When the Basketball Hall of Fame called, Dawn Staley didn’t answer.
The South Carolina women’s basketball coach had her phone on silent during a team meeting. She eventually noticed a text message from one of her former Temple players asking if Staley had heard from the Hall of Fame.
“I really wasn’t thinking about it, and I forgot this was the day I’d receive the call, but I got that text,” Staley said. “Then I checked my voicemail and I had a couple messages from someone from the Hall of Fame who said to call him back.”
Staley said, “it’s been a state of shock ever since” she returned the call, learning she was elected into this year’s class. The accomplishment is one of many Staley has received for her illustrious playing career and has followed into her coaching career.
Among those joining Staley in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013 are college basketball coaches Rick Pitino, Guy Lewis, Jerry Tarkanian and Sylvia Hatchell, and former NBA players Gary Payton and Bernard King. Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will be held in September in Springfield, Mass.
“It doesn’t seem real even though we just did a press conference,” Staley said. “It’s real and as real as it could be, but I’m still in a state of shock because I just think of being inducted into a hall of fame as something that comes later in life.”
It came as no surprise to former University of Virginia women’s basketball coach Debbie Ryan. She said she always thought Staley, 42, would be elected sooner rather than later.
“I’ll be honest with you. I knew she was going to do all this,” Ryan said. “I did. I knew she was going to transform Virginia and transform women’s basketball in so many ways just because of her work ethic and the way she approaches everything. There’s nothing too tough for Dawn. It almost got to the point where I would say she couldn’t do something just because I knew that if I said that, she’d go and do it.”
A three time all-American at Virginia, Staley led her team to three Final Fours and was the ACC Player of the Year. She won three Olympic gold medals as a player (1996, 2000, 2004) and one as an assistant coach in 2008. She was twice named USA Basketball’s Female Athlete of the Year.
Staley played professionally for the WNBA while also coaching at Temple, so she said it’s been hard for her to reflect on her playing career because she’s never experienced a break from basketball.
Staley doesn’t like the spotlight and doesn’t like to talk about herself, something her players appreciate given her many accomplishments.
“I’d heard of Coach Staley before, but I didn’t know all of the details of her celebrity and her fame until I put on the uniform,” former USC point guard La’Keisha Sutton said. “Everywhere we went, people were asking her for autographs or reminiscing. I kind of learned the history of it from playing with her.”
Said sophomore forward Aleighsa Welch: “She’s very low-key about it. If we ask her any questions, she’ll be more than willing to answer, but she’s not really the type to gloat about it. And she really doesn’t have to because everything she’s done speaks for itself.”
Welch and Sutton have experienced the competitiveness Staley carried over from player to coach, having an intense and fiery sideline demeanor. She’s led USC to back-to-back 25-win seasons and NCAA Tournament appearances, advancing to the Sweet 16 last year.
“She’ll tell us straight that she’s a competitor and she’s always been a competitor,” Welch said. “That competitiveness comes out when it comes to us being on the court or when it comes to practices. You see a whole different side of her, and it’s nothing personal. She just competes. She probably still wants to be out there playing.”
Though Staley’s selection to the Hall of Fame was purely off her merit as a player, her playing career has gone hand in hand with coaching. She said her accolades help players trust her expertise.
““When you get into coaching, kids are tangible,” Staley said. “I think they can go back and see the type of player I was and who they’re now being coached by. I’m grateful for the career I had as a player, but I also look forward to one day coaching a Hall of Famer.”
Sutton wanted to transfer from South Carolina after her freshman year, but Staley persuaded her to stay. Staley told her things would get better and she was only pushing Sutton so hard because Staley had high expectations for her, Sutton said.
“I can’t thank her enough for doing that,” she said. “There’s something about Coach Staley. You just can’t deny her and you can’t say you don’t want to play for her. Coach Staley is living proof that dreams come true. I’m forever thankful.”
It’s not the gold medals or her decorated college and professional career that Ryan is most proud of, but her easy transition into coaching. She said her relationship with Staley has evolved into a deeper friendship than when Staley was playing for her.
“There just isn’t anybody better than Dawn in the game of basketball,” Ryan said.
Staley has a 24-hour rule for the Gamecocks, not allowing the team to celebrate an accomplishment or be down over a setback for longer than a day. Welch said the rule is out the window in this case because she wants to celebrate the Hall of Fame selection for at least a week. The Hall of Fame is important enough for Staley to temporarily allow the spotlight back on her playing career.
“I don’t think people will allow me to use the 24-hour rule,” Staley said. “I think it’s such a special accomplishment and honor, so I’ll celebrate with people because it is such a big deal. It’s a big deal for me.”