Dawn Staley dribbles at the Olympic Summer Games Athens 2004 on Aug. 28, 2004 in Athens, Greece.
Dawn Staley has been about as permanent a member of the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball program as one can get, from winning three gold medals between 1996 and 2004 as a player to claiming another two as an assistant coach in 2008 and 2016.
She was to make her Olympic debut as the head coach later this summer at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, succeeding Geno Auriemma, but that will have to wait.
When the team does take the court next summer, it will be going for its seventh consecutive gold medal and ninth overall since the women’s tournament debuted in 1976.
“USA Basketball has an unwritten culture and it’s what we do, meaning we sacrifice all our individual goals,” said Staley, who also coaches the women’s team at the University of South Carolina. “We become selfless as a unit and we just concentrate on one thing, and that’s winning gold. We never let anything or anyone deter us from that goal. We didn’t care about who scored, couldn’t care less about who rebounded more, anything like that besides winning each and every game. It’s championship behavior at its best and highest form.”
That culture will be on display tonight when NBCSN airs the 1996 (7 p.m. ET), 2000 (8:30 p.m. ET), 2004 (10 p.m. ET) and 2016 (midnight ET) women’s basketball gold-medal games as part of a larger look back at great moments in Olympic history in lieu of the live sports that would usually fill the airwaves this time of year.
One of Staley’s standout memories from her Olympic experience doesn’t involve being on the court but leading the U.S. contingent in a much different way. Staley was chosen to carry the U.S. flag at the Opening Ceremony in 2004 in Athens, and she had a front-row seat for the deliberations, which is unusual.
The future Hall of Famer represented the men’s and women’s basketball teams at the captains’ meeting held prior to each Games during which the athletes select the flag bearer. Just prior to the meeting, she said, she learned that members of the two basketball teams had picked her to be their nominee. In the room with the other team captains from all sports, everyone made their nominations and told why that person was deserving of the honor. Staley was the only nominee actually present for the conversation.
“It was incredible stories about people who had life-threatening injuries or overcame cancer, and when it was my turn I just mentioned that this was my third Olympic Games, I was also a coach, I have this foundation helping inner city youth and that was my story, basically,” she said. “Then they took a vote to come up with the top five, and I was in the top five. I was like, What in the world? Then we get to the top three, and I’m one of the top three and I’m looking around like, I don’t really compare to what’s happened to these other people. Then we got down to voting for the flag bearer, and I was the last woman standing. But I never voted for myself.”
Team USA’s incredible run started in 1996 in Atlanta when it defeated Brazil 111-87 to win the gold medal. The players arrived in Sydney four years later to defend their title, and found that the host team was eager to take them on and confident in how it would end.
“How they interview and how we interview here in the states, it’s a lot different,” Staley said. “They would say, ‘We’re going to win the gold; America thinks they’re the best team and they have a bunch of superstars but we’re going to beat them.’ They had other teams they had to play, but their main focus was on beating us.”
The two did eventually meet in the gold-medal game, but the hosts were unsuccessful in their quest for an upset. Australia led 6-4 in the opening minutes but that wasn’t to last. When they tipped off to start the second half, the U.S. was ahead 43-30, and the game ended in a 76-54 win.
Four years later in Athens, Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie led the U.S. team as three-time Olympians looking for their third gold medal in a row. They once again faced Australia in the gold-medal game.
“Off the tip I picked up a foul, probably within 20 seconds of the game starting,” Staley said. “I don’t even think I fouled. Then within less than two minutes I picked up a second foul, which was not a foul, I promise you. I swiped at the ball but I didn’t get close to it, I just tried to distract who I was guarding and they called me for a foul, so I’m out of the game within the first two minutes. I don’t think I played again until the second half.”
The U.S. led 29-26 at the break, after a tough defensive first half, and then in the third quarter Australia took the lead. It was the first time the U.S. trailed in the second half all tournament. Before long, though, the U.S. went on a 13-1 run and went on to win the game 74-63.
It was Staley’s last Olympic appearance as a player.
“I can remember in the fourth quarter. I wasn’t known as a scorer, I wasn’t even known to shoot the ball, really, but something came over me,” she said. “I’m like, ‘We’re not losing to them.’ They say the same thing every Olympic Games, every Olympics they would say something, and I was like, ‘We are not going to lose to them.’ I shot more than I ever did in an Olympic Games, or any games where I was playing for USA Basketball, but it was timely and it was the right thing to do.”
Staley, who started her coaching career while still playing, was named head coach of the South Carolina women’s team in 2008. She recently became the first person ever to win both the Naismith Player of the Year award (while at Virginia in both 1991 and 1992) and the Naismith Coach of the Year award after leading the Gamecocks to a 32-1 record and a No. 1 overall ranking this year. They won the national championship in 2017 and were hoping to win another this year before the NCAA tournament was canceled.
Also the head coach for the U.S. women’s national team since 2017, Staley also had one training camp for the national team scheduled during the Final Four and a game in Washington, D.C., scheduled for the end of this month as part of the Olympic preparation.
Although she’s already had success as a U.S. coach, including leading the team to victory at the 2018 FIBA World Cup, the Olympics, she said, are a utopia of basketball.
“This is a bad analogy, super bad, but it’s like when a drug addict finds their drug of choice and they keep coming back,” she said. “It’s a bad analogy but it’s like that, it’s like a drug to me, that utopian outlook and we really try to reach for that every single time I’ve been a coach and been a player. It’s never been duplicated. That’s why I keep coming back to USA Basketball and why I’ve spent more than half my life either playing or coaching or on a committee with USA Basketball.”