COLUMBIA — It was, of all people, a 4-year-old boy who helped Aleighsa Welch find the perspective she needed. The former South Carolina women’s basketball star was working head coach Dawn Staley’s camp for kids when one tyke surprised the Goose Creek High School product with a hug.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re still my favorite player.”
For Welch, who was released in May by the Chicago-based WNBA team which had drafted her in the second round, it was the perfect message at the perfect time.
“It melted my heart,” she said. “Kids, they don’t take anything for granted, and it makes you not want to take anything for granted. It makes you realize, life goes on. The situation in Chicago happened, there are greater things on the horizon for me, and being around kids is what validated that for me, honestly. That’s what really got me to let everything go and focus on the future.”
And for the summer, at least, that involves working in the USC women’s basketball office while she waits for an overseas playing opportunity to emerge. Welch, whose leadership and work ethic set an example which helped pave the way for the Gamecocks’ first Final Four berth this past season, was always referred to as a coach on the floor. Now she’s getting a taste of what coaching might be like, as she works camps, helps USC’s director of basketball operations, and even makes public appearances on behalf of the Gamecocks program.
It will likely be later in the summer before Welch is able to secure a position with an overseas team for the fall season. In the meantime, she’s keeping herself busy by experiencing a side of basketball different from what she saw during her days as a player.
“The one thing I didn’t want to do was spend my entire summer just working out. I wanted to have something else, and I have that opportunity,” said Welch, honorable mention All-American as a senior. “What’s crazy is, I didn’t even ask coach Staley. She asked me if I wanted to do it. She put the offer out on the table for me, and I was really thankful for that. The relationship we’ve built, it’s amazing. She’s someone who’ll always make sure I’m OK. She’ll always make sure I’m in a good position. So I’m very happy and very thankful for that.”
Staley is glad to have her. “She’s done a tremendous job with camp, with going throughout our state and doing speaking engagements,” she said. “So she’s made a name for herself. Hopefully, she won’t be around very long making those speaking engagements, because she’ll be playing.”
While Welch worked Staley’s camps during each of her seasons as a player at USC, she’s now helping set up and break down, and sitting in on planning meetings with the Gamecocks staff. She made a speaking engagement at an area middle school as part of an initiative associated with Staley’s charity, will represent the Gamecocks when the Columbia city council recognizes the program’s Final Four fun, and will play in a celebrity charity golf tournament organized in part by former USC quarterback Connor Shaw.
USC’s players are allowed to work out a few hours a week during the summer, and Welch also sits in on those sessions, peppering Staley with questions.
“I’m able to sit and look at it through a different perspective,” she said. “When they’re doing a drill, I might be trying to pick coach Staley’s brain a little bit. So it’s just kind of making the best of your opportunities. I want to be in a position where I can pick her brain, and I want to be in a position where I can get as much information from her as possible. And I’m thankful to be in that position, because not everybody gets that opportunity, especially right out of college.”
It’s all prep work for a potential coaching career which could follow Welch’s playing days, which she hopes will continue. “Whether it’s working with the coaching staff or working with this university, it’s something I would want to do when I’m done playing,” she said. “And I stress that, because my playing days are far from over. They may be delayed at the moment, but they’re far from over.”
Toward that end, Welch’s agent is stressing patience. The overseas market for rookies isn’t very strong at the moment, though she hopes that will change in late July or August as the fall playing season approaches.
“She’s probably second tier when it comes to being placed,” said Staley, a five-time WNBA all-star. “Because overseas, they want players who are playing in the WNBA, whether skill-wise they’re better than some people just coming out of college. I’m almost certain that she’ll be playing somewhere in the fall.”
Until that day comes, Welch will continue to work with the women’s program at USC, gaining experience for perhaps the next stage of her career. The kids at camp even call her “coach.”
“I didn’t want them to use my last name, because it made me feel old,” she said with a laugh. “‘Coach Welch’ feels like it adds a couple of years. I am still only 21.”