SAITAMA – Dawn Staley doesn't feel any added pressure being the first Black head coach of the U.S. women's basketball Olympic team.
She has had to handle the pressure of representing her country with USA Basketball for more than two decades. At the Tokyo Games her focus is on guiding the U.S. to a seventh consecutive gold medal.
That doesn't mean she doesn't grasp the magnitude of the stage and responsibility.
“We got a job to do. It’s not about me at all,” Staley said. “I never get ahead of myself when it comes to that. I am enjoying the journey. I’m very aware of what’s happening around me.”
The American have dominated the sport and Staley has had a hand in setting that standard. As a player 25 years ago, she was a member of the 1996 Olympic team. Then, as is the case today, failure is not an option. And that means winning the gold medal.
Those around her though understand the importance of Staley being the first.
“I think it is fitting she is the first Olympic head coach who is a Black coach because she has put in an awful lot of time with USA Basketball,” national team director Carol Callan said.
Staley won gold medals as a player on the 1996, 2000 and 2004 teams and helped the U.S. win gold as an assistant coach in 2008 and 2016. Now as the one in charge, the 51-year-old from North Philadelphia can inspire others to be like her.
“Representation matters,” said forward A'ja Wilson, who played for Staley at South Carolina and is competing in her first Olympics. “It’s one of those things where if you can see her, you can be her. I feel like this one is very personal. Coach Staley is my second mom and I’d do anything for her. That’s what I feel like right now.
“This is a personal one because it matters. This is a first for her and she’s been a first for many things, but yes I’m going to make sure I’m part of the team that gets it done."
Breaking barriers is nothing new for Staley, who guided South Carolina to its first women's basketball national championship in 2017. Four years after, Staley and Georgia’ Joni Taylor became the first Black coaches to meet for an SEC championship. A few weeks later, Staley and Arizona’s Adia Barnes were the first Black coaches to meet in a women’s Final Four.
Staley is one of five Black females who have been assistants for the U.S. There have a total of 24 assistants in the 12 Olympics that have had women’s basketball.
On the men's side, only two Black male coaches have led the U.S. team at the Olympics: John Thompson in 1988; Lenny Wilkins in 1996.
“I think it is fitting that it was Dawn as it’s almost like it’s coming full circle," Callan said. “Knowing Dawn, she was a feisty player and yet always a coach on the floor. Then when she was coaching and playing in the ABL and then in the WNBA she’s a natural at it.”
Staley is definitely a player's coach, having experienced the gamut with USA Basketball. She didn't make the 1992 Olympic team, as she was cut for being as she said “too small and not having enough international experience.” She was a reserve in 1996 and 2000 before starting in the 2004 Athens Games.
In her last Olympics as a player, she helped mentor Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, who are playing in their fifth Olympics.
“Dawn relates to everyone because she's been there before,” Bird said.
Staley rattled off several reasons why winning a gold medal was important in Tokyo. From keeping the streak going, sending Callan, who is retiring after this Olympics, out with a win to getting Bird and Taurasi a record fifth gold medal.
Being the first Black women's coach to win the gold wasn't on her list, but that doesn't mean it isn't on her mind.
But if she gets the job done, Staley knows she'll have time to reflect on what it would mean.
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