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Inspired by the Sixers, basketball star Dawn Staley forged her own path on the court

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Dawn Staley, is a star of women's basketball as a player and a coach. In April, she won her second NCAA championship as head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks. She won three Olympic gold medals as a player and one as head coach. At the 2004 Summer Olympics, she had the honor of carrying the flag and leading the athletes to the opening ceremony. She's witnessed the growth in popularity and revenue of women's basketball and is one of the reasons for that growth.

In 1999, just two years after the WNBA started play, she joined the WNBA team the Charlotte Sting. Before that, she played in the short-lived American Basketball League. She has special significance in Philadelphia, the city where our show is produced. She grew up in the Raymond Rosen housing projects in North Philly and started her coaching career a few blocks away at Temple University. There are streets named after her near Temple and the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. I spoke with Dawn Staley May 17 at a WHYY Zoom event, during which she received the WHYY Lifelong Learning Award.

Coach Staley, welcome. I want to talk about you, but I first want to say something about Brittney Griner, which is to say I want you to say something about Brittney Griner. She is still detained in Russia. Her detainment has been extended again. I assume that you know her. I know you have been really advocating in every way that you can for more attention to her detainment and everything that can be done for her release. Tell us a little bit. We know she's a fantastic player. Tell us a little bit about who she is as a person.

DAWN STALEY: Brittney Griner - I mean, she's wrongly detained. Our U.S. State Department has determined that. But who Brittney Griner is - I mean, she's a fun-loving person. She's a giver. I know one of the foundations that she birthed is giving shoes to young people because she was walking down the street in Phoenix and saw someone that was barefoot. So she got out of the car - her car, opened up the trunk of her car and started giving out sneakers to this person. And from that, she's been a giver.

I've known her for a little under 10 years now, so I've watched her grow. I've watched her mature. I've watched her become this incredible person. I know everybody knows Brittney Griner for her ability to dominate on the basketball court, but she is as dominating in her community and giving back more so than any other player in the WNBA that I've - you know, I've been associated with.

GROSS: Well, thank you for the work you're doing, trying to get her released. Let's talk about you. You've reached the heights as a player and as a coach. But when you were first asked to be a coach at Temple University, as we heard, you turned them down. Why were you so reluctant to coach given that you've got such a gift for it, as you later learned?

STALEY: Well, I think sometimes, when you are and have been - and that was me at that time. I was singularly focused on my career as a player. I was 29 years old. I was still playing professional basketball. And then I get this opportunity, you know, of coaching. And I was probably more afraid of being responsible for young people that's closer to my age than anything. So the responsibility part of it really just frightened me just a little bit.

GROSS: How do you think being a point guard as a player prepared you to be a coach?

STALEY: As a point guard, you know, the point guard is the position on the floor that really runs it. You're the conductor. You're the coach out there on the floor. You're the extension of the coach that's on the sideline. And I wholeheartedly believe, from the position that I played, it is the reason why I was able to transition into coaching a lot easier because I basically treated everything like a huddle.

Like, if I'm talking to our team and I'm presenting something to them, I just looked at it as, OK, I'm in a huddle. I'm in a huddle with them. I'm in the huddle with their point guard. I'm never going to step on the court and play with them, but I surely can lead from inside the huddle. I can almost role-play like I am their point guard. I'm not in the game, permanently not in the game. But I can actually just convey what I'm seeing out there on the floor. And that made that transition a lot more just easy to deal with.

GROSS: You were obsessed with basketball from a very young age. What kind of future did you see for yourself in the game? You were born in 1970. The WNBA didn't start until - the games didn't start until '97. And then - and you joined in '99, two years later. In '96, the American Basketball League started, and you were a member of that. But then, you know, it folded within two years. So, like, did you see any kind of future for yourself in basketball as a girl when you were growing up, outside of like, you know, the courts in the neighborhood?

STALEY: Well, here's the thing. Here's the thing about imagination. It gives you an opportunity to dream, no matter, you know, how outlandish my dreams were. Like, I thought I was going to play in the NBA. I was a Sixers fan. I knew everything about the Sixers. I thought I was going to be their next point guard after Maurice Cheeks took us to a 1983 championship. So I thought I was the next point guard up. And that's the thing that kept me going. That is the dream that kept me going no matter how outlandish it may have been, but I dreamt the biggest dream.

And although I did not end up in the NBA, I ended up in a place where I got a chance to play professionally here in the States, in two professional women's basketball leagues, in the ABL and the WNBA. You know, and now I get a chance just from playing the game. Although coaching wasn't a dream of mine, just from being around it, you put yourself in the position to stay in the game.

GROSS: When you decided you wanted to be the next Maurice Cheeks, did you think, I'm going to play on the - in the men's teams; I'm going to be the first woman in the NBA?

STALEY: You know, I didn't think about being the first. You know, I didn't visualize me just being the first. I just - it was something that - that carrot that was dangled in front of my - in front of me. And it just really guided me to continue to work hard. It guided me to - you know, I mean, I just had an insatiable desire to play basketball. And when you are in a position where you've set a goal that's a dream and goal goal, you chase it. You chase it. So I didn't even see anything besides me being there. Like, I didn't even see, like, names, faces. I just saw me living out my dream of continuing to play basketball for the Sixers.

GROSS: So women's basketball has really changed since you started playing in women's professional leagues and, of course, the Olympics, too. But - and part of that change is because of you, because you were such a good player and now such a great coach. It's gotten - become more popular. There's more revenue. Tell us one or two of the things that have changed in women's basketball that you think are the most dramatic. And I'm sure you can think of many, many.

STALEY: I think the biggest thing that nowadays - we've had - you know, the WNBA is starting its 26th year. So every young player that is 25 and under - they've had the carrot of the WNBA dangled in front of them.

GROSS: Right, which you didn't have.

STALEY: Yes. I had the NBA, you know? It's the same as - yeah, I had the NBA. But when you're able to see other women doing something that you want to do, it drives you to work harder. So I think because of the WNBA, players are much better because they they see dreams are being realized every year when that WNBA draft rolls around in April and people are checking off goals that they had set for themselves. It makes the younger generation work a little harder. So that's what we've had that's prevalent. And, you know, quite honestly, you know, women's basketball is in a place where you can make a living. You can make a living as a player. You can make a living as a coach. It's a profession that was not in existence when I was growing up.

GROSS: My guest is women's basketball star Dawn Staley. In April, she won her second NCAA championship as head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "PROCEED IV (A.J. SHINE MIX)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with women's basketball star Dawn Staley, head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks. In April, her team won its second NCAA championship. She's also a former WNBA player and won three Olympic gold medals as a player and one as head coach.

You grew up in the Raymond Rosen housing projects in North Philly. Tell us a little bit what the projects were like then. And you grew up in the '70s and '80s.

STALEY: For me, you know, the projects was a way of life. Like, I didn't see myself as poor. Like, my family didn't see ourselves as poor. I mean, we saw themselves as working-class people who worked hard, you know? Like, I grew up in the projects, but the lawns in my block were - you know, were maintained. They were - I mean, it was incredibly clean. All the people that...

GROSS: These were garden apartments, not a high-rise.

STALEY: Not yet, yeah. Here's the thing. All of my siblings that are older than me - they had an experience in the high-rises. I've never had an experience of living in the high-rises. So I think of myself as a little more bougie because the row homes are a little more plush than going through, you know, the high-rises. So I - you know, we had lawns. We had neighbors. We - my mom planted flowers, and they bloomed. And everything looked, like, great.

Although my mom had to clean houses for other people in order to make ends meet. But it was a job. And my mom did it to the best of her ability. She cleaned people's houses like a boss, like a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. So, you know, I come from a strong woman who just believed in doing things the right way, no matter what it was. So I just - you know, I thank God for my mother because she was a - she's a disciplinarian. Like, I feared my mother. Like, I did not want to disappoint her.

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. Didn't she sometimes use, like, a cable or a switch of some sort to discipline her children?

STALEY: Extension cords, switches, anything that was in her reach.

GROSS: Nowadays that would be considered child abuse. How did you think of it then?

STALEY: I thought it was child abuse then. But there wasn't - not one finger would pick up a phone to call any type of hotline on my mother. But I look at how I am today, you know? And for me - I'm considered probably a hard coach to play for. I'm a disciplined coach because I grew up in a disciplined household. And I know the impact of being a disciplined person.

Like, a disciplined person is a - and this is a motto of mine - a disciplined person can do anything. And a lot of people will look at that and say, you know, that's so very true. And it is, because you can be disciplined in something that's not very beneficial to you and be really good at it, and it doesn't help you. Or you could be disciplined to something that's, you know, super-positive, and your cup could runneth over because of that. So I'm more like my mother today than any other period of my life. And I'm super-proud to be her child.

GROSS: So there's a kind of famous story about you that when you were a kid and you wanted to play with the boys, you'd bring your own basketball and tell them that if they wanted to use the basketball, they had to let you play. OK, so that was your in. But then what? Did they make it especially hard for you? How did they feel about playing with a girl? - 'cause I know for a lot of boys that would be considered, like, lowering themselves in some way.

STALEY: Yeah - I mean, obviously, the newness of having, like, one girl show up to the court. They're not welcoming at all. They weren't welcoming, and they shouldn't have been. I was treated like a newcomer, like it was a new guy that showed up to the court. They're not going to be welcoming to that person unless they prove themselves. Now, because I'm a girl, they're not going to give me an opportunity to prove myself unless I bring my own ball to the court and hope that everybody else forgets to bring theirs. And that was my in.

So that was my in to get on the court. And after that, you know, if we win, we lost or if it was a draw, you know, that was my own fate. I just wanted an opportunity to play. And once that continued to happen, I was able to prove myself and become, you know, one of the first players that's picked when we're starting a pickup game.

GROSS: So you were used to playing with a, you know, regular-sized basketball. Women's basketball is - the ball's just, like, a little bit smaller, right?

STALEY: Yes. Well, back then, it was the same size. So we all played with the men's ball back in the day. And then I believe once I went to high school, at some point they changed the size of the ball. And I thought that was the worst thing ever.

GROSS: Why?

STALEY: Because I was just used to playing with, you know, the basketball that I grew up playing with. It was - I mean, I had a hard time adjusting. I had a hard time adjusting to the women's ball because it was smaller. It was lighter. And I couldn't control it as easily as I did the men's ball because I was just so used to it.

GROSS: So you went on to play for the University of Virginia when you went to college there. And you were - you know, it was an NCAA team. I read that UVA, it was the first time you were really in an atmosphere, you know, an environment where there are a lot of white people. You weren't used to that. Can you talk a little bit about the transition going from, you know, living in the housing projects in North Philly to being at UVA?

STALEY: Yeah, the housing projects that I grew up in, I mean, it was probably 99.9% Black. And then I go to UVA, and it's the first time that, you know, I'm outnumbered as far as, you know, Black versus white or any other, you know, race. And although - you know, I was a very shy young person. Like, I didn't talk a whole lot. I just - I wasn't open to making new friends. I mean, I'm from Philly. I'm from North Philly. We just kind of stay in our lanes and we don't outside of our comfort zone unless someone comes into our comfort zone. And for me, going to Virginia was a huge step outside of my comfort zone.

And it took me a while to make the adjustment to be in that environment. You know, I didn't do well in school in the beginning because I just - I didn't know how to study. I didn't - I wasn't comfortable. And then, you know, when I was threatened with getting kicked out of school, that's where my competitiveness kicked in. Like, I never reverted to my competitiveness until my back - until I was challenged in that way. And then I tapped into being a competitor. So I looked at academics a lot differently once I had to. And if I didn't really want to be at Virginia, win a national championship, being in, you know, in that space, I would have given up. But I wanted to be in that space. And that's the thing that really drove me to doing better.

GROSS: How did you go from being inexpressive, not making eye contact, being kind of introverted, just expressing yourself through the game to being a coach where you really have to communicate with people? I mean, you're probably part psychologist and therapist as well as, you know, basketball coach. And you're probably shouting on the sidelines during the game. I mean, you have to be more extroverted and communicative as a coach.

STALEY: It really wasn't easy. And I find that just through my life, being uncomfortable - being uncomfortable, I found a way to grow. And I give that to our players. Like, I am - you know, like - I'll give you an example. Most of the players that I coach, their parents, they don't want them to hurt. Like, they don't want them to be unhappy. They don't want them to go through life hurting or failing, should I say, failing - bad game, bad grade, just - break up with your - you know, with your boyfriend. Like, their parents don't want them to go through that.

And I am the direct opposite of their parents. Like, I want them to do that. I want you to break up, have a breakup. I want you to have a bad game. I want you to fail the test because from those moments, growth is taking place. You find a way to not have those repeat performances in those stages of your life. So sometimes my players - they struggle with me because I don't treat them like their parents treat them.

GROSS: That's interesting.

STALEY: I balance their parents out.

GROSS: My guest is women's basketball star Dawn Staley. We'll be back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WYNTON MARSALIS' "JUMP START - THE MASTERY OF MELANCHOLY: JUMP")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with women's basketball star Dawn Staley, head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks. In April, her team won its second NCAA championship. She's also a former WNBA player and won three Olympic gold medals as a player and one as head coach. She grew up in the projects of North Philadelphia. She left home to attend college at the University of Virginia. She led her team to three Final Fours and one national championship game.

I want to ask you about a health issue that you've spoken about and that is written about on the Cleveland Clinic website. So I hope it's OK to ask you. And if it's something you prefer not to talk about, just let me know. And there's plenty of other things we can talk about.

STALEY: No, I'm fine.

GROSS: A few years ago, you were diagnosed with pericarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart lining that is very painful and dangerous. And you, I think, took a little bit of time off and tried to take a little bit more easy. But you coached your way through it. And was this before the first Gamecocks championship? Or...

STALEY: Yeah. That was actually - I was diagnosed that particular year in the fall of 2016.

GROSS: And the championship was 2017. Yeah.

STALEY: Yeah. So it was the beginning of that season to the end of that season that I was dealing with pericarditis. You know, pericarditis is a condition that - you can't actually do anything besides breathe. Any little thing could cause your heart to beat a little bit faster. That will bump against the inflamed lining of your heart. So I - you know, he wanted me - one of the first time I saw him, he wanted me to just stop coaching. He says, stop coaching, you know? This is not going to go away. You don't really understand what you're you know - you don't understand this condition. It's long. It takes a really long time.

And as an athlete, you deal with injuries all the time. And you find a way to get through them. And I'm thinking, it's the same way. I'm like, are you kidding me? Like, we got a good team, and you want me to, you know, take it easy and not coach this year? So you know, I did not take his advice. So every - I went to him every six months for about three years. And it got worse and worse and worse.

GROSS: Now, you're somebody who learned to not show weakness because you can't show weakness in the game. When you were playing with the boys in North Philly, you could not show weakness. And you were, like, physically weak at that point. There were things you were not allowed to do. So again, it must have been a real reorientation for you to have to accept vulnerability and maybe let other people know that you had a vulnerability. Did your players know that you had this condition when you were first diagnosed and dealing with it?

STALEY: Yeah. No. I didn't tell anybody. I only told one person on our staff that I was dealing with this because I don't like for anything to disrupt the sanctity of the team. Like, we were going to get through. I never missed any games. And then finally, probably, maybe, a year or two, you know, my face started getting distorted. And...

GROSS: From the steroids?

STALEY: For the steroids. And I think I came out after the season when I had to deal with it because I needed to tell people. And I - when I was done coaching, like, the six months that we have in between, you know, the end of the season until we start up, that's probably when I had the most healing. But I dealt with it for at least close to three years. Like, right before the pandemic is when I got my clean bill of health.

GROSS: Oh. Well, good for you. That's great. I think it's amazing that you won the championship in spite of that diagnosis. That says so much about you. So our time is nearly up. But I just want you to, like, play back a moment for us. You know, one of the greatest honors for an athlete is to play at the Olympics. And at the Olympics, one of the greatest honors is to be the flag-bearer, when all the athletes march to the opening ceremony. And you were the flag-bearer. Can you just tell us how that felt?

STALEY: I seriously equate it to being in a royal wedding. Like, all eyes, no matter what country you're in or from, you're watching that wedding. And for me, it was that - to be the first one to come through the tunnel of an Olympic stadium during the opening ceremonies. And I will say this, you know, when I had to talk to the people about what needs to happen as the flag-bearer, they told me that no matter what, how you're received - they could boo you, they could hiss you, they could cheer you. No matter how you're received, make sure you hold the flag up high. And don't let it dip. So when I walked through the tunnel and onto the track, I heard nothing but cheers. And it was the proudest moment. And it's an experience like no other.

GROSS: I hope your mother was alive to see it.

STALEY: My mother was definitely alive to see it. And, you know, they had a watch party.

GROSS: Good. Coach Staley, it's just been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for being with us, greatly appreciate that. And, you know, I wish you many more championships.

STALEY: Thank you so much, appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Dawn Staley is the head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, which won its second NCAA championship in April. Our interview was recorded last month at a Zoom event, during which she received the WHYY Lifelong Learning Award. The event was organized and produced by WHYY's Ellen Steele and Karen Smyles. After we take a short break, we'll hear from Neda Toloui-Semnani, author of "They Said They Wanted Revolution: A Memoir Of My Parents." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD SONG, "I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.