Dawn Staley

Dawn Staley: USA Basketball has ‘penciled schedule’ leading up to Olympics

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The U.S. women’s basketball program’s quest for a record-tying seventh straight Olympic title, postponed by one year, is reforming.

New coach Dawn Staley said U.S. national team director Carol Callan sent her an email last week with “a penciled schedule” ahead of the Tokyo Games that open July 23, 2021.

“There’s nothing that we can do at this point because nothing’s really set in stone, but we do want to hold some training camps leading up to the Olympic Games,” Staley told Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live” on NBCSN on Monday. “When they’ll be, we don’t know. But we know that, hopefully, we’ll get back to some normalcy where we can get those things in concrete.”

Staley, a point guard on the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic champion teams, succeeded Geno Auriemma as head coach for this cycle. In between seasons coaching the University of South Carolina, she guided the Americans to an unprecedented third straight world championship title in 2018, stuffing rival Australia 73-56 in the final.

Last week, Staley published a letter on The Players’ Tribune, motivated to write after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

“I’ve never seen anyone die. I’ve never seen anyone take their last breath in that manner,” she said on “Lunch Talk Live.” “So that was moving.”

In the letter, titled “Black People Are Tired,” Staley told a story she doesn’t believed she previously shared elsewhere — that her mom, at age 13, left South Carolina for Philadelphia because Staley’s grandmother “was afraid she might get lynched” after being run out of a meat store.

“Most people don’t know one of the reasons why I took the job at South Carolina was because of my parents,” said Staley, who in 2008 left her hometown of Philadelphia and her head coaching job at Temple for South Carolina. “When my mother got older, I thought it would be a great idea to bring her back to South Carolina.”

MORE: Dawn Staley played with Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi. Now, she coaches them

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Correction: An earlier version of this post reported that Staley was on the 1996 and 2000 Olympic champion teams. She was also on the 2004 Olympic champion team.

Dawn Staley played with Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi. Now, she coaches them.

Sue Bird, Dawn Staley
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In her last Olympics as a player in 2004, Dawn Staley called a player meeting. The U.S. women’s basketball team was dispatching group-stage opponents by double digits, but something else was on the starting point guard’s mind.

“G32,” Staley remembered in a recent phone interview.

G32 was the name of the club on the Queen Mary 2, the transatlantic ocean liner that housed the U.S. basketball teams during the 2004 Athens Olympics. Staley believed that her team’s three youngest players — former UConn stars Sue BirdDiana Taurasi and Swin Cash — were enjoying G32 a little too much in between games.

“I let them know that this isn’t playtime,” Staley said. “This is time we need to buckle down and make sure we’re getting our rest and all of that.

“But I don’t think it stopped them. They were just less conspicuous.”

Bird, Taurasi and Cash played fewer than 20 minutes per game. They mostly watched from the bench with head coach Van Chancellor while Staley, Lisa LeslieSheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson led the U.S. to a third straight Olympic title.

“They knew they wouldn’t play a whole lot, and we didn’t practice a whole lot, so I think they did it [G32] out of boredom,” Staley joked of those 20-somethings. “When young people don’t have places to put their energy, they’re going to put it somewhere. They chose to do it at the club.”

Sixteen years later, Staley is preparing for her first Olympics as a head coach. She succeeded Geno Auriemma, who stepped down after the U.S.’ sixth straight title in Rio. In Tokyo, the U.S. women can match the Olympic team sport record for consecutive golds, set by the U.S. men’s basketball team from 1936-1968.

And in Tokyo, the U.S. will likely be guided by Bird and Taurasi in the backcourt, expected to play their fifth and final Olympics. Bird and Taurasi have slightly different memories of the 2004 Athens Games.

Bird remembered Staley testing Chancellor if practices ever ran a little long (likely not often, given Chancellor’s penchant for golf). Staley would look at the 60-year-old coach and tell him that her sneakers had an alarm clock on them.

“After an hour and a half, they just come off,” Staley would say.

Staley had a memorable beginning and end to her third and final Olympics. She was voted U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony.

Two weeks later, in the gold-medal game against Australia, she scored 14 points (all in the second half, the highest single-game total of her Olympic career). The Americans needed it. They trailed in the final minute of the third quarter before pulling away in the fourth to win 74-63. (Later that night, that other G32 basketball team won its bronze-medal game.)

“I got to see firsthand how Dawn, in the gold-medal game in 2004, made two of the biggest baskets to get us a gold medal,” Taurasi said. “I just know the grit and the competitiveness that she has. And that’s carried over to the court [in her] coaching.”

When Staley was named the new national team head coach in March 2017, neither Bird nor Taurasi had publicly committed to a Tokyo Olympic run. In fact, they said leading up to and during the Rio Games that they would likely exit the program along with their former UConn coach Auriemma.

Yet Staley, in an introductory media call, chuckled that her “gut feeling” was they would return to the team. Later that spring, Bird and Taurasi made their first public comments about a fifth Olympics.

“I knew they were coming back,” Staley says now. “They were healthy. Diana turned her life over to being a vegan a while ago just to prolong, to give her options. Sue was another nutrition buff. I think they’re just smart. They made smart decisions throughout their career to prolong it. Given they were healthy and injury-free, they were going to go.”

Soon after Bird and Taurasi rejoined the program under Staley, they tried to pull the alarm-clock sneakers move. Staley wouldn’t have it. Wouldn’t acknowledge that it was one of her originals.

“She was my teammate at one point, so that’s kind of interesting. Like, someone who was my teammate, my equal, now I take orders from,” Bird said.

Neither Bird nor Taurasi plays quite like Staley. Few did.

“Sue didn’t talk that much back then,” in 2004, said Leslie, who has known Staley since they were in high school. “I remember thinking, how she’s going to be a point guard if she doesn’t talk? We were so used to Dawn, who talked all the time. Sue was, no pun intended, a quiet storm in that she led with her actions.

“Diana’s laid back off the court. She’ll cuss you out, though.”

The story goes that a young Staley was hardened growing up in North Philadelphia. She modeled her game after Maurice Cheeks, down to snapping a rubber band circling her right wrist every time she committed a turnover. In 1988, she became the first USA Today National High School Player of the Year shorter than six feet, male or female.

After finishing her University of Virginia playing career in 1992, she plied professionally in Brazil, France, Italy (where her jersey read “STANLEY”) and Spain.

Staley believed she was in line to be the starting point guard on her first Olympic team in Atlanta in 1996. But she was sidelined by injuries, including knee surgery, during the U.S.’ pre-Olympic tour (52 games, 52 wins). Teresa Edwards stepped up. By the Centennial Games, Staley was a healthy reserve in all eight contests. She would again play behind Edwards at the 2000 Sydney Games.

In 2004, Staley went into her last Olympics as a reigning WNBA All-Star, the head coach of a Temple Owls team that made the NCAA Tournament and the leader tasked with passing the baton to Bird.

“I knew I wasn’t coming back. I saw Sue was experiencing her first,” Staley said. “I was just doing what was passed down to me. Teresa Edwards did a great job of passing the leadership role and the point guard role down to me. I was just paying it forward.”

Now Staley counts on Bird and Taurasi, who are in line to become the two oldest U.S. Olympic basketball players in history. Taurasi has a chance to break Leslie’s career U.S. Olympic points record.

“They know more international players than I could ever know,” Staley said. “We lean on them to give us some insight on some players that we just don’t have enough film on. We just let them go and get out of their way.”

MORE: USA Basketball career Olympic points leaders

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Dawn Staley believes Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird will try for 2020 Olympics

Sue Bird, Dawn Staley
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New U.S. women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley believes stalwarts Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird will return for a run at the 2020 Olympics.

“My gut feeling is yes,” Staley said when asked directly Friday, followed by a chuckle and adding no further detail.

Staley knows Taurasi and Bird from coaching them as an assistant on the 2008 and 2016 Olympic teams under Geno Auriemma. And from playing with them at the 2004 Olympics, the third and final Olympics for Staley, who carried the U.S. flag into the Opening Ceremony in Athens.

Those were the first Games for Taurasi and Bird, the youngest players on that team who have gone on to win four gold medals each. Nobody has won five Olympic basketball gold medals.

Neither Taurasi nor Bird has announced whether she will try for Tokyo 2020. Bird said before Rio that it would likely be her last Olympics. Taurasi said after the Rio final that she was likely done.

“This was probably my last one,” Taurasi said on NBCSN. “I’ll have a talk about it with coach, but, for right now, I’m settled with four, and I feel good about it.”

Taurasi will be 38 years old in 2020. Bird will be 39. The oldest U.S. Olympic basketball player of all time was Tamika Catchings, who turned 37 two weeks before the Rio Games. Catchings has retired.

“We all know when it’s time,” Bird was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story on Staley’s hiring Thursday. “I don’t feel even comfortable talking about not just the Olympic team, but basketball. When it comes to USA Basketball it’s such a coveted position that we all work for, you only want to be in that position if you’re at the top of your game. We got a long way to go between now and then. It’s not a yes or a no.”

If there is any concern about the future of the U.S. women, winners of 49 straight Olympic games dating to 1992 (48 by double digits), it’s the unknown of who will succeed Bird as the primary point guard.

Staley, who passed that torch to Bird in 2004, shrugged off any roster concerns so early into her tenure and the Olympic cycle.

“We have an incredible pool of players, but we’ll cross that road when we get there,” Staley said Friday. “Players haven’t committed yet, nor have they told us they’re not going to come back and play. Until we’re at that crossroad, we’re going to act as if we’re going to have our best players representing the USA.”

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