BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Dawn Staley is living the dream.
The elementary school version of the three-time Olympic goal medalist had a simple goal, forged by an environment she became all too familiar with. "I had aspirations to be the first girl to play in the NBA," Staley told me. "It was probably around elementary school, and a lot had to do with me being the one girl playing on the boys teams."
For that young girl growing up in Philadelphia, the choice was simple. Born before the groundbreaking Title IX legislation became law, Staley was unaware that she had any other options.
Play basketball in college? A girl?
That wasn't on the talented guard's radar. Only until she reached high school did the thought even enter her mind. "I didn't have first hand information about me going to college until I received a letter of interest from colleges," she added. "That's when I knew it was a realization."
Staley now finds herself a part of that dream, coaching a group of women at the University of South Carolina that likely wouldn't be aware of their opportunity without her. Heading into her fifth season at the helm, she's taken a program long removed from NCAA success to a Sweet 16 squad. Her 2012 team won 25 games, the first Gamecock group to reach 20 wins since 2003.
Despite that recent success, a coaching career doesn't begin to define Staley's accomplishments. That young girl from Philadelphia became a college sensation, an Olympic champion and one of the best players in WNBA history. While many hope to "live the dream", Staley actually did it, and is widely recognized as one of the best players, male or female, to ever lace up a pair of sneakers.
Even though she tends to focus on the present, it is important to remember her past, as it paves a timeline for one of the greatest success stories Title IX has ever had.
When you talk to her, you begin to understand how far the game of women's basketball has come. "20 years ago I couldn't imagine, I just couldn't imagine," she says shaking her head. "My hopes and dreams were to play in the NBA. I'm probably not the only little girl growing up who felt that way, because that is all we saw."
Looking back on it now, Staley credits "groundbreaking moments" for making the game she had no idea existed a mainstay on the nation's largest sports networks.
"I think the fact that UConn was so close (in distance) to ESPN and they were so successful, people wanted to see the phenomenon behind why that team was so successful," Staley mentioned. "I think that did help."
She also credits an international decision for helping the game's overall growth.
"Along those lines, I thought USA Basketball's decision to allow the 1996 women's national team to practice for one year prior to the 1996 Olympics, that was another historic moment," she stated. "It was milestones here and there to where women's basketball got more exposure. It gave little girls more opportunity to want to play and be able to play and make a career out of it."
Making a career is a good way to put it, as Staley's entire adult life has revolved around basketball. In addition to her time as an Olympian and in the WNBA, the current Gamecock coach has played professionally in France, Italy, Brazil and Spain. She also performed double duty for several years, playing for the WNBA during the summer while coaching Temple during the winter. Talk about maximizing an opportunity.
After officially retiring as a player in 2006, the "dream" lived on. Having pushed Temple to five straight NCAA Tournament appearances, she accepted the South Carolina position two years later. In the role of head coach, she found herself sharing her journey with those who played for her. The Philadelphia native was leading young women whose dream wasn't reaching the NBA, but to be the next Dawn Staley.
"I'm part of a generation that saw all of it in its entirety," she explains. "They have the WNBA as a carrot dangled in front of them and there are so many more opportunities to continue to play basketball and I think it's only helped the game."
But as Staley reminds her players, talent isn't enough. Thanks to women's basketball added exposure, the pool of good players has grown as well. She constantly tells them it takes more in today's game to be successful.
"The biggest advice is that you have to hone your skills. There is a lot of competition out there," she said, elaborating further. "When you look at me, when you look at Diana Taurasi or Skyler Diggins, we have a God given talent. But it doesn't stop here. We work on our craft; it is something that we truly love to do. Not because of the notoriety we've gotten, or because we are going to be on television...we have a deeper love for the game."
The love keeps Staley pushing forward, sharing her knowledge of basketball with the next generation of players.
Why? Because the "dream" must live on.
"We want the game to grow and be here for as long as possible. There were times as a little girl I didn't have professional women's basketball in the United States," she said, reflecting on her journey." I had to choose having the dream of playing the NBA, and that's unfortunate...but I am fortunate that I was a part of something special in women's basketball here in the United States."
You can say that again.