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Morris: An honor worth bearing

Dawn Staley leads the American team in the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies for the 2004 Olympic Games on Aug. 13, 2004, in Athens, Greece.
Dawn Staley leads the American team in the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies for the 2004 Olympic Games on Aug. 13, 2004, in Athens, Greece.

DAWN STALEY LEAVES soon to begin preparation as an assistant coach for the United States Olympic women’s basketball team. Most believe the assignment is her next step toward being the team’s head coach for the 2012 Olympic Games.

South Carolina’s women’s coach just keeps adding hardware to her crowded mantle. She was a two-time national player of the year at Virginia and a five-time all-star in the WNBA. She tops the Temple women’s program in wins as a coach. She owns three Olympic gold medals as a player.

There is one honor, though, that trumps all those.

Staley led the United States contingent into Olympic Stadium four years ago in Athens, Greece. She was the first basketball player to carry the flag. She became the 20th athlete to carry the U.S. flag since the tradition began for the 1908 Games. She joined the company of such luminaries as Rafer Johnson (1960) and Evelyn Ashford (1988).

“It was incredible because you don’t dream about that,” Staley says. “You dream about being an Olympian, winning the gold medal, graduating from college, but never in a million years of being a flag-bearer for the Olympic team.”

Even today, Staley pinches herself when asked about one of the most prestigious honors in sports.

“It’s unbelievable. I still get overwhelmed. It’s unreal,” Staley says. “Yes, I lived it. I did it. But I always ask the question(s), ‘Why me? Why did it happen to me? Why was I selected?’

“Sometimes things happen in your life that are unforeseen; you don’t know why they happen, but they do. In my entire career, I do think there has been a higher power ... because to be able to play the game, and now coach the game, is really enough for me. It really is. That part fulfills me. But to get the other stuff, I still say, ‘Why me?’ ”

Once Staley arrived in Athens in August of 2004, she was called to a meeting of team captains representing every participating United States sport. Staley represented the men’s and women’s basketball teams and was one of about 25 captains.

Staley’s nomination to be the U.S. flag bearer was unusual because she was selected by both basketball teams. So when the group went around the room to hear about the nominees, Staley talked about herself.

Staley recalls that most nominees had heart-rendering stories, including one cancer survivor and another who qualified for the Olympics with a missing toe. Staley kept her talk brief, mentioning she had won gold medals in 1996 and 2000 with the women’s basketball team and had established a foundation in her name.

Eight years earlier, Staley carried the Olympic torch in Philadelphia before the Olympic Games in Atlanta. While standing on the platform to receive her gold medal, Staley says she thought about young women in her hometown of Philadelphia who deserved the same opportunity to realize their dreams. The Dawn Staley Foundation was soon formed.

“I told them the various things that we did and how it affected inner-city youth,” Staley recalls of the captains’ meeting. “I think they really bought into that part of it. ... After hearing some of the other nominees, I didn’t think I deserved to be in that class of people.”

After the first paper-ballot vote, five names were written on an eraser board. Then the number was trimmed to three. Finally, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee wrote Staley’s name on the board as the winner. She was sworn to secrecy until the news was released publicly, although Staley admits she broke her promise to tell her mother in Philadelphia.

Even though she had walked in the Opening Ceremonies at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, Staley says she initially did not realize the magnitude of being named the flag-bearer. Through three hours of card playing outside the stadium in Athens, Staley remained unaffected by it all.

Then she entered the stadium with the American flag, the U.S. team following behind. For only the second time in her life, Staley said she was overcome with emotion. She was awestruck, as she was following a 1996 Olympics game when President Clinton visited the U.S. locker room.

“That’s the same feeling I had when I was walking into the stadium. I just had this permanent smile on my face,” Staley says. “It was incredible. It was an incredible feeling.”

A feeling like none she has experienced as a player or a coach.

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