Women in basketball have been killing it for decades—but this feels like the year they’re finally getting their due. The women of the WNBA laid significant groundwork for equal pay, redefined what activism looks like in sports, and even helped to influence an election. In the NCAA, women’s basketball stars turned the floodlights of social media on to the massive discrepancies in respect and resources given to women vs. men in sports. And now, with the Olympics 2021 well underway, the US Women’s Olympic basketball team is poised to score their seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal. That’s some dynasty shit.
Behind the majority of those medals is Dawn Staley, a WNBA star turned league-changing coach, who has been a part of six of those gold medal efforts and is currently leading the women on their current 50-game Olympic winning streak. “When you actually really start thinking about it, it’s hard to not feel the pressure of going for a historical seventh Gold Medal,” says Staley. “I’ve given over half of my life to USA basketball. It’s the only place that continues to take me back to those pure days where you just play to win—no one cares about scoring, no one cares about playing time, no one cares about anything besides being on that podium. That’s what keeps me coming back. It’s the purity and the innocence of basketball.”
Staley knew her life would be about basketball in eighth grade when she received her first college interest letter. “I grew up in the projects in North Philly, so I knew then that basketball could be something that I could truly utilize as a vehicle to advance,” she says. “I love basketball. It’s my livelihood, it’s my safe haven, and I feel as long as I have it as a part of my life, I have purpose.”
As a point guard at the University of Virginia, Staley earned recognition as the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA in 1991 before embarking on a dominant professional career. She played for seven All-Star teams and won three Olympic gold medals. She amassed such reverential status among her fellow athletes that she was elected by the captains of all U.S. teams to carry the American flag at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympics. In other words, she’s a legend.
“Coach Staley’s got the blueprint, she started it,” says guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. “In 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics, that was the first time I got to see women that looked like me, Black and brown women, represented on TV. That gave me something to aspire to.”
After retiring, Staley kicked off an illustrious coaching career, serving as an assistant coach on the gold medal winning 2008 and 2016 Olympic teams and is head coach of women’s basketball at South Carolina where she led the team to the 2017 NCAA championship.
“You don’t really see a Black woman crushing the game like that,” adds forward A’ja Wilson, who played for Staley at South Carolina and now on the US women’s Olympic basketball roster. “Representation matters so much for these moments.”
Now as a coach, Staley’s job is all about passing her sense of purpose on to the next generation of women in basketball. “Coach Staley is like my second mom. She has paved the way for me to be the woman that I am,” says Wilson. “She’s given so much to this game, she has cracked that glass ceiling for young girls like me to now shatter it.”
That, says Diggins-Smith, is exactly what U.S. women’s basketball is all about. Yes, it’s about great hoops but it’s also about “collectively making the game better. Introducing fans to us as women telling stories and ultimately inspiring the next generation,” she says. “I think that’s what we’re accomplishing.”