It is hard to imagine a time when USA Basketball did not dominate the international game. In the early 1990s, the United States Women’s National Team suffered embarrassing losses at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games and the ensuing FIBA World Championship in 1994. Those subpar performances served as wakeup calls to USA Basketball that it needed to double down on its commitment to the women’s basketball.
Right around that same time, the United States was preparing to host the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Recognizing that all eyes would be on American athletes competing on their home soil, USA Basketball identified sponsors that would invest in the women’s game formed a dedicated program.
Among the 12-member Dream Team was University of Virginia point guard, Dawn Staley, who was cut from 1992 National Team roster.
Hearing that she lacked international experience, Staley set out to change the trajectory of her career by signing a contract to play overseas. She constructed a homemade calendar and marked off the days that she spent training and perfecting her craft. When asked what motivated her to pursue the 1995-1996 team, Staley will tell you that she did what she did not want to do, in order to become an Olympian.
“When someone tells me ‘no,’ I am going to break my neck trying to prove them wrong,” said Staley during the inaugural USA Basketball Women in the Game conference.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist (1996, 2000, and 2004) has indeed proved her doubters wrong.
At 30 years old, while still competing in the WNBA, Staley became the head basketball coach at Temple University. She led the Owls to six NCAA tournaments and a #15 national ranking – achievements that were firsts in the program’s history. And in 2008, she took over the reins of the University of South Carolina women’s basketball– a program once considered the doormat of the Southeastern Conference – and delivered its first NCAA Championship in 2017.
Staley added: “The likelihood of me being where I am today, and the things that I have accomplished today is because I beat the odds. People that I grew up with said that I wouldn’t be a National Champion or an Olympian. I stayed persistent and continued to be extremely competitive.”
Over 20 years have passed since Staley joined USA Basketball as an athlete. And now, her story has come full circle as she is the 2017-2020 Women’s National Team head coach.
“I don’t think that it is unusual that a point guard becomes a good coach,” said Carol Callan, USA Basketball women’s national team director. “That 1995-96 team had a passion for being more than just basketball players in that year-long program. And it shows today in terms of where a lot of those players are in giving back to the game.”
As keepers of the game, USA Basketball and Staley are extending their reach beyond the basketball court. Through the Women in the Game initiative, the governing body “educates high school girls, college-aged women and young, female professionals about career paths in the sports industry and how to turn a passion into an opportunity.” In addition to the two-day conference (April 7-8 at the Windward School in Los Angeles), attendees will have the opportunity to apply for a six-week mentorship program designed to help develop future female leasers in sports.
“I had no exposure to coaching, except for the coaches who coached me. I saw how hard it was for them to do this and balance everything, so I shied away from that,” said Staley.
“But once you get exposed to coaching, you fall in love with it. And you want to go to the very top as a competitor. I am very fortunate to have been around great basketball with USA Basketball.”