‘It’s her time to take over:’ Dawn Staley determined to lift Black women coaches, win another title at South Carolina

When Dawn Staley walked in the gym, CJ Pace had to do a double take.

Yes that really was Dawn Staley — Philly legend, 3-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA point guard and then Temple coach. Toward the end of her playing career, Staley did what seemed impossible: she juggled coaching Division I while playing pro. Her success inspired a generation of women including Pace, then a high school senior and college prospect from Atlanta.

But what Pace, a young Black woman, couldn’t fully appreciate then is that in a sport populated by people who looked like her, there were only a handful of Division I head coaches with the same skin color. Staley was a trailblazer, but Pace didn’t truly understand it just yet.

Pace’s recognition of that came later — after she’d finished her college career at South Carolina, which Staley took over in 2008. It came after Staley had built the Gamecocks into a national power, taking them to nine NCAA tournaments and turning Colonial Life Arena into a rocking, raucous environment. In 2017, when Staley climbed the ladder to cut down the net after winning her first NCAA championship — just the second Black female coach to do so after former Purdue coach Carolyn Peck — it dawned on Pace.

“That’s when it hit,” said Pace, now 33 and the head coach at Cal State Monterey Bay. “That’s when it was like, ‘Alright, yeah, this is big. What she’s showing other Black and brown women is it can be done — you can build something special at the highest level.’”

The women’s NCAA tournament tips off Sunday, with Staley’s No. 1-seeded Gamecocks again a title contender. This summer, she’ll get her first taste of Olympic coaching when she guides Team USA at the 2021 Tokyo Games. And with Hall of Fame coaches like Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and Baylor’s Kim Mulkey in the twilight of their careers, it’s Staley, who lifted herself out of poverty in the projects of North Philly to become one of the most decorated players of all time, who’s poised to become the face of women’s basketball.

It comes at a critical time. America is in the midst of a nationwide conversation about the inequities throughout society, and the opportunities given — and often denied — people of color, particularly Black women.

“It’s her time,” Pace said, “to take over.”

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