Staley continually raised the bar
You probably don't recognize the date: March 28, 1992. But if you are a sports fan who is old enough, you'll absolutely remember a game from that day: Elite Eight, Grant Hill pass to Christian Laettner, "The Shot," Duke elation, Kentucky sorrow.
That NCAA men's East Regional final took place in Philadelphia, and the senior Laettner was that season's consensus men's college player of the year.
But what I remember even more vividly from earlier that day also had a Philly connection and also involved a senior who was national player of the year. Virginia's Dawn Staley got her final collegiate victory, in the East Regional final in Charlottesville, Va.
As she goes into the Naismith Hall of Fame this weekend, Staley -- as all such honorees do -- will be reflecting on her basketball career. And for those of us fortunate enough to see the Philadelphia native play in person two decades ago at Virginia, it's nice to be able to do the same thing.
Staley was consensus national player of the year in both 1991 and '92 (although she did not win the Wade Trophy) and led Virginia to the Women's Final Four three times. She never quite got the happy ending in a college season that Laettner did twice. All four years at UVa, Staley's Cavaliers lost to the eventual national champion in the NCAA tournament.
In 1989, it was to Tennessee in the Sweet 16. In 1990, it was to Stanford in the national semifinals. In 1991, it was Tennessee again -- this one in an overtime NCAA championship game, after which she was named the only Final Four most outstanding player whose team didn't win the title.
And in 1992, it was Stanford that thwarted Staley again, in an agonizing national semifinal game. Staley's college career ended with Virginia falling 66-65 to the scrappy Stanford squad that Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer called her "bucket of bolts" team.
I'd been at University Hall for the East Regional in late March 1992 to watch Staley and the Cavs beat first West Virginia and then Vanderbilt to earn the program's third consecutive Women's Final Four berth. I was working in Newport News, Va., then.
In the two years I'd lived in Virginia, I'd been captivated by Staley's skill and the way she led her team. I knew when I was at the University of Missouri in 1983-87 and covered women's basketball, that it was something I had a great passion for. But I gained an even more intense desire to chronicle the sport because of watching Staley.
She was one of the shyest, quietest people on a Virginia team that had plenty of non-shy and not-quiet people. During Staley's time there, there were players such as "Hollywood" Tammi Reiss, the dry-witted Texan Dena Evans, the zany Melanee Wagener, and the 6-foot-5 chatterbox Burge twins, Heather and Heidi.
But Staley was so unconcerned with the spotlight that she was all the more intriguing. She was the reluctant superstar -- that kind of player who was willing to shoulder the bulk of responsibility for her team's success, but didn't really care about getting the glory.
In retrospect, I wonder if "shy" was ever really the right term for Staley at UVa, although we used it back then, and I just did again. Maybe it was more a wariness, a need to size up those around her, to be sure of their intentions.
Staley didn't seem to smile that much. Even when Virginia won, you might not know from her expression. It wasn't that she was a grump. It was more that she was usually wearing her game face, because that's the mindset in which she seemed most comfortable. Always on guard, in other words. How much of that was her innate personality, and how much was a product of growing up facing the realities of the inner city, I could never be sure.
You might be wondering why I'm talking so much about Staley's Virginia days, considering that she also played in three Olympic Games -- winning gold in each -- and competed for several years in both the ABL and the WNBA.
Here's why: Because when I think of Staley the player, I still immediately envision her in the white or dark blue Virginia uniform jersey (with her late '80s/early '90s hairstyle that I'm sure she'd roll her eyes at now). I see her with the ball in her hands, and that look on her face like, "OK, how do I want to carve up this opponent?"
She could hurt them in so many ways. She could score when she needed to, but she developed the quintessential point-guard mentality. She could figure out ways to maximize her teammates' strengths on the court. Think a couple of steps ahead of everybody. See things before most anybody else saw them. Be in charge.
Staley wasn't selected to the 1992 Olympic team shortly after finishing her Virginia career, which at the time I was very disappointed about. There was no pro league in the United States then, and I didn't know how long it would be until I actually got to see Staley play again.
In retrospect, though, maybe it was just as well: The USA was upset in the semifinals at the Barcelona Games, and ended up with the bronze medal. Considering how devastating the '92 Final Four had been for Staley, she really didn't need another disappointing loss that soon afterward.
She was on the U.S. squad that ended up with bronze again at the 1994 World Championship, having lost to Brazil in the semifinals. However, then Staley was part of one of the most important women's sports squads in U.S. history: the national team that trained together for about a year before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The short-lived ABL launched after those Summer Games, and Staley took that path until the league folded. Her WNBA debut, then, came with Charlotte in 1999, when she was 29 years old.
Staley had been a multifaceted threat at Virginia, where she finished with 2,135 points, 729 assists, 772 rebounds (a 5.9 average on the boards for a 5-foot-6 guard), and 454 steals. She had two triple-doubles while playing for the Cavaliers.
As she transitioned to the national team and then into the WNBA, she was not the same scorer -- stats-wise -- that she had been in college. Because that was not her role anymore; she became very much the consummate playmaker. Staley averaged double digits in scoring (11.5 PPG) in her first WNBA season. But over the course of eight years in the WNBA, she compiled 1,337 assists and 338 steals.
She made it as far as the WNBA Finals once, falling with Charlotte to Los Angeles in 2001. By then, she'd already become head coach at Temple. And maybe the most amazing thing about how much she juggled through the early/mid-2000s -- WNBA player, national team player, college head coach -- was that she never seemed overwhelmed by any of it.
To the contrary, coaching made Staley's personality blossom. It's a truism in sports that great players often struggle as coaches. Staley's USA teammate Teresa Edwards has always acknowledged she had a hard time coaching because, frankly, most players didn't have the same relentless uber-perfectionism she has.
But Staley took very well to coaching; it was a natural fit for her. She was 172-80 in eight seasons at Temple, and has gone 92-66 in five years at South Carolina. The Gamecocks were 25-8 overall and 11-5 in the SEC last season. This spring, Staley's name was linked to some big jobs initially -- including at Ohio State -- but she reaffirmed her commitment to South Carolina and vice versa.
Can Staley someday follow Baylor's Kim Mulkey as a former college star player who wins a national championship as a coach? That's absolutely Staley's goal. And it would not be any surprise at all if -- when her coaching career runs its course -- it turns out she has been a Hall of Famer in that regard, too.
Still, my mind goes back to March 1992: A sweet farewell for Staley at Virginia. A week later, yes, a much harsher end would come in Los Angeles at the Final Four. But when she left the U-Hall court for the last time, it was as a winner.
I guess I've always been bothered a little by the feeling that Staley never fully got her due as a truly transformational player -- someone who raised the bar not just at Virginia, but in the ACC, nationally and internationally. I felt the elusive NCAA title perhaps impacted how she was viewed in a historical lens. As did the fact that as a professional, she was the "table-setter" -- and that's a more subtle thing to fully appreciate.
But here she is now, going into the Naismith Hall of Fame. She's right where she belongs.
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