DAWN STALEY FIRST sought an assist in team building from a Charlotte-based firm several years ago. Around tournament time each season, South Carolina team members engaged in an exercise designed to better mold individual personalities into a single unit.
Staley pushed the exercise forward this season. She called for a team-building task in late August, weeks before the first practice and long before her team’s opening game.
With five new players on the roster and the possibility that veteran players could lose playing minutes to talented newcomers, Staley wanted to head off possible problems. She also knew her team would have to deal – for the first time – with sky-high expectations of challenging for a national championship.
It is one thing to assemble a team talented enough to be considered a national championship contender, it’s another to shape that team into a champion. Staley recognized she needed help.
“The chemistry of this team will be tested,” Staley said in the preseason. “Every person, every player on this roster can start for us. They can start. But we can only have five of them.”
A season ago, before USC headed to the SEC tournament, players were divided into groups and instructed to perform skits in front of their teammates and the coaching staff, which then performed in front of the team.
This time, the team watched a videotape of Kevin Durant’s 26-minute, tear-filled speech in May when he accepted the NBA’s MVP Award. After thanking teammates and coaches individually, Durant turned to his family.
“One of the best memories I have,” he said, “is when we moved into our first apartment – no bed, no furniture – and we just all sat in the living room and just hugged each other because we thought we made it.”
Durant then thanked his mother, Wanda Pratt, whom he described as the real MVP.
Staley had watched the speech alone, live on TV.
“This tough girl from Philly shed a tear or two with that,” she said.
So, too, did members of her team. Then each athlete was required to stand in front of the team, sans the coaching staff, and reveal something about themselves and their background.
“We left our feelings out there,” said Aleighsa Welch, a senior forward. “Everybody was involved. It’s different, especially for freshmen. You don’t do anything like that. You don’t do things like that in high school.”
It was particularly difficult for Kaydra Duckett, a freshman guard from Dreher High. She is the only child to Debbie and Samuel Duckett.
“I was able to understand my team more,” Duckett said. “Sometimes, you can lose compassion with people you don’t know. But if you know someone’s story, you are able to approach them differently. You know how to communicate with them better.
“At the end of the day, when you’re with your family, you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, step on any toes. As a team, we were able to become closer because we knew each other’s story.”
Welch said as each player told her story, her teammates better sensed that the 15 members were becoming sisters in a larger family.
“It allowed us to put basketball aside for a moment and just focus on each other as people and what we have going on in our lives,” Welch said. “I just let them know, I will run through a brick wall for them. I’m here if they need me. I’m going to lay it all on the line for them my senior year. I love them to death.”
That, Staley said, is what the team building exercise was all about.
“Chemistry is underrated,” she said. “When you have a team that really likes and loves one another, it’s always great to see. We’re going to put them through a whole lot, individually and collectively. They are going to need each other’s support to get through.”
So far, it has worked. USC is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 nationally. Even if Staley’s team holds that status as the regular season comes to a close, she said she is certain there will be another team building exercise prior to the postseason.
Hopefully, she said, with the same results.