When Dawn Staley played in France
In 1994, Staley was a player with aspirations but an uncertain future in basketball
The South Carolina and Notre Dame women’s basketball teams will make history when they begin the 2023-24 season competing against one another on Nov. 6 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Paris, marking the first time the city has hosted an NCAA regular-season game.
For many, the trip will be a first to the City of Light. For South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, the journey to France will serve as a kind of full-circle return of sorts.
In the winter of 1994, Staley, then 24 years old and still at the beginning of her pro basketball career, was in the middle of her first season overseas in southern France. Staley and former Tennessee star Daedra Charles were playing for Tarbes Gespe Bigorre, named for the French commune where she would spend eight months competing. Her time in France was preceded by stints in Brazil and Spain.
In 1994, the WNBA was still years away from being established. The 1996 Olympic team only existed as a dream team and aspiration for Staley. In France, Staley’s prized possession was a VCR player that allowed her to watch and rewatch American movies as well as replays of NBA games that were sent to her from the States.
Staley was unsure if she’d continue her career as an overseas pro player past a potential Olympic run. The politics that come with international play, the long stints away from home, even the level of competition collectively created an environment that didn’t appeal to her. There still wasn’t a league for Staley to play in at home in the United States.
“Americans are missing out on a lot of great basketball,” Staley said in an article published in the Christian Science Monitor in December 1994.
At the end of the article, Staley discusses what her life after retiring from playing basketball could potentially be, expressing a desire to remain in the sport:
“Upon her eventual retirement as a player, Staley says she wants to stay in basketball, but not as a coach. Expressing a preference for public relations or marketing, she adds, “Maybe I’ll be involved in getting a professional women’s league going — in the near future.”
Staley would not only make that 1996 Olympic team, but the 2000 and 2004 teams as well. Each team won a gold medal. Staley’s playing career extended well past the 1996 games, and her hopes of playing professionally in the U.S. became a reality.
Staley first became a founding player in the American Basketball League, earning ABL All-Star selections in the two years before her debut in the WNBA. Staley played eight seasons in the league for the Charlotte Sting and Houston Comets, and was named an All-Star five times. She was a member of the WNBA’s All-Decade team in 2006 and named one of the top 15 players in league history in 2011. She was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
If Staley had been told that she’d return to France as a two-time national champion coach one day, she’d likely never have believed it.
“It’s funny, I’ve always screamed, ‘I’ve never wanted to be a coach,’ and [I] find myself starting my 24th year as a coach,” Staley said last week in South Carolina, days before her team boarded the flight to Paris.
This season will be Staley’s 16th at South Carolina after spending eight seasons as the coach at Temple University, her first job as a head coach. When she initially took the job at Temple in 2000, she had to be convinced by Dave O’Brien, then Temple’s athletic director, to take the position. Now, she views coaching as one of her callings.
“For me it doesn’t feel like a job. It just feels like it’s what I’m supposed to be doing,” Staley said. “When I wake up, I’m like, oh, put on some sweats, go to work, and I can talk to young people and get young people to be better at life, better at basketball. That’s kind of servicelike. I’m servicing the game.”
After being one of the pioneers of establishing what is now the longest-running women’s pro sports league in the U.S., it’s now Staley’s job to send players to the WNBA to ensure its growth continues. A look at the imprint of former players and their success in the league, from last season alone, shows Staley’s success.
Staley had 10 former Gamecocks taken in the WNBA in 2023. Two of them, Las Vegas Aces players A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates, won a WNBA title, with Wilson winning Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Indiana Fever center Aliyah Boston was named rookie of the year. Boston, Wilson and Atlanta Dream guard Allisha Gray were named All-Stars.
“Part of that is true,” Staley said of her statement in 1994. “I’m getting young people ready to go into the league that was created and that I wasn’t really a part of as far as organizing, but I was a part of it as a player knowing that if there’s talent, there should be a place for talent.”
Staley has also made her mark as an advocate for the advancement of Black coaches in college basketball. As the most prominent Black coach in college basketball, and the only Black collegiate coach to win multiple national championships, Staley has never wasted an opportunity to uplift Black coaches in the game, with this game in Paris being no different. When Staley was approached about the event over a year ago, her first thought in determining an opponent was to reach out to another Black coach.
“I actually thought about Niele [Ivey of Notre Dame], as another Black coach, being able to experience it,” Staley said. “We didn’t have to look any further. Niele was like, yeah, let’s do it. I think you have to be intentional about some stuff like that. We don’t get opportunities like this. We’re the first to do it, it’ll go down in the history books. It’s us that’s doing it, so I thought it was pretty cool.”
Staley chooses not to reflect too deeply on early days as a pro player or on all of the big moments that have occurred or changed over the last three decades. She’ll do that when she retires, she says. Staley’s choice is to stay focused on the present and the moments ahead.
What hasn’t changed from 30 years ago is Staley’s desire to continue expanding the footprint of women’s basketball – the next step being Monday’s sold-out game in Paris.
“It’s an experience for us but it’s also an experience for all of Paris to get to know a little bit about American college basketball, which is just truly an educational experience for us all,” Staley said.