Not only has South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley won at the highest level more than any Black coach male or female, but she’s making sure folks—lots of folks—who are often overlooked, are on the journey which is her true, lasting legacy to the game.
There are some rituals that never get old.
Cutting down the nets at the end of a basketball game, no matter what the level of play is, or who plays, has become a symbol of being a champion.
Nobody among Black coaches understands this ritual these days better than Dawn Staley whose South Carolina Gamecocks won the school’s second NCAA national championship in women’s basketball this week with a 64-49 win over UConn.
Daley became the first Black basketball coach, male or female, to win more than one Division I national title.
That alone makes her worth gushing over.
But her legacy goes far beyond wins, championships and the trimming of a basketball net.
Staley fights to win games, for sure.
But even more important, she fights for rights and privileges and opportunities far too many who look like her, who have been denied for far too long,
When it came to light last year how inadequate the resources were for the women’s NCAA Tournament compared to men's, Staley did not hold back in her scathing criticism of the NCAA.
Staley is also an outspoken advocate for greater pay equity.
Last October, she signed a seven-year, $22.4 million with South Carolina—the richest contract in women’s basketball history for a Black coach—which paid her $2.9 million this season.
To put that in perspective, UConn’s Geno Auriemma also makes $2.9 million this season.
I didn’t do this for me,” Staley told the media after signing her unprecedented contract. “I am an advocate of equal pay and overall, this is a huge statement for women and for Black women—and not just in sports but all over the country—when you think about how much less they’re paid on the dollar compared to men.”
But with Staley, what you notice about her is that her words and her walk in life are aligned in a way that is lock and step with one another.
And that walk isn’t just one limited to female players and coaches, either.
She’s also intent on shining a brighter spotlight on other groups that are often overlooked, too.
"I just think just moving forward, like the net is going to represent something, something in our game, something that will advance our game," Staley told the media after South Carolina’s win over UConn in the national championship game. "I've been thinking, some of our Black male coaches, they don't get (an) opportunity, and I'm also going to—I'm going to take it a step further, some of our Black journalists don't get an opportunity to elevate. So we're going to try to cut this net up, give them a piece of it, and just hope that it will be something that they can utilize to advance in the area that their heart desires to in their field."
The expansive role that Staley has taken isn’t all that unusual for coaches whose success elevates them to being these larger-than-life figures.
We saw that with the late John Thompson who became the first Black head coach in Division I basketball to lead a team to an NCAA title when he did so with Georgetown in 1984.
Thompson’s unapologetic pushback on NCAA freshman eligibility rules was a game-changer for college basketball, particularly among Blacks.
And we’re seeing that same unabashed approach to bringing about long-lasting change play out with Staley.
Her individual success speaks to her understanding of how to do her job at the highest level and stand out for all the right reasons among her peers.
But her efforts to bring others along for the ride, that says more about Staley’s understanding of the role that she plays in the Black coaching ecosystem.
She has become the gold standard that all Black coaches, male or female, will be measured against when it comes to claiming the ultimate team prize—a championship—in their respective sport.
It is a journey towards greatness that can be a cold, lonesome adventure. We have been conditioned to believe that there’s little to no room at the top in one’s pursuit of greatness.
And winning, on and off the court, never gets old.