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Strong faith, desire to succeed help Dawn Staley overcome challenging year

Dawn Staley

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley had a challenging year. AP/Gary McCullough

COLUMBIA — She’s never been one to say ‘woe is me,’ never pouted over another of life’s unfair hands. So it was that Dawn Staley sounded as enthusiastic and chipper as ever despite the most challenging year of her personal and professional life.

“It’s obviously God’s work, all of it. So you can stay sane, because you can lose it without understanding why things are happening,” South Carolina’s national championship-winning women’s basketball coach said. “I refuse to ask God, ‘Why?’ It’s already been written. It’s about how we deal with it.”

The past 14 months have tested her like none other. Despite still being fantastically successful on the court, other events threw Staley’s life into a tailspin:

• The COVID-19 pandemic cancelled what could have been her second national championship season. The Gamecocks were going to be the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament, were ranked No. 1 by each major poll and had only lost one game when the postseason was called off in March 2020.

• Shortly after Mother’s Day weekend 2020, Staley’s sister, Tracey Underwood, was diagnosed with leukemia.

• Two weeks later, George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis. Staley was a willing participant in the resulting firestorm of protests, speaking her mind throughout the summer and fall despite backlash that often turned into social-media squabbles.

• Her debut as U.S. Olympic women’s basketball head coach was postponed a year due to the pandemic. Staley is set to coach the team in July but the site of the Games, Tokyo, is in another state of emergency due to COVID.

• The season began, with all of the daily COVID tests, the daily updates on the tests, the social distancing in every venue and the drop of the Colonial Life Arena crowd that she built and affectionately refers to as her FAMS (fans/family) from an average of 12,200 to 3,500.

• Her Gamecocks started the year ranked No. 1, reclaimed the spot midway through the year but struggled down the stretch. Then they righted themselves to win a sixth SEC Tournament in seven years, storm through the NCAA Tournament to reach the Final Four, and lost by one point to Stanford in the national semifinals when two layup attempts couldn’t find the net in the final five seconds.

All that in 14 months could have crippled an ordinary human.

But as Staley has always shown, from the moment she first picked up a basketball and began carving her path from an urban Philadelphia neighborhood to the top of the basketball world, she’s anything but ordinary.

She’s a survivor. Guided by her diamond-edged faith and the comfort she receives from above, Staley continues to always take the step ahead, never looking back.

Asked to sum up the past year in one word, she thought for a second and replied, “Pivot.”

“I learned that growing up in the projects. No day is the same. You don’t have the ability to pivot, you’ll struggle,” Staley said. “It requires you to change direction, through hardships, but it leads you to a way out. What’s your perspective on it, how do you deal with it, how do you embrace it.”

Underwood is doing fine after a bone marrow transplant from one of Staley’s brothers, her recovery numbers flying off the charts. It’s the end of a difficult process that each sister handled with grace and humor.

“She wanted everyone to act the same,” Staley said. “Don’t ask her how she’s doing, just be normal. We’d laugh, crack jokes, even when my brother Lawrence matched her as a donor, they told him how many stem cells he’d have to donate. They said, ‘Billions,’ and he just said, ‘Am I gonna have enough left for me?’”

Because of the pandemic restrictions, only one person could be with Underwood as she was in a Durham, N.C., hospital. That was Staley.

“I was there for three weeks with her," Staley said. "When she had the transplant and then released, she had to go back every day, and then once a week. The first two weeks were hard, then ugh, here’s the third, but the doctors told her she was doing so well that she didn’t have to come on Thursday. So I said, ‘Let’s go home, we’ll drive back Friday morning. Sleep in your own bed, it will heal you quicker.’

“My sister made it cool, she took every day as it came, the good, the bad, the ugly.”

Speaking out about racial injustice during the summer, urging USC to accept some students’ requests to rename some of the campus buildings and writing pieces for The Players’ Tribune, Staley was often replied to by the keyboard warriors and Twitter Toughies.

When it carried over to all but one player on her basketball team choosing to remain seated for the national anthem throughout the season, a handful of fans swore they would never attend another game.

That’s fine, Staley said without rancor. Everybody has to follow what they believe.

“I’m not a bold, it’s-about-me person. I know there are people that feel like there are hopelessness in the world. I speak out for them, that don’t have a voice,” Staley said. “My knee-jerk is to get out what’s on my heart, and leave it there.”

During the season, COVID testing was the hanging cloud but outside of one false positive, the Gamecocks were able to play without disruption. Staley used it as a teaching moment.

“We had one day to practice for the game at Kentucky. I thought it was cool, what it would feel like if they were in the WNBA,” Staley said. “You got to relate it to things, pivot and just be mentally ready to handle it. I thought our players really handled it awesome.”

Then another teaching moment arrived. Brea Beal and Aliyah Boston each had a chance to sink a layup and send the Gamecocks to the national championship game, but each missed, cementing a 66-65 loss to eventual champ Stanford.

Staley was disappointed but went through the coaching motions of congratulating Stanford, praising her team’s effort and lifting her fallen players.

She had as much right, if not more, than they did to feel star-crossed, bitter, angry … in the last three Final Four losses Staley has had as a player and coach, all ended a point short, each by the same 66-65 score.

But it wasn’t about her, it was about the 11 young women who had given everything they had to get to that moment. Staley had to gently remind all how good they were and how that moment could be surpassed next year, when all 11 will return, the No. 1 recruiting class in the country will enroll and ACC Freshman of the Year Kamilla Cardoso transferred in.

“It’s all about life lessons. They’re gonna use it for motivation,” Staley said. “We’ll be a better team and be better individually because of it. We now understand what a truly small margin of error there is between winning or losing. Getting back to that game and onward is our goal and dream.”

With that Staley was off on another adventure, another goal to set and conquer, another hurdle to clear. Her nature is not to question, only to overcome.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded. Want the inside scoop on Gamecock athletics? Subscribe to Gamecocks Now.