Dawn Staley, WNBA star turned league-changing coach, is leading the unequivocal dream team to what could be their seventh consecutive Olympic gold.
Women in basketball have been killing it for decades—but this feels like the year they’re finally getting their due. The women of the WNBA laid significant groundwork for equal pay, redefined what activism looks like in sports, and even helped to influence an election. In the NCAA, women’s basketball stars turned the floodlights of social media onto the massive discrepancies in respect and resources given to women versus men in sports. And now, with the Olympics 2021 well underway, the US Women’s Olympic basketball team is poised to score its seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal. That’s some dynasty shit.
Behind the majority of those medals is Dawn Staley, a WNBA star turned league-changing coach, who has been a part of six of those gold-medal efforts and is currently leading the women on their current 50-game Olympic winning streak. “When you actually really start thinking about it, it’s hard to not feel the pressure of going for a historical seventh gold medal,” says Staley. “I’ve given over half of my life to USA basketball. It’s the only place that continues to take me back to those pure days where you just play to win—no one cares about scoring, no one cares about playing time, no one cares about anything besides being on that podium. That’s what keeps me coming back. It’s the purity and the innocence of basketball.”
Staley knew her life would be about basketball in eighth grade when she received her first college interest letter. “I grew up in the projects in North Philly, so I knew then that basketball could be something that I could truly utilize as a vehicle to advance,” she says. “I love basketball. It’s my livelihood, it’s my safe haven, and I feel as long as I have it as a part of my life, I have purpose.”
As a point guard at the University of Virginia, Staley earned recognition as the most outstanding player in the NCAA in 1991 before embarking on a dominant professional career. She played for seven All-Star teams and won three Olympic gold medals. She amassed such reverential status among her fellow athletes that she was elected by the captains of all U.S. teams to carry the American flag at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympics. In other words, she’s a legend.
“Coach Staley’s got the blueprint; she started it,” says guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. “In 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics, that was the first time I got to see women that looked like me, Black and brown women, represented on TV. That gave me something to aspire to.”
After retiring, Staley kicked off an illustrious coaching career, serving as an assistant coach on the gold-medal-winning 2008 and 2016 Olympic teams and currently as head coach of women’s basketball at South Carolina, where she led the team to the 2017 NCAA championship.
“You don’t really see a Black woman crushing the game like that,” says forward A’ja Wilson, who played for Staley at South Carolina and now on the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball roster. “Representation matters so much for these moments.”
Now that she’s a coach, Staley’s job is all about passing her sense of purpose on to the next generation of women in basketball. “Coach Staley is like my second mom. She has paved the way for me to be the woman that I am,” says Wilson. “She’s given so much to this game; she has cracked that glass ceiling for young girls like me to now shatter it.”
That, says Diggins-Smith, is exactly what U.S. women’s basketball is all about. Yes, it’s about great hoops, but it’s also about “collectively making the game better. Introducing fans to us as women telling stories and ultimately inspiring the next generation,” she says. “I think that’s what we’re accomplishing.”
Team USA’s record speaks for itself—for two and a half decades, the team has stayed on top. That alone would be enough to call theirs the greatest dynasty in sports. But the women of Team USA Basketball also bring a deeper level of activism and authenticity to their game. “Women’s sports aren’t just about sports,” as Staley puts it.
“Our team is literally a walking social issue. Because we really represent all of it: We have gay players, we have Black players—obviously we’re women,” says Sue Bird, the five-time Olympian and legendary point guard leading the team. “It’s time to put that in people’s faces so it can have a positive effect.”
But still, it’s a fight to get respect—and to get paid. “I think where women’s sports are right now, it feels like a moment,” says Bird. The challenge she and fiancée Megan Rapinoe talk about all the time, is getting that moment to stick. “Every four years, people can show up for women, but they can’t do it consistently. I think something that the Olympic platform gives us is a chance to showcase our talents, but also a chance to question people on that. Why don’t we get the media coverage? What’s that all about?”
And let’s be honest: If this team of game-crushing, outspoken role models were men, they’d be the highest paid athletes on the planet.
“If you love basketball, you can’t tell me you can’t look at a women’s basketball game, collegiate or professional, and not see something great about it,” says Staley. “We’re athletic, we can dunk, we can dribble the basketball, we’ve got great court vision, we’ve got shooters, we’ve got great decision makers. We’ve got everything that you find in the men’s game.”
In the run-up to the olympics, the women did score a major victory in pay equity. The historic collective bargaining agreement they secured for the 2020 season is being held up as a model for other leagues. “When we talk about equal pay, it’s really about being invested in,” says Bird. “It’s very difficult to have to speak to your own value. This was an experience where we really had to be like, ‘Nope, this is our value, and we’re not budging from that.’”
When the players arrived in Tokyo, it was after a season where (even despite the pandemic) they’d been invested in in tangible ways. The new CBA gives the players a significant pay bump (though there’s still a long way to go), better travel accommodations, and a structure to share marketing revenues. It also made significant strides in supporting family planning and maternity leave. “Who better to pioneer this than a league full of women?” asks Bird. “This is a big thought process for any woman who is in any career: How do I have a family and have a career? That shouldn’t be the balancing act. It should just be support.”
For now there’s a gold medal—and the platform that comes with it—to win. “We will be tested, no doubt about it,” Staley says. “But it’s those moments that have made us the best in the world for six Olympic games.”
Macaela Mackenzie is a senior editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Condé Nast