Coach Dawn Staley accepts WHYY’s Lifelong Learning Award

The celebrated basketball coach’s conversation with Terry Gross at the virtual event explored Staley’s struggles to achieve her dream of staying in the game for life.

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley reacts while cutting the net following a college basketball game against Creighton in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Sunday, March 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley reacts while cutting the net following a college basketball game against Creighton in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Sunday, March 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

When people describe basketball coach Dawn Staley, they usually lean into her many accomplishments.

Staley has a long record of being a winner:

  • In April she led her South Carolina Gamecocks to a second national NCAA championship
  • She led the Temple Owls to six NCAA tournaments
  • As a player, she won three gold Olympic medals with Team USA
  • She has been inducted into both the WNBA Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

And in 2004 she carried the American flag in the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Athens, Ga.

File photo: Dawn Staley carries the American flag during opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, in this Aug. 13, 2004 photo. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours)

“I seriously equate being the flag bearer as being in a royal wedding,” she said. “Anytime there’s a royal wedding, all eyes – no matter what country you’re in, or from – you’re watching that wedding.”

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In a recent interview for Fresh Air, Terry Gross asked her about her struggles.

“I have years and years and years and years of my own shortcomings: to be shy, to be closed, to have all these things,” said Staley. “It wasn’t easy. Through my life, being uncomfortable, I found a way to grow.”

Staley spoke with Gross on Tuesday evening as part of a virtual online ceremony to receive the 18th WHYY Lifelong Learning Award. The award is given to prominent people who exemplify a passion for continued learning, in themselves and others. Past recipients include Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Dr. Anthony Fauci, and President Joe Biden.

One of Staley’s literal shortcomings is her height. Gross asked Staley about being a lauded basketball player at just 5’ 6”.

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“My stature has never been an issue,” said Staley. “I command a lot of things in any situation that I’m in. I don’t think leadership comes from your stature. Leadership comes from the ability to know what decisions to make in any situation.”

“That’s great to hear,” said Gross. “Because I’m way shorter than you are.”

Staley was born in 1970 and grew up in the Raymond Rosen public housing project in North Philadelphia. At that time, professional women’s basketball did not exist.

The Olympics added women’s basketball in 1976. The first professional women’s league, the WBL, began in 1978 and lasted just three seasons. By the time the WNBA was founded in 1996, Staley was 26 years old.

None of that mattered to Staley as a girl.

“Here’s the thing about imagination: it gives you an opportunity to dream, no matter how outlandish,” she said. “I thought I was going to play in the NBA. I was a Sixers fan. I knew everything about the Sixers. I thought I was going to be their next point guard after Maurice Cheeks took us to a 1983 championship.”

“I dreamed the biggest dream.”

That dream was shaping up nicely. Staley was scouted by colleges while still in junior high school. While a senior at Dobbins High in North Philly she was named national player of the year. She sailed into the University of Virginia to play for the Cavaliers.

But she was nearly kicked out of the University of Virginia. She had trouble adjusting to the academic demands of the university, as well as its social life.

“The housing project that I grew up in was probably 99.9% Black. Then I go to UVA and it’s the first time I’m outnumbered as far as Black versus white, or any other race,” said Staley. “I was a very shy young person. I didn’t talk a whole lot. I wasn’t open to making new friends. I’m from North Philly. We just kind of stay in our lanes. We don’t go outside of our comfort zone.”

Stanford guard Jennifer Azzi (10) holds on to the ball during a floor scramble with Virginia center Heidi Burge (30) and Dawn Staley, left, middle, during second half semifinal NCAA Womens Final Four tournament action at Thompson-Boling Arena, Friday, March 30, 1990, Knoxville, Tenn. Stanford beat Virginia 75-66. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

In the interview with Gross, Staley recalled being called into the dean’s office to talk about her future at UVA, and not being able to make eye contact with him.

“I didn’t know how to handle that situation because I’ve never been in that situation before,” she said. “I’ve always been one that expresses myself through playing basketball.”

Ultimately, Staley would graduate with a degree in Rhetoric and Communications Studies. After college she moved abroad to play basketball in foreign countries, then returned when the WNBA was founded.

As a coach at the University of South Carolina, Staley does not forget her own college experience. She said she provides her athletes with assistance in all areas of their life, including academic, psychological, and therapeutic.

“We hold their hands. We make sure we are the biggest voices in their heads,” she said. “We have processes that will help us get through the most complicated year of their life: being a freshman.”

Staley embraces failure, and encourages her athletes to do the same, as that is when growth is taking place.

She recently rediscovered that truth, when she was diagnosed with pericarditis, a swelling of the membrane surrounding her heart. For three years she endured near-constant pain and debilitating medications.

It was during that time, in 2017, that her Gamecocks won their first-ever NCAA national championship.

But she never told her team that she was suffering.

“My face started getting distorted and twisted from the steroids,” said Staley. “After the season, I had to deal with it. I needed to tell people.”

Once she started talking about her condition, Staley realized her experience could help other people.

“It was pretty cool knowing that I was able to help someone through it, just make them feel a little bit better about how to manage with it, how to live with it,” she said. “I’m a self-described dream merchant. To be a dream merchant for the people that I serve, I have to be the example.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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