Dawn Staley - Getting From Good to Great

When Dawn Staley arrived at her first USA Basketball event 25 years ago, one of the coaches on hand asked her a very important question:

Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?

“Stuff like that sticks with me, because I always want to be great,” said Staley, who is the 2014 USA U18 National Team head coach as well as an assistant to the 2014 USA World Championship Team. “But sometimes you don’t know the path that leads to greatness.”

Staley’s path certainly led to greatness. She represented USA Basketball as a player from 1989, when she played for the USA Junior World Championship Team, until 2004 – when she won her third Olympic gold medal. In all, Staley has won 10 gold medals as a player. Currently the head coach at the University of South Carolina, she has also earned gold as a head and assistant coach for USA Basketball.

However, Staley did not earn gold – or silver or bronze – at that first event back in 1989.

“We were probably the most talented team in Spain that particular year, and we ended up in seventh place,” Staley recalled. “We were a good team, but we weren’t the best team there at that tournament. So I had to figure out why. … That’s part of growth.”

What Staley has learned is that any player can grow and be better – even those who reach the level of USA Basketball participant.

Last month, when Staley was in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the 2014 USA U18 National Team trials, she saw this firsthand. At 6-foot-7, Teaira McCowan was the tallest player invited to the trials – but Staley thought something might have been lacking when the trials began.

“I thought she came in just a little bit intimidated,” said Staley. “What our coaching staff – myself, Jeff Walz (University of Louisville) as well and Kim Barnes-Arico (University of Michigan) – did was try to instill some confidence in her. Once we embraced her with the things she did well on the floor, and we applauded her for that, she was able to feel a lot freer to do what she does best. I thought she improved remarkably over the weekend.”

While 17 of the 29 players at the trials did not make the team, Staley is quick to point out that even the 12 who will be returning to Colorado Aug. 6-10 for the FIBA Americas U18 Championship still have plenty to learn.

“There has to be a developmental piece to everything we’re doing, and not allow our youth to think because they made this team they have no shortcomings,” she said. “Because everybody has shortcomings, and everybody has to work on things that will increase their chances of not only participating on the U18 level, but the World Championships and ultimately the Olympic level.”

Perhaps the biggest weakness Staley saw from many of the players at the U18 trials had to do with their lack of experience playing with other elite players.

“What I didn’t see much of is the talent being able to make other people better,” she said. “That’s hard for them to grasp at this point because most of the players coming to these trials are the best players on their team, and for them to be successful they have to score a lot of points for their teams. When it’s like that, you don’t develop other areas of your game in making other people better, because your bad shot is the best shot on the floor. Coming to trials, it’s hard to transition from not taking that bad shot. You’re playing with people that are equally as good as you are.”

A key to success for the U18 team: How many of these good players would rather be great? Ironically, the coach who first posed that question to Dawn Staley was Jim Foster, who is now the chair of the USA Junior National Team Committee as well as head coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Staley said she was extremely pleased with the team Foster and his committee came up with. “It was really hard to pick a team from the 29 players that were in our trials. Because we could have produced three or four more teams with those players and probably would not have skipped a beat. I thought the trials went extremely well. I was pretty pleased with the talent, the competitiveness, the sportsmanship.”

Of those three traits, which would Staley say is the hardest to come by for a young player?

“I would say the sportsmanship piece is probably a little harder to develop,” she said. “Talent is talent. You can identify talent by putting the naked eye on someone, but you don’t know what type of people they are (until) you’re around someone for 24, 48 hours. The trials went from Friday to Monday. You’ll get to see the type of people they are, and you can figure out whether or not you want somebody that maybe hasn’t developed from a social standpoint or maturity standpoint. But we had none of that at our trials. None. Every participant that I talked to, every participant that I tried to critique or give them some information that would help them throughout the trials, they were receptive to it. I can’t say I was the same way at that age. So obviously somebody’s doing something right at home, and throughout their development, not only as a talented basketball player but just being a good person.”

The 2014 FIBA Americas U18 Championship, which is being held Aug. 6-10 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, will feature eight national teams from North, South and Central America and the Caribbean, including: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, El Salvador, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the United States. The top four finishing teams will qualify for the 2015 FIBA U19 World Championship for Women.