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