The No. 1-ranked University of South Carolina women’s basketball team will be at the Sanford Pentagon this week to play South Dakota State University in what represents the third visit to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in three years for Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks.
The team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time of its November 2021 visit went on to win a national championship that season after defeating the University of South Dakota months earlier.
The undefeated Gamecocks, who return four starters – including national player of the year Aliyah Boston – will be facing a South Dakota State team picked to win the Summit League title. The Jacks knocked off No. 24 Kansas State on Dec. 10 and have a 7-4 record going into this 6 p.m. Dec. 15 contest that will be telecast nationally on ESPN2.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks, now the defending champions, return this year ranked No. 1 again. See a pattern? Staley does.
Success at Sanford Pentagon
“We come back here because the other times we came here our seasons ended pretty well,” she said. “Even the year before, we didn’t win a national championship, but we made it to the Final Four. It’s a place where we’ve found some success. And we’re a little superstitious as well.”
Staley, a four-time Olympic gold-medal winner whose legacy continues to grow beyond the sport of basketball, was not intending to be taken seriously about being driven back to the Pentagon by superstitions. Based on the evidence, however, it could lead you to believe superstitions work. So does the Pentagon.
“It’s cool the way all the people, every time we go there, really make us feel like we’re family,” Staley said. “They probably do that for every team but it’s the mark of a great atmosphere when people are able to make everyone feel like it’s their home court.”
Seeking opportunities for athletes
The South Carolina coach won three Olympic medals as a player, another as a coach, and is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. She grew up in Philadelphia and began her college coaching career at Temple University in 2000 while still one of the WNBA’s biggest stars. In 2008 she was named head coach at South Carolina and has built the program into a perennial national title contender.
Along the way she has developed a distinctive approach to coaching and to her role as a leader and spokesperson for women’s basketball. It includes seeking out increased opportunities for Black athletes and coaches.
The experience of playing for the South Carolina Gamecocks comes with a coach who encourages her players to think outside the lines of the sport that made her famous.
“As a coach we’re teaching young people how to navigate through life with all its pitfalls and all the things that come with it,” Staley said. “There is the life that they’ll have in basketball and outside of basketball. They’ll have families, they’ll have significant others, they’ll have close friends and they’ll have enemies – the whole gamut of what life throws at you. I want them to be prepared for whatever that is.”
A new NIL deal
To that end, Staley has been at the forefront of developing opportunities for her players. The South Carolina program overall represents a pioneering effort to incorporate new name, image and likeness income sources, several of which connect to causes within the community.
The company Rewind represents a long-term clinical program that addresses type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases related to obesity. Originally the firm was interested in working with Staley. She quickly spread the love for that to include the team. As part of the sponsorship, Rewind and the team will collaborate on social media content and be part of events for Rewind members.
Players will be given equity in the company for their efforts.
“I told them our players are very popular in South Carolina so it might be great to have a lot of them on the ground trying to reverse type 2 diabetes,” Staley said. “From there it was about figuring out what it would take for us to have an all-team deal. And it worked out where our players now own equity in Rewind. It’s a beautiful thing because it’s another aspect of life that they’re going to have to navigate.”
Basketball brings people together
In a column for The Players’ Tribune in 2018, Staley wrote:
“If I never won another championship but my legacy was that — to have changed the face of opportunity and united communities — I’d take that over most other things in this world.”
So how does she go about doing that? And how does she encourage her players to do the same?
“We represent the University of South Carolina. We represent the state of South Carolina,” she said. “This state has a racial history that we have to combat. There are people who come to our games who had never set foot on campus because they couldn’t but now they do through attending games. I think that’s an organic and beautiful thing.”
Staley is often approached by fans when she’s out shopping or at a restaurant. They talk. They tell her why they’re fans. They tell her a lot about their “whys.” She listens.
“They’ve created new friendships from coming to our games or going on bus trips to see us play,” she said. “We treat them well and they end up treating us better. If the world can see that and actually allow themselves to understand people and their ‘why,’ I think we’ll be in a much better place. It’s not that we need to agree, but we can agree to disagree agreeably.”
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