COLUMBIA — The coronavirus was barely mentioned as Dawn Staley addressed a handful of reporters after a South Carolina women’s basketball practice on a late February afternoon. Someone asked if Staley, doubling as Team USA’s head coach, was worried about potential impact on the Olympics set for August in Tokyo.
Otherwise, Staley’s adorable little 28-month-old Havanese dog Champ made his usual rounds about the Gamecocks’ practice facility inside the old Carolina Coliseum.
No one thought to follow up with a question about what a global pandemic might do to the dreams of a No. 1-ranked team that had clobbered heavyweights Baylor and Connecticut.
Here is a peek at what might have been this weekend in New Orleans, which was all set to host the Final Four. It’s that day in the life of Dawn Michelle Staley, one of those that will never be taken for granted.
Rowing for breakfast
No wake-up alarm necessary; Staley, a 49-year-old woman who sleeps half as much as many Americans, is typically up before 7.
She watches the first 30 minutes of the “Today” show while in bed.
“By 7:30, I start moving around,” Staley said.
She doesn’t eat breakfast.
By “moving around,” Staley means a hard go on her new Peloton bicycle, a Christmas gift. Followed by 40 minutes on her rowing machine.
Then it’s a shower and off to work in a Mercedes SUV.
“My dream car,” she said.
On this day, there are two stops on the way to work:
• A hair appointment at Pynk Butterfly salon on Millwood Avenue. Jessica Reese, the master stylist, has been doing Staley’s hair for 11 years.
• A stop by the construction site of her new home to evaluate progress.
“Every morning,” Staley said.
The other ride-to-work staple is chatting with friends on the phone. Staley talks with Renee Brown, former WNBA chief of basketball operations, almost every day.
“She’s like a mentor,” Staley says. “We talk some about basketball but mostly about things other than basketball.”
Champ, the most popular pooch in Columbia, rides shotgun.
“If it’s a good day, he has his head out the window,” Staley says. “If it’s a cold day, he’s probably curled up on my lap.”
Champ beats his owner into the office, hurrying down the hallway to greet everyone on Staley’s staff.
“And I’m a second thought,” she said.
Time for some caffeine. Staley lately has been trading coffee for tea, preferring Bengal Spice from Celestial Seasonings.
The first meeting of the day starts at 10 a.m. and includes assistant coaches Lisa Boyer, Fred Chmiel, Jolette Law and other staffers.
There is a warm vibe here. It’s not just that Staley at South Carolina already has won one national championship and made two Final Fours. It’s a season record that includes only one loss (Indiana at a U.S. Virgin Islands tournament in November).
Plus, there’s the fun “Woman Up!” season motto, complete with ballcaps and T-shirts and a video featuring Champ.
Meeting agenda: planning for the day’s practice; recruiting updates. The confab lasts about an hour.
Then Staley orders lunch, this day from nearby Jersey Mike’s. She wants a 6-inch tuna with the works.
Talking about practice
Practice officially starts at 12:30, but Ty Harris, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Aliyah Boston and most of the other players get there early to blast music and start shooting.
“We’re just talking and dancing for a while,” Staley said. “We’re setting the mood so we can have a good practice.”
The staff convenes again after practice to talk about the next practice and prep for the next opponent. Staley and Co. usually start preparing for a game two days in advance, though it might be more for a foe such as Connecticut.
The rest of the afternoon involves a lot of film study and recruiting stuff, with coaches popping in and out of each other’s offices.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Staley, a candy-loving Philadelphia native who played at Virginia, won three Olympic gold medals and played pro basketball for 11 years. “We’ve got a chill office. I’m not a micro-manager. You bring your work to the table and we’re good.”
Staff-bonding treats are a Staley specialty. They have included mini-vacations in Charleston.
“I like the vintage of Charleston,” Staley said. “I like the oldness of it. It’s a city, but it seems like everybody is friendly. It seems like everybody is happy there.”
The daily Olympic duty “ebbs and flows,” she said.
Some days a conference call with assistant coaches or U.S. Olympic Committee officials.
Some days just a few texts.
“I have to compartmentalize and give South Carolina the priority at this time,” Staley said. “But I’ll have time after the season to really dive into things.”
With no game or travel commitment, Staley usually goes home between 6 and 7.
HGTV and Champ
Of course, Staley and Champ again stop by the home building site.
“Are you asking me when it’s going to be done?” Staley said with playful smirk. “Or do you want to ask the builders? Because to them it will never be done. It was supposed to be April. But probably May or June.”
She helped design the project and loves watching her favorite home design, renovation and sales shows on HGTV:
“Love It or List It”
Even as she is fully aware that “Fixer Upper” stars Joanna and Chip Gaines are big Baylor fans (the show is based in Waco).
Staley also regularly records episodes of the real-life crime investigation show “Dateline.”
“So,” she said, “I’m boring.”
Champ might disagree. He gets frequent after-dinner walks on Columbia’s Riverwalk.
The rest of the night is often a mix of sports on TV — all sports, but Staley’s beloved Philadelphia 76ers are top priority.
Because she sleeps only four to six hours a night on average — “I’m weird; I don’t really like sleep,” she said — there is time for other pursuits.
Like reading. She recently finished “Just Mercy,” Bryan Stevenson’s non-fiction bestseller about death row inmates.
“No sports books,” Staley said. “No leadership books. I read to escape.”
And jigsaw puzzles.
“I just completed a Charleston puzzle,” she said.
Sadly, Staley has a lot more hours for puzzles these long, strange weeks.
There is also time to think about a No. 1-ranked South Carolina basketball team and a path to the Final Four that would have included a regional in Columbia and Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Greenville.
Happily, more normal days in the life – and hopefully a new house – are ahead next season.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.