COLUMBIA – Dawn Staley used to feel invisible in the room.
A 5-6 point guard, it was only natural. On the court, Staley was a towering player, one of the greatest. Off it, Staley said, a lack of height held her lower to the ground – easy to overlook in a sport designed for skyscrapers.
The awkwardness sprung whenever she was with her peers, fellow legendary basketball players. There would be former Philadelphia 76ers center Moses Malone, Staley's childhood hero. Staley could match him – or anyone else – with her resume, but not with a tape measure.
Always, Staley felt hidden. Not anymore.
Staley stood center stage Sunday night at the Dr. James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., wearing a shiny black dress as she was inducted. There were more of the game's greats – fellow inductees Gary Payton and Bernard King among them. This was Staley's honor, her crowning achievement for a remarkable career.
On that stage, Staley knew nobody struggled seeing her.
“You're seen a little bit differently,” said Staley, one of 15 women inducted into the basketball hall of fame as a player. “I've been in the presence of some of those players, and obviously my height didn't help, the fact that they didn't see me. But they saw me this particular weekend, and they spoke and they were really just congratulating me, telling me, 'Welcome to the club.'”
On Monday, the South Carolina women's basketball coach started a new work week after a whirlwind trip. She sat before the media at Colonial Life Arena with her hall of fame trophy, the one that has a golden basketball at the top, her name in capital letters at the base.
After the news conference, Staley said the trophy was heading straight for her office. It will join a select group of past accolades.
Staley was a two-time National Player of the Year in the early 1990s at Virginia, where she led her team to three Final Fours. She won three gold medals with the United States' national team in 1996, 2000 and 2004. In her final Olympics, she was selected among fellow USA sport captains to lead the nation's delegation during the opening ceremonies in Greece.
All those on-court victories were planned, goals she set out to accomplish. Staley said the hall of fame was different.
“I never really thought about it,” Staley said. “The things that I thought about as a youngster were what I saw on television. I didn't see a hall of fame ceremony. I only saw women play once a year – the national championship game – and I saw the Olympics. Those are two things that were kind of dangled in front of me. They were things that I wanted to accomplish. Thankfully, I was able to do that.
“Then along the way, people would say things like, 'You're a hall of famer.' That didn't really resonate with me when people said that.”
There is an odd parallel between Staley and her Gamecocks program. Like her past, Staley knows her team is easy to overlook in the room, hidden by other great programs in the SEC.
She hopes her new distinction – that trophy sitting in her office – can be another tool to help build the brand she's tried to develop the past five years. After two straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, Staley feels the Gamecocks are also on the right path.
“I think it can only help,” Staley said. “I think we're still trying to shake off the fact that this is South Carolina, and it is a popular place to come. People don't think this is a popular place to come, so this helps make it popular.”