In the 1980s, many Black Americans rooted for John Thompson’s Georgetown teams. Also, many young Blacks loved Michigan’s Fab Five in the 1990s.
Did the South Carolina women’s basketball team, who won this year’s national championship Sunday night in downtown Minneapolis, elevate themselves to the status of “Black America’s team”?
“It was great to see the arena full of fans cheering” for the Gamecocks, observed Deb Walker, a member of the 1982 Cheyney State team that 40 years ago played in the first-ever NCAA women’s championship game—the only HBCU school to do so.
“We walked around the city a little bit,” noted South Carolina Player Development Director Freddy Ready. He and the team ran into many Blacks on the street— “A lot of them told … they will be here supporting us.”
This is a team coached by a strong, proud Black woman Dawn Staley, and the majority of her players are Black. Junior Aliyah Boston dominated in the two games she played last weekend and was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
Guard Destanni Henderson—who was once told that she had to wait her turn to be a starting point guard—in perhaps her final game as a collegian, led all scorers with 26 points in the title game.
Sunday, Staley made history as the only Black coach, men or women, to win two national championships and joined Carolyn Peck (1999) as the only Black women to win NCAA titles. She is also the only Black coach to have a team ranked No. 1 for the entire season and win a title at the end.
“We fought, we fought since day one,” said Henderson, “and we knew that we could come out on top this season. Our coaches have just prepared us for this moment.”
Staley picks a season-long theme each season. This year’s team theme was “Net Worth”—cutting down the nets at the end of the season. The Gamecocks did late Sunday night.
“Last year we fell short,” noted Boston, who won several national player of the year awards. “It’s very satisfying, this goal coming into school, winning a National Championship. We have a National Championship.”
“I felt a great deal of pressure to win because I am a Black coach,” said Staley. “Because if we don’t win, then you bring in so many other—just scrutiny. Like you can’t coach, you had enough to get it done but yet you failed. You feel all of that, and you feel it probably 10 times more than anyone else.”
“It’s great to see Dawn Staley back here,” Arizona’s Adia Barnes told us last Saturday. Barnes coached in last year’s national finals, only the sixth Black coach to do so. “She is a trailblazer for all of us.”
Since Staley’s hiring at South Carolina in 2008, not only has she built a consistent winner team in 14 seasons, making the Final Four thrice in seven seasons—a possible eight was denied in 2020 when the pandemic hit and all sports was called off for a time—but also taken on the role of drumbeat major for more Black coaches.
We briefly talked last Wednesday about this after the head coach was named Naismith Women’s Coach of the Year. She also won the 2021-22 USBWA National Coach of the Year for the second time in the last three seasons.
“Anytime a Black coach can receive an award like this means that you’re lending hope to other Black coaches because we don’t get many opportunities to be put in this situation,” responded Staley. “You don’t win an award like this without having a great staff, a pretty darn good team, and the commitment to be successful.”
Such as Jolette Law, who joined the team as an assistant coach in 2017 – she has nearly 30 years of coaching experience, including Illinois head coach (2007-12).
“Once she came on board,” said Staley on Law, “she made all of our lives a lot easier. She says all the time, ‘You’re in good hands with ‘Law State’—she’s my insurance policy.”
Law told me before Sunday’s title game about her strong belief that the Gamecocks were divinely destined for greatness: “Last year at this time my mom passed,” she pointed out. “God brings everything back to full circle. Another opportunity to play in the Final Four and to play for a national championship, this will mean a lot to me. I’m giving Him all the glory and my mom is looking down.”
Staley uses her bully pulpit often—during Sunday’s post-game press conference, she told reporters more Black journalists need to be in the room. “Some of our Black journalists don’t get an opportunity to elevate [the game],” she said.
“She’s an ambassador for the sport, for Black women in general,” stated Ready, who has been in South Carolina athletics since 1999 and joined the women’s program in 2002, first as assistant to the basketball operations director.
He became full-time in his current position in July 2010. “She reaches out to the community as well as other coaches.
“Sometimes she has a hard demeanor on the outside, but one of the nicest people you will ever need,” said Ready. “She doesn’t turn away anyone.”
“It really makes me emotional … because I am their hope,” concluded Staley on being a model for Black women coaches.
She added, “Like I am their hope—I am the person that they strive [to be]. Where I sit, winning National Championships—that’s what they want to do. If I can be that ray of hope, if I can be a vessel of theirs to them being successful—I am forever in dept in trying to repay the game.
“I do that with just giving them my time, my expertise, or just my opinion on things to help advance young coaches of all colors,” said Staley.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.