USA Training: Assistant Coach Dawn Staley Reflects Over the Game She Helped Grow
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – One of Dawn Staley’s greatest gifts to the sport of basketball, which she quickly developed a love affair in her childhood, has been sacrificing to help grow the game.
Staley along with 11 other women embarked on a successful year-long tour of the United States in advance of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
While many of the players could have made much more money playing professionally overseas, they decided that playing in 40 cities and six countries in sold out arenas from coast to coast serving as ambassadors would yield a huge payment for the sport they loved.
“Some of the challenges, I remember is just the sacrifice of some players,” Staley said. “They would have loved to go overseas and make a lot more money.
" Some players enjoyed the experience of playing professionally and they gave that up to be part of this opportunity," she explained.
"The good thing was it was like playing professionally here in the United States because we didn’t have a professional league here at the time. It was a challenge. It was a tough experience but a good one.”
Almost 20 years later, women’s basketball is flourishing and in a terrific place thanks to women like Staley, Teresa Edwards, Lisa Leslie, Ruthie Bolton, Sheryl Swoopes, Katrina McClain and Cynthia Cooper.
They were able to reap the rewards because players like Nancy Lieberman and Cheryl Miller before them performed in the shadow of the men’s game but became the rare household names at the time to help give public appeal of the women's game.
The duo, plus Carol Blazejowski and Lynette Woodard, off their scoring prowess, had such superior skills to transcend both genders when it came to hoops.
One of the many stories of sacrificing in 1995 involved Edwards, who turned down a $300,000 contract to play for the USA national team that offered $50,000 for her services for the year, which didn’t include a guaranteed Olympic roster spot at the time.
The 1996 United States Olympic squad paused their normal lives, turned down opportunities to make significantly more money and become trailblazers so that Skylar Diggins and many others on this United States Women’s Basketball national team pool could enjoy the fruits of their labor.
One of most recognizable women’s basketball legends on the planet, Staley, a north Philadelphia native, is one of Geno Auriemma’s assistant coaches on his Philly-flavored USA staff along with Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, a La Salle graduate, and DePaul head coach Doug Bruno.
The 13 members of this year’s national team who survived the first round of cuts departed for Paris on Tuesday afternoon where they will continue training in advance of the World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey beginning Sept. 27.
It still was unclear at how many of the seven players that weren’t at the domestic training camp will join the team overseas, although the number is now six since Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles has opted out for health reasons involving her feet.
During practice at the Naval Academy last Wednesday, Staley, who has rebuilt South Carolina's prominence from the sidelines after making Temple nationally-regarded, couldn’t help but marvel at all of the terrific talent gathered in one place.
“You’re like a kid in a candy store with so many great players gathered in one place,” Staley said. “It’s incredible. The true effect what the WNBA has been able to do, players are able to live out their dreams.
"The WNBA has been a carrot dangling in front of these guys and it gives them an opportunity to work hard at their games as youngsters. This is the finished product.”
Not long before some of the players on the current pool were born, the American women capped off a year-long exhibition of dominance with a perfect 60-0 record across 1995-96.
That set the wheels in motion for the creation of the WNBA, which began play less than a year later. It was also the trip lever for the start of the short-lived American Basketball League, which lasted two years and a few months before collapsing caused by bankruptcy.
Staley, who was an All-Star in both leagues, knew she was part of something special during that year.
For 11 months, players lived, trained, battled, laughed and bonded with each other during that experience, which helped prove that women’s basketball could thrive in the United States.
During that time there was no consistent social media presence, which meant all the players had was each other.
Yet, that team was one of most popular in history of organized sports in America.
They sold out the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for the gold medal game and played in front of the largest national television audience at that point in time.
Fans flocked to their busses like bees to honey.
“That's probably one of the defining moments of my career because we tried something that had never been done before,” Staley, a WNBA All-Decade Team member, said in article commemorating the 10-year anniversary of that team in 2006 on the WNBA website.
“It was probably the closest thing to competing on a professional level that I had done at the time because we were on a team at the primes of our careers, and we were sort of like the guinea pigs to see if women's basketball could be a draw.”
During its 18-year existence, the WNBA has survived its share of challenges and hardships to thrive as a 12-team league.
League attendance and television ratings were the highest in league history, half of the teams are turning profits, ESPN is fully invested in the league and the playoffs this past season were among the best in league history.
With more and more talent, the road to making the USA Basketball Women’s National Team is more difficult than ever.
While Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and Tamika Catchings are nearing the twilight of their awesome careers, players like Diggins, Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims, Bria Hartley and Chiney Ogwumike are just beginning.
They are part of a bright future of the WNBA and the national team.
Diggins, for one has tried not to be awestruck at receiving instruction from one of her idols in Staley, who also mentored Bird when she joined the national team in 2002.
“She’s one of the best our sport has ever had especially at her position,” Diggins said.
“I get to talk to her and be around her everyday. As a kid she’s one of the players I looked up to and one of the reasons why I wanted to play in the WNBA.
"Everything is coming full circle, which is pretty surreal. When she says something to you, she demands a lot of attention and respect from you. You listen. Everything she says has a purpose behind it.”
With what Staley was able to accomplish during her career and now being able to give back to the game is the ultimate reward for her.
In building South Carolina into a national power since moving from Temple in 2008, she’s loves turning unsure teenagers into mature young women who are productive members of society.
It’s why Staley can sit back with her legs crossed and marvel at the team she’s been blessed to coach.
Everything hasn’t been easy and smooth for Staley. She was part of the ABL’s Philadelphia Rage, which folded. Despite that brief setback, Staley continued to persevere and help grow the game.
“I think that’s what women’s basketball has been about just being able to overcome certain things,” Staley said.
“No matter what has happened or what obstacles we’ve had, we’re still standing strong. These players are better. USA Basketball is in a great place. Players are willing to come out and sacrifice their free time to try and make a world championship team.
“You got Olympians, WNBA All-Stars, college all-stars, you have a lot of talent in one room and a pretty good staff.
"Geno does a good job of getting them to all play as a unit. It’s been a great experience for me. I am learning a whole lot and having fun. I just get to sit back and coach whatever fortunate ones that are able to make the team.”
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