approach, she’d refuse to give it to them unless she could play, too. Hank Gathers, a Philadelphia basketball hero who the basketball courts would later be named after, noticed and prodded the regulars to let little Dawn hoop with the boys.

This caught the interest of radio broadcaster Sonny Hill, who some Philadelphians refer to as the “Mayor of Basketball”. Hill was putting together a series of tournaments and wanted Dawn to play, and Staley’s legend began to blossom. Philly was renowned as a nexus of basketball prowess. Dawn dueled Yolanda Laney, a future All-American at Rutgers; the late Linda “Hawkeye” Paige, a future ACC champion with NC State; and Marilyn Stephens-Franklyn, Temple’s all-time leading women’s scorer, and got beat down daily under the hot sun of Hill’s tournaments. It was one of the only times in Staley’s life when she wasn’t be the best player on the court.

She became one of the best players in the country as a teenager at Dobbins High, scoring nearly 34 points per game, winning three Public League titles, and only losing one game in high school. People who flocked to games nearly fainted. The girls played in a separate gym with no court-side seating and a balcony offering the best view for a select 90 people. That was, if they could bear the 60-degree temperature jump due to poor heating systems at Dobbins. Dawn would make enemies sweat on the floor. Spectators would drip from the rafters.

Her North Philly upbringing was essential to how she would combat the difficulties of her adulthood. The winding corners around Ridge Avenue, the ostentatious blocks of Oxford and the daring days on Diamond Street created the bedrock of an immovable attitude. If Staley has built a perception of being impervious to on-court hate and can present a stone-cold attitude, it is because she was forged in an unimaginable fire, where steel begets steel.

“Dawn is special to the game. God decided to make only one of her,” Virginia coach Debbie Ryan said after Staley arrived in 1988.

The Virginian Grounds were monumentally different from North Philly. Staley came off as antisocial and arrogant. People spoke differently. They didn’t wear colored, khaki shorts on Diamond Street. She didn’t know what chinos were. Feeling lonely, she feigned shyness and didn’t look anyone in the eyes, spending many of her days watching Dirty Dancing on VCR. The future accessible socialite of South Carolina was an introverted homebody with an asymmetrical MC Lyte updo.

“There was a big switch. That’s why I had a hard time,” Staley says. Her first season she nearly failed out of school, and there came a time that year when the dean wanted Staley gone. One evening in her office, she gave Staley a blunt reality.

“You need to conform to the life, and UVA.”

“Whatever!” Staley would shout back. But in the back of her mind, she knew she was playing a losing hand.

“That’s when you gotta tone down the North Philly,” she says. “Ultimately I wanted to play basketball. I went to UVA to play basketball. Trust me on that one. I would not have picked UVA just to go to school. I don’t use that degree.”

Staley’s sophomore season brought further turmoil. Staley’s knees were ailing from injuries. Gathers, who had become a mentor, died. Her grandmother also passed away. After a first-round game in the ACC tournament, Ryan called Staley to her hotel room. The subsequent argument was explosive.

“They both needed to get things out,” says Tammi Reiss, another star for the Cavaliers’ backcourt. “Everybody was walking on eggshells when they weren’t getting along. That kind of turned the tide that year. Whatever was said, it worked. Good, bad, or indifferent, they both respected what was said in that room and we suddenly go to the Final Four that year.”

From there on, Staley’s time at Virginia was defined by achievements. She became a two-time national player of the year and attended three Final Fours, including one title game. But she never achieved her ultimate goal of a championship.

After one particular scuffle with Stanford in Los Angeles, Staley ran off the court chasing referees to add time on the clock for a final shot.

“It was like, how did she do that? I had no idea. But they put it back on the clock. We all knew the ball was going to Dawn,” says Tara VanderVeer, Stanford’s coach. She was in awe. She had sworn the game was over. “I was just so relieved that we won.”

Even in the waning moments of games she couldn’t have won, Staley altered deteriorating situations. She constantly held onto the moments outside of her control. Perhaps most indicative were the days after her crushing loss to Tennessee in 1991’s national title game.

“Look Tammi! Look!” she’d scream, after barricading herself in the room she shared with Reiss. Staley watched the tape every day for a month, often twice a day. “Dawn, stop,” Reiss would say, exasperated. “You’re gonna make me kill myself.”

Those years in Virginia changed her. Staley was no longer the cheese-fry-chewing child who carved up courts in Philadelphia. Her mind sharpened. Her game elevated. She refined the skills most black Americans need to weave through a white world.

“Every step of the way, every experience with coaches, people, turmoil, obstacles, I needed in my life,” Staley says. “For some reason I couldn’t see the big picture at the time. But I needed it.”

And, perhaps most importantly, her vision of the game ripened. Whether she agreed or not — and she didn’t, at the time — Staley was blossoming into a coach.

It was inevitable that Staley’s legend would be one of splendors. She had stints overseas, in France and elsewhere, dicing European defenders. She was drafted by the ABL’s Richmond Rage and played under her longtime friend Lisa Boyer. She became the ninth overall pick in the 1999 WNBA Draft and hooped with the Sting in Charlotte, ending her career years later with the Houston Comets. Along the way, she brought home three Olympic gold medals and was the flag bearer for the United States in the 2004 games.

Dawn Staley attempts a layup during her time overseas.

All the while she had several conversations with friends about coaching. She’d giggle on the phone year after year, firm in the idea she’d never get into the role. Dawn Staley doesn’t coach. Dawn Staley balls.

“Every time I talked to coaches the only thing they talked about was basketball and their teams,” she says, chuckling. “At that time I thought I was more than that. I don’t want to spend the rest of the time talking about basketball to 18 to 22 year olds. I used to tell them all the time, ‘Get a Life!’”

By 2000, the Final Four made its way to Philadelphia and Staley’s name was linked to the Temple Owls. The late Dave O’Brien, who was the athletic director at Temple at the time, asked Staley a friendly question.

“Can you just stop by?”

Staley wasn’t dressed for an interview; she only had sweats and a T-shirt. She didn’t want a job. Who coaches and plays at the same time? While she was flattered, she kept declining.

“Can you walk down the hall and meet a couple of people?” O’Brien asked.

“I’m thinking I’m gonna go through some cubicles. Say hello, hey-hey, hey! No. I walk into this conference room and they line around the table and sit me at the head of the table and they start firing all these questions at me,” Staley remembers.

They asked her if she admired coach John Chaney and if she would want to model her career after him. She, like many black Philadelphians at the time, had a deep affection for Chaney, the brash men’s basketball coach who famously told John Calipari he’d kill him and tried to fight Calipari in front of reporters. Wouldn’t she like to have a career like him?

“Naw,” she said.

They asked where she saw herself in five years.

“Playing in the WNBA,” she said.

“I was really open, honest, and frank with them. I don’t know how they walked away and thought I was the person for that job. I don’t know why. I just told it like it was. I didn’t hold back anything because I didn’t want the job. I never been on an interview before!”

Staley pauses. “Then two weeks later I took the job.”

In short time, Temple became a March fixture, but the team could never quite get over the hump. That frustrated Staley constantly. She was finally in coaching, as her friends always imagined, but the success she’d yearned for during her college career was eluding her once again.

Temple was an important stop in Staley’s career because it changed her outlook on life, it grew her national resume, and it readied her for a place like South Carolina. Because of Temple, Staley knew how to build a roster, how to inspire players to accept her version of the sport, how to woo parents and guardians to drop their kids off in a place with a possibly unwelcoming vibe to those not from North Philly. The impression she left there was indelible. The city is still painted in Staley murals and fixtures across rooftops along North Broad Street.

So after eight years she finally left North Philly for Carolina to challenge the SEC, relocate her ailing mother to the place she was born, and chase her destiny of winning the national championship she hadn’t brought home yet.

In South Carolina, Staley’s collection of winning material is nearly overwhelming. Banners and championships hang suspended from the lights. The prize jewel, of course, is the 2017 National Championship trophy, glistening in glass and blinged with pieces of nets from the dance. It stands next to a crystalline WBCA Coach of the Year honor. Staley has named the trophies “Brownie” and “à la mode”; the last treasures one sees before turning to Staley’s office.

Trophies are literally everywhere. How much could one person possibly win? SEC Coach of the Year awards, three gold medals from 1996-2004, her framed Olympic jerseys, a 1999 WNBA sportsmanship award, an encasing of her line of sneakers from Nike, Air Force Ones from the Beijing Olympics, all-white Forces to commemorate her induction to the Hall of Fame.

When Staley arrived in Columbia, she was given a financial package worth $650,000 annually. In 2017, after winning the national title, she received an eight-year deal worth more than $14 million, including $2.1 million in her final year — making her the highest-paid woman in the SEC. In 2018 she received even more incentive to stay in Gamecock Country in the form of retirement investments.

Knowing all this, it’s odd when Staley explains how almost none of it came to be. Unlike so many other times in her life, the spoils of success didn’t immediately follow her when she moved campuses. Carolina was a different world, and the SEC was the pinnacle of competition. There was both risk and reward, but upon entry to a club of elite coaches and talent, Staley didn’t believe the tools were available for her to flourish.

“It was professional suicide,” she says.

Staley truly believes basketball is her saving grace, the constant in the middle of every issue her life has faced. Basketball remained. Basketball is pure. Basketball will make a way. But transitioning 700 miles down I-95 showed basketball alone was insufficient. The Gamecocks were horrid. The same ideologies of an overachieving coach at a middling program couldn’t translate in the SEC. Did the players just not love basketball as much as her? What was she missing?

“It took me two years to really fall back … start listening,” Staley says. “I may not agree with them and do what they say. But if they feel like they are a part of it, they’re gonna feel vested in it. That’s what I did: How you wanna play this screen? What you think about this opponent?

“Things started to turn around when that happened,” she admits. “You can’t be afraid of what people might think, of starting over, you never know where that’ll end. We ended up going to the postseason every year after that.”

But there was still a missing dynamic on campus. The Staley of old remained quiet, pensive, introverted. If this formula was to work, there needed to be give and take. Ray Tanner, Carolina’s athletic director, told her explicitly, “We need you out front.”

So Staley began running with the undergrads during intramural hoop tournaments, bringing in former Olympians to embarrass the kids who’d fall for her floor product. Staley held fan forums with the Carolina faithful and quizzed them on what they needed from her. Assigned seats at Colonial Life Arena? Done. Pre-game access to players over meals? Easy. Some photos and T-shirts? Whatever works. The result was the largest attendance numbers in America.

“It’d be noon on Sunday and the place is packed,” Wilson says. “I was like, ‘Lord! No one’s in church?’”

Dawn Staley surveys from the sidelines during a game.
Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images | Photo Illustration by Tyson Whiting

Staley creates a harmony that nearly everyone in her orbit wants to tout. She is seen as a unifier; she created a fan experience in South Carolina that extends across economic, racial, and gender lines. Administration officials say there is nothing like it at any other Gamecocks sporting event, and what Staley created is unique to Gamecock Country.

“This state has been a state that’s full of history for a lot of people. It’s not kind history. It’s a history that’s filled with racism,” Staley says.

To see that a black woman could exist at a cultural crossroads where white people exalt her name from the crowd but housing on campus still resembles Antebellum relics is an odd juxtaposition.

“I’m happy to be a part of this movement. I do think it’s a movement and a lifestyle of people who are here. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve said it’s the first time they’ve stepped on the campus at the University of South Carolina. A lot of black people. Because they weren’t welcomed. It was segregated. It helps mend some of the grudges people have held. They see me, they see the color of my skin. And they see something they want to be a part of.”

The reality that denizens of Carolina slide to Columbia and cheer for a group of black women, led by this black woman, is revolutionary. Staley’s presence on court, perched in Louboutin stilettos, sung in a Philly slang, revered without adaptation, makes her very essence a protest — a disruption under the lights every week in downtown Columbia.

It takes a combination of variables to win a national championship. Staley always thought she would, but never knew when — especially not after star senior Alaina Coates went down with a nightmare injury as March 2017 began. Staley’s offense revolved around post dominance, a high-low formula in which Wilson and Coates crumbled defenders. She transitioned to a four-out, one-in, spreading the lanes, praying something would work.

When the confetti finally fell in Dallas, she couldn’t escape her daze. Staley receded to her hotel suite with Lisa Boyer, her closest friend on staff who she’s known for decades. Four hours later, it still felt surreal to the two women.

“What do we do now?” Boyer said.

“I don’t know, Boyer,” Staley shrugged. “I guess we gotta win another one.”

When Boyer finally left the room around 3 a.m. the next morning, Staley reflected. Her father, Clarence, died from an illness in 2006. Relocating her mother closer to family after Staley’s father passed was one of the main reasons she made the move to South Carolina. Estelle was suffering from Alzheimer’s. When Staley was away in Dallas, she told Estelle’s caregiver, Rosemary, to make sure the game was on. After the championship, she would go back to Carolina and put the net around Estelle’s neck, and Estelle would smile. But at that moment in the suite, it was just her, in silence with her thoughts.

“That was when it finally hit her,” Boyer says. “She went to three Final Fours as a player and it continued to elude her … When you’re in it, you just don’t know if you’re ever gonna get there. And Dawn, she never thought that that team, that’s how it would look for a national championship team,” she continues. “But it was our time. We were blessed.”

“Nobody thought we could win. Nobody. But us.” Staley says. “And, no, I didn’t cry. Three or four of the other coaches cried. But I had to hold myself together. Because they cried, they scared my tears away.”

Staley may have kept it together on the court, but in the shadows, she suffered. Over the course of their glorious season, and while she cared for her ailing mother, Staley had fallen cripplingly ill herself. She’d be seen bending over, unable to speak. Players noticed her coughing more at practice. Staley would hide with her hat down over her face, restricted only to a few sideline chairs and less animated on the floor. No one knew what was wrong, and Staley was equally baffled. She tried everything, even getting an endoscopy.

O’Neal was with her every step of the way, nervous as any friend would be. She flew with Staley to see a specialist in Cleveland, where Staley was ultimately diagnosed in November 2016 — just four months before the championship game — with pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining around the heart, which can make breathing difficult and sleep impossible. Staley’s doctors wanted her hospitalized, and were irate when she did television interviews.

It was more than just the pain. If she collapsed from the spasms — the sharp ripping, stabbing feeling in her chest — she saw not being able to continue with the team as a more dire consequence. Even as a person who “thrives on challenges,” those nine months were overwhelming. Staley experienced immense pain from the Rio Olympics to her November diagnosis onward. She cared for her ailing mother. She won a championship in March 2017, and just five months later in August, she buried Estelle. Staley still keeps vases in her office that she buys monthly in remembrance. Yet, she continued to push herself to every limit.

“If I listened to my Cleveland doctor, we wouldn’t’ve won a national championship,” she says. “It would’ve been one more adverse moment to overcome. And I didn’t want to be a part of that. We forged ahead. We figured out what medicines could get me through, and we got through.”

In Staley’s mind, missing out on the chance to take her place among the basketball immortals was worse than dying.

When told this sounds dramatic, Staley politely says she doesn’t care.

Staley wanted to go to the White House, to reap the rewards of champions. It is what champions do, right? Staley waited her entire life to be a champion and believed nothing would stop her from relishing in the expected spoils.

Yet, President Donald Trump didn’t individually invite the Gamecocks to Washington. They were lumped together with champions from non-revenue sports; essentially a plus-one to tradition. Additionally, the invitation came late, which Staley addressed in November 2017 when she stated she wouldn’t go to the White House.

“People can think what they want to think,” she told reporters.

Until that moment, every women’s hoops champion since 1983 had visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And South Carolina was one of the first winners of the calendar year. It felt like an insult, but Staley internalized her emotions and moved on. She wanted to chase rings.

“We shouldn’t have been treated any differently,” she says. “If you gonna invite a men’s program in that manner, we did the same thing. I don’t feel like we should be treated any less than our male counterpart.”

After the decision was made, preparations began for the new season. They weren’t sitting on their hands awaiting a Trumpian missive.

“It was to a point where it was like whatever. We not even gonna try it. It’s pointless,” Wilson says. That doesn’t mean it didn’t sting. “It was kind of hurtful because that was what teams used to seal their season. Going to the Oval Office, taking a picture, knowing you finally made it.

“It just wasn’t right. But at the same time, you can’t take our rings and our banners away.”

Regardless of the reasoning, Staley isn’t seen as faultless for her actions in the state of South Carolina. Harris Pastides, the university president, says at home Staley was derided for not making the visit.

“The timing was bad. I do believe she was prepared to go,” Pastides says. “As you know, the UNC men’s team got an invite back in April or May. That would’ve been an easier time to go. That’s how it played out. She was criticized by some. I was criticized by some even though it wasn’t my decision. That’s the world.”

Having a figure like Staley on campus yields a number of different reactions to her decisions. Being overlooked by the president and ultimately turning away an invitation, like the professional women who play basketball for the Lynx, can be met with scorn from once-adoring fans. There is a duality present, a double-consciousness that must be accounted for with each black coach and athlete preparing a product or playing in front of white fans.

“Part of it is based on race. But part of it is based on gender as well,” says Valinda Littlefield, South Carolina’s faculty athletic representative, and the director of African-American studies, who has been on campus for 20 years. “Look at her team: her team at the time is all black women. She handled it as well as it could’ve been considering the circumstances of where we are. Either you get invited, or you don’t get invited and you have to handle it well. We are such a forgiving race, sometimes, what can I say?”

“I don’t think Dawn cares much about popularity,” adds Pastides. “Not when it comes at the expense of doing right or wrong.”

On a humid Thursday in November, Staley is engaged in more hands-on coaching than usual during practice.

A group of players were tasked with making 50 jump shots before the set time expired. “Imagine if you did that 20 minutes a day a few times a week.” She flicked her wrist. “Imagine.” Then tilted her head back in age-old wisdom.

There is a search for perfection in Columbia — something she achieved once, but is always striving for again. Such blunt behavior is necessary for Staley’s current squad. She must call out the small things, because many don’t consider this team as outright talented as her previous squads.

Seeing a bad pass, she craned her head back in disgust. After a missed jumper, she shook her head and jawed to herself. A bad possession in the middle of the drill and now she’s cussing.

“External noise! It’s gonna mess you up, guys. It’s gonna mess you up. You can’t hear the right shit if you hear the noise! The right shit won’t get through.”

For a moment, one could see a clear picture of the modern Staley. The sizzling summers in Philly hardened a woman who is unwilling to accept a droplet of failure, an ounce of idleness. It would be poisonous to what she has created over the span of decades. The lonely strolls at Virginia made her willful in her delivery and uncaring of how she comes off to players, coaches, the media, and the opposition. She is focused instead on a singular goal of remaining a champion.

But what has she learned from her year in the sun? Before, Staley was arguably the most recognizable woman in South Carolina. Now? She’s one of the faces of the entire game, and one of the most successful black women coaching at the highest level, with a matching record and honors to parallel her plaudits. Her famous confidence isn’t only left to the hardwoods. She’s publicly using her platform to be more vocal about racial identity in the sport, the challenges for the black women in it, and the systemic problems pushing them out of the game or keeping them from obtaining head coaching positions.

She’s no longer solely a coach. She’s a progressive voice, a brand, unwilling to bend to the demands of white detractors for any means. She knows she can climb the ranks in exactly her own way, untouchable and without compromise.

“She is America’s point guard,” says Carolyn Peck, the former head coach of Purdue where she was the first black woman to coach a championship-winning team. Staley’s dominance is only beginning. She promised Ray Tanner she’d catch up to him and win more national championships. Has anyone ever known her to deceive?

Back at practice, Staley’s crew ran up the floor. A forward splashed a jumper and Staley clapped her hands together. The sermon is heard by the congregation. She cast a wry smile and pumped a fist while nibbling a Lifesavers candy. Silent, she leaned back on a black stanchion on the baseline, the brim of her black cap tilted down on her forehead, those diamond hoops glistening from her ears.

“Perfect,” she whispered.

“Now, do it again!”

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