Somehow, you knew Dawn Staley was going to have a to-do list, coronavirus or not. Maybe it’s time to tackle cleaning out that closet. Staley went to the store, bought some bags, ready to go.
“Those bags are just staring back at me," Staley said over the phone last week.
Not for lack of initiative. If the pride of North Philly has one thing going, you know six more are lining up behind. The year 2020 simply added more to Staley’s to-do list. Coach the top-ranked women’s college team in the country? Check. Also, coach the U.S. women’s Olympic team? Check, check.
Right now, of course, both are on hold. Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks will finish 2019-20 at No. 1, except finish isn’t the right term, not this year, across sports.
“You don’t get close very often," Staley said over the phone. She meant this close. “Not being able to close this out, it’s tough. I do think it was the right decision. We’re a week removed, still not back to basics.”
To have her team playing maybe the best basketball of her 20-year coaching career at Temple and South Carolina ... the Gamecocks have the consolation of finishing a regular season ranked No. 1 for the first time in the school’s history.
“We had good odds. We had really good odds,’’ Staley said of the NCAA Tournament. “I don’t know what they were, but they were good.”
In the meantime, let’s talk to the U.S. Olympic coach for a minute.
“Yeah, right," Staley said, laughing, as the conversation veered to her other duties.
“I’m just going to hold on till we get closer," Staley said of any decisions being made about competing in Japan this summer. “I just don’t want to think about it until we’re at a place where a decision can be made.”
The International Olympic Committee said Tuesday it wasn’t ready to cancel or postpone, “no need for drastic decisions.” Wednesday, the head of the Spanish Olympic Committee called for the IOC to postpone the Games, scheduled to start July 24. Then governing bodies started checking in, making it clear postponement needed to be front burner, not back burner. Sunday, the IOC did not announce a postponement but said it would decide in the next four weeks.
Unlike a track or swim team that is put together through time trials, an Olympic basketball team is assembled through an evaluation process that is ongoing, giving Staley a little more personal leeway.
“We had training camp set up, one at the Final Four, another at the end of April," Staley said. “All that has been canceled.”
She, of all people, understands the need to be careful.
“The last time, in Rio, I got sick. I came back with, like, pericarditis," Staley said, referring to being at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil as an assistant coach and being diagnosed with the inflammation of the tissue around the heart when she got home.
“I do not want to go into a danger zone and possibly contract something we don’t have an answer for," said Staley, who turns 50 in May. “I just [recently] stopped taking the medicine.”
She’d expected to get a quick fix from a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in pericarditis.
“This takes years, he said to me," Staley said. “Nothing in sports really takes years to overcome. But he was spot-on.”
The doctor had wondered, could she take a little time off from work? Shut it down, sit and have a cup of coffee? Not really. This was weeks before her team won the 2017 NCAA title.
These days, she’s on a text chain with her family back in Philly, so she starts each day with a good morning on that, everyone doing OK. Staley has done a public service announcement for the University of South Carolina, reminding people about the basics of what you should be doing to combat the coronavirus. She’s still thinking that’s not enough. Remember, Staley started her coaching career as head coach at Temple when she was still an active WNBA player.
“I want to help people if I can,’’ Staley said. “Reached out to our sheriff: Is there anything I can do? I did a ride-along [last week] with our community-outreach team.”
She meant a team that’s within the sheriff’s department.
“I’m a special deputy,’’ Staley said. “I’ve got a badge, bullet-proof vest.”
The calls Tuesday weren’t about coronavirus. Somebody was shooting a BB gun on somebody’s property.
“Did they belong there?" Staley said. “They didn’t. We recovered the BB gun.”
She knows people are shut in now.
“I want to make sure they’re not feeling it as much as I’m feeling it with basketball," Staley said.
She’d given her 32-1 South Carolina team several days off after it won the Southeastern Conference Tournament on March 8. It was due to gather back together on Friday, March 13. On Wednesday, March 11, the NBA suspended play, effective at the conclusion of that night’s games.
“I really don’t think this is going to jump off," Staley told herself about the NCAA Tournament.
She was typing a text to her players when the NCAA called off the tournament. She got the text out quickly, she said.
“I don’t think it was as sentimental as it should have been," Staley said. “I wanted to get it out as soon as possible.”
The group text turned into a group therapy session. Everyone felt the most for the seniors on the team, all feeling the missing punctuation for such a special season. It all cut off when they weren’t even together.
For Staley, 2020 seemed like one of those special years. She compared it to 2017, when she was named Olympic coach, then South Carolina won the NCAA Tournament.
“It would have been kind of a great bookend to it," Staley said of this year.
Staley obviously would love for the Olympic experience to come off. Her team would be a heavy favorite.
“That’s a pretty cool consolation," Staley said of even the possibility of the Olympics still happening, whenever that could be, even 2021.
As for an outright Olympic cancellation, if it happens, Staley said, it’s because common sense is being applied.