South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley Carries the Hopes of Her Team

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Dawn Staley greeted her players at midcourt on Monday with a pregame ritual, briefly dancing a two-step called the Baltimore Shuffle. After the South Carolina women’s basketball team dispatched Maryland to reach the Final Four of the N.C.A.A. tournament, the Gamecocks cut down the net at one basket. Staley, their coach since 2008, slipped it like jewelry over her Louis Vuitton sweatsuit. A “netlace,” she has called it through the years.

This weekend in Dallas, South Carolina (36-0) is favored to cut down another net as it seeks a second consecutive national championship and a third overall for Staley and her team. The Gamecocks will play Iowa on Friday night in the national semifinals. Already, Staley has won more Division I basketball titles than any Black coach, man or woman.

She is a four-time Olympic gold medalist (three as a player, one as a coach) and is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Her success, resolve and sense of obligation have led her to voice her opinions on racial and gender equity as perhaps the most visible face and resonant moral voice in the sport.

“She’s the standard,” said Niele Ivey of Notre Dame, who was one of four Black coaches to reach the round of 16 in this women’s tournament, the most in a decade. “I’m inspired by her voice. She pours it into others. She does a lot for the women’s game and for African American head coaches. She’s the type that texts me on a personal level after games to lift me up.”

People who know Staley, 52, often describe her as an introvert who never really wanted to be a coach or draw the spotlight. She acknowledges that she can be a loner who prefers solitary walks along the river near her home in Columbia, S.C., and that one of her favorite pastimes is folding clothes.

But, she said: “You get to a point, I guess it’s in my 50s, where some stuff you just don’t want to hold on to. You want to let it out.”

Since the death of George Floyd after he was pinned beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer in 2020, Staley has spoken out in a voice that has been wounded, furious, consoling and demanding of change and respect. She supported her players when they sat or knelt or remained in the locker room for the national anthem. She helped campaign for a name change to a campus fitness center that honors Strom Thurmond, who, as South Carolina’s governor and a U.S. senator, was a staunch opponent of integration. (The name remains.)

When Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, referred to W.N.B.A. players as a “mob” for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and seeking the removal of Kelly Loeffler, a Republican senator who criticized the movement, as co-owner of the Atlanta Dream in 2020, Staley called Haley’s remark a sign of “ultimate division.” And after a Black volleyball player at Duke accused a Brigham Young fan of using racial slurs during a match, Staley canceled a two-game basketball series against B.Y.U.

“Women, especially, adore her frankness and willingness to take a stand that sometimes could get other people in hot water, with sponsors or the university they work for,” said Richard Lapchick, a prominent antiracism activist and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “She’s also at a school in the South, which makes it even more interesting that she’s able to do this. So many Black women view that she’s speaking for them because, in their situation, they can’t say what she says.”

Staley is the highest-paid women’s college basketball coach this season with a salary of $3.3 million. Her Gamecocks had the country’s highest attendance among women’s teams this season, nearly 13,000 per home game.

Lapchick predicted that Staley’s success would have the same impact on the hiring of Black women as basketball coaches as John Thompson had on the hiring of Black men when his predominantly Black Georgetown team became a fixture in the Final Four in the 1980s. There were 61 Black female head coaches in Division I last season, compared with 46 in 2019-20, an increase that Lapchick attributed to the racial reckoning that followed Floyd’s death and to Staley’s influence.

“There’s shyness to Coach Staley,” said Ray Tanner, the athletic director at South Carolina. “But, greater than that shy side, is that she believes there are times when she needs to represent other people who can’t represent themselves.”

As the Gamecocks play in their fifth Final Four in the last eight tournaments, Staley says she feels pressure to win as a Black coach, pressure for her team to perform as it has all season, pressure to succeed for those who look to her for hope.

“I don’t want to let them down,” she said.

Despite their dominance, Staley and her players endure racist slights on social media and feel that the news media can too easily shift attention to others. Staley describes her team the way people from her hometown, Philadelphia, describe their local teams and, often, themselves — blue collar, gritty, nose to the ground.

“I’m a Black coach and I’ve got a predominantly Black team,” Staley said, and “for the viewers to tune in to that, it means that we’re opening doors that were closed to a program like us.”

The river of her voice, Staley said, flows from tributaries of her mother’s experiences. After Estelle Staley died in 2017, Dawn, hurt and enraged by the killing of Floyd, wrote about her mother in an essay for The Players’ Tribune. Staley described an incident from 1956, when as a 13-year-old, Estelle was sent by her mother — Dawn’s grandmother — to buy meat at a butcher shop in Woodford, S.C., about 25 miles south of Columbia.

The butcher wanted Estelle to take old meat instead of fresh meat from a refrigerated case, Dawn Staley wrote. Estelle refused. A verbal confrontation ensued. The butcher, who was white, told her never to come back to the store. Fearing that Estelle might be lynched for her boldness, her mother sent her to Philadelphia to live with family.

With her husband, Clarence, Estelle raised five children in the Raymond Rosen housing project in North Philadelphia, where her youngest, Dawn, learned to shoot baskets by using a crate rigged to a piece of wood for a backboard.

“I think about what she made possible for me and maybe what I’m supposed to do to make possible for others,” Dawn Staley wrote of her mother in another Players’ Tribune essay in 2018. “She left Carolina because of the racial divide. I came back with a hope to bridge it.”

Estelle moved back to South Carolina when Dawn took over the Gamecocks’ women’s basketball team in 2008. Ever outspoken, she was known to leave her seat in a suite and approach courtside to expound on calls by the referees.

“I could hear her coming down the steps, getting closer to the court,” Staley said with a laugh. “That was a cue for a family member to get my mom.”

When South Carolina was about to begin play in this N.C.A.A. tournament with two games at home, even Champ, Staley’s 5-year-old Havanese with his own Twitter account, seemed to sense the anticipation of back-to-back titles for the Gamecocks.

Sometimes skittish among the bouncing balls and leaping bodies, he ran boldly along the baseline during a layup drill one day at practice. Champ was a fixture at home games and news conferences in the dog-friendly Southeastern Conference, whose team mascots included two bulldogs, a collie and a bluetick coonhound.

“A couple of years ago at the SEC tournament, they put a pee pad in the coaches’ locker room just in case Champ showed up,” said Craig Oates, South Carolina’s athletic trainer.

The Gamecocks’ opening opponent was Norfolk State, a historically Black university whose team played fearlessly but did not have the stars, size or depth of the country’s best team. Out of curiosity, Larry Vickers, the Norfolk State coach, checked the betting line in Las Vegas. His Spartans were underdogs by 49½ points.

“Geez,” Vickers said. “Forty-nine? Forty-nine is crazy.”

Wearing diamond hoop earrings, a white jacket and black athletic pants, Staley sat on the bench, sheets of statistics rolled like a relay baton in her hand. She watched impassively with her chin in her hand or walked the sideline offering instruction and encouragement, except for one dyspeptic timeout called during the second quarter.

The Gamecocks didn’t cover the spread but won, 72-40, with selflessness and discipline, collecting assists on 17 of 21 baskets, drawing 41 points from a deep bench. South Carolina’s front line had been particularly imposing, with 6-foot-5 Aliyah Boston, last season’s national player of the year; Kamilla Cardoso, a 6-7 rebounder and shot blocker; and Laeticia Amihere, who is 6-4 and can play and defend all five positions on the court.

“They play I don’t know how many bigs,” Vickers said. “Ten, it feels like.”

After the game, Staley posed for photographs with Norfolk State’s players and congratulated them for their tenacity. A dream merchant, she calls herself. Someone who helps others reach their goals. It is well known that she sent snippets of the net from South Carolina’s 2017 national championship game as an inspiration to every Black female head coach in Division I.

Staley said she hopes to inspire young people who grow up in difficult circumstances, as she did. “They need to see other people who have been in their situation in a different light,” she said. “I’m hoping they are drawn to that light, so they understand your foundation can still be where you grew up, but you can build a different life for yourself and change generations in your family and in your neighborhood.”

Two days later, for South Carolina’s second-round game, a 76-45 victory over South Florida, Staley wore a white-and-blue jersey honoring Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. In 1982, the school, then known as Cheyney State, became the first — and still only — women’s or men’s team from a historically Black university to reach the national championship game in Division I.

Staley’s game-day wardrobe often carries messages beyond fashion and utility. Earlier in the season, she wore clothes bringing awareness to the plight of Brittney Griner, who was still imprisoned in Russia. Later, she wore jerseys honoring her hometown Philadelphia Eagles as they advanced to the Super Bowl.

The Cheyney jersey bore the No. 44 of Yolanda Laney, a star player there in the 1980s who helped organize a youth league in which Staley played. In 1982, Cheyney was coached by one of Staley’s inspirations, C. Vivian Stringer, who later guided Iowa and Rutgers to Final Fours.

“For them to be led by Coach Stringer, who opened doors that now I walk through, it was truly an honor to wear this jersey and to represent them,” Staley said.

The State House at the intersection of Main and Gervais Streets in Columbia, South Carolina’s capital, echoes the complicated racial history of the first state to secede from the Union.

A Confederate battle flag flew atop or outside the statehouse for more than half a century until 2015, which had led the N.C.A.A. to ban championship events like basketball regionals from South Carolina. A monument to Thurmond was amended after his death at 100 in 2003, acknowledging he had fathered a daughter with a Black woman who worked for his family.

In a year or so, in a striking counterpoint of healing, inclusivity and opportunity for all, a bronze statue of Staley is expected to be erected at Main and Gervais, across from the Classical Revival-style State House. The statue is a joint project by the city and an arts group seeking more equitable representation of those memorialized around the world.

Deborah Stroman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who preceded Staley at Virginia and was the first Black female athlete on scholarship there, said, “Dawn is the right person at the right time to help South Carolina heal, or to continue to wrestle with ‘What does equity look like?’”

A week after Floyd’s killing, Staley wrote in The Players’ Tribune that “Black people are tired.” And: “People are mad because NOTHING HAS CHANGED.”

She went to a peaceful protest at the South Carolina State House. She urged people to vote. And she gave her players a chance to express their opinions without judgment.

“I knew she would continue to fight for me as a Black woman and an athlete,” said Boston, Staley’s star forward. “I feel like I’m good enough to speak about things I want because I’ve seen how she’s been able to do it.”

Staley chose to stand for the national anthem, except on one occasion in 2020 when guard Olivia Thompson, who is white, took a knee. Staley knelt beside her, to support and help shield her from the inevitable backlash.

“It really meant a lot and shows the way she advocates for people of color, for women, for any underrepresented person,” Thompson said. “Especially in the South, that was a very brave gesture to allow us to be free with our actions but then to stand with us.”

South Carolina played constricting defense in the round of 16 to defeat U.C.L.A., 59-43. It was an intense game. Players hit the floor. But South Carolina’s players helped up their opponents when they fell. And in the third quarter, when U.C.L.A.’s Emily Bessoir stayed down with an injury while South Carolina had possession, Staley used one of her own timeouts so Bessoir could receive immediate attention.

Staley’s gesture showed her class, Bruins Coach Cori Close said, and revealed “a layer of her character, of what she deems important, and that’s always the kids.”

The moment was also a repudiation of the odious comments often made about Staley and her players, often anonymously on social media and sometimes out in the open. In 2018, Jim Sterk, then Missouri’s athletic director, accused South Carolina fans of spitting on Missouri players and using racial epithets during a home game for the Gamecocks. He told a radio station that he believed Staley “promoted that kind of atmosphere.”

Staley sued for slander, and Sterk apologized. The suit was settled for $50,000, half paid to a nonprofit of Staley’s that provides sneakers to underprivileged youth and half to her lawyers.

Shortly after South Carolina defeated Maryland, 86-75, in the Greenville Regional final on Monday, Staley was told in a postgame news conference that “everyone is talking” about Boston, last year’s player of the year, and Caitlin Clark of Iowa, who on Thursday became this year’s, meeting in the national semifinals.

“They are?” Staley responded, with more skepticism than surprise in her voice.

Pointedly, Staley and her players declined to answer questions after the game about stopping Clark’s voluminous, long-range shooting on Friday night. Staley said she preferred to “enjoy this and just give our players an opportunity to be talked about.”

Earlier in the tournament, she questioned whether her team had been covered by the news media with the same consideration as previous undefeated teams. Boston wasn’t the most prominently featured player last year, either, even though she was dominant, Staley noted.

Staley, speaking obliquely, said before the tournament’s second round, “Don’t create narratives that will give certain players the edge or certain programs the edge, because there’s room for all of us to be in this space.”

In the late matchup on Friday, South Carolina, with the nation’s best defense, will face Iowa, which has the nation’s top-scoring offense. But the game will also match a predominantly Black team against a predominantly white team. That narrative was an undercurrent even as South Carolina and some supporters remained on the court to celebrate the victory over Maryland.

“It’s a team full of Black women, and nobody wants to give us credit, ever,” Bakari Sellers, a political analyst and former state representative from South Carolina, said on the court. Boston had just delivered 22 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks but, Sellers said, “everybody wants to talk about Caitlin Clark.” He continued: “Dawn has to overcome everything, all the time. It has to be tiring and exhausting. But she’s built for it.”