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Nov. 26, 2013

By: Sean Cartell
Twitter: @SEC_Sean
SEC Digital Network

COLUMBIA, S.C. – The steady dribble of a basketball and the unmistakable squeak of sneakers on the hardwood have been constants in Dawn Staley’s life. They were there during the good times. Perhaps, more importantly, they were present during the bad.

Those aural symbols are associated with the most fundamental levels of the game Staley so deeply loves, but they have always meant significantly more to the sixth-year South Carolina head coach.

Staley, who this summer became just the 27th woman to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, was reared in the housing projects of North Philadelphia. Lacking many material items that are coveted by today’s youth, Staley found her confidence through basketball.

The transitive power of a pair of sneakers to, both literally and physically, move Staley forward would become a central theme in her life.

“I grew up in the projects in North Philly and I didn’t care what I looked like from my ankles up,” Staley said. “If I had a nice, new pair of sneakers, my world looked differently and felt differently. The things that made me happy were sneakers and basketball. Those were the two things that I really enjoyed, and people came in and out of my life to supply me with opportunities to play.”

With a laser-sharp focus on her passion, Staley became the USA Today National High School Player of the Year in 1988 at Dobbins Tech, earning a scholarship to the University of Virginia, where she was a two-time National Player of the Year.

“Basketball is a tremendous sport,” Staley said. “It is a sport that continues to grow and I want to be someone who helps the sport grow because the sport has helped me grow and mature into the woman I am today.”

Staley’s resume is long and decorated; her credentials in the game of basketball unmatched.

She is a three-time Olympic gold medalist, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and recently was awarded the “Order of the Palmetto,” the highest honor a civilian citizen in the state of South Carolina can earn. The WNBA’s Community Leadership Award even is named for Staley.

Given all of those accomplishments and her passion for the sport, Staley has never lost sight of what matters most. Just like those sneakers so many years ago, basketball is a vehicle through which she continues to make a positive impact.

“She does so much with her community service initiatives and is very humble about it,” said Ray Tanner, the University of South Carolina’s Director of Athletics and a two-time NCAA Champion baseball coach in his own right. “I saw her play when she was a point guard at Virginia and watched her in the WNBA. She has been there and done that. She can talk the talk because she has walked the walk. She does all the right things.”

Staley’s impact on the South Carolina program has been undeniable – she has led the Gamecocks to back-to-back 25-win seasons and a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances. South Carolina won a school-record 11 Southeastern Conference games last season.

Diving deeper than the numbers, she has instilled a sense of duty in her players, a duty to the community in which they live and the fans who provide them support.

“I think a lot of that goes to how she was raised and the neighborhood she grew up in,” South Carolina junior forward Aleighsa Welch said. “She’s seen the other side of things. It’s definitely great to have a coach who is able to look back on what she came from and want to be able to reach out to the community. I’m blessed to play for a coach like her.”

There was nothing new or unusual about Rene McCall-Flint’s spring cleaning, until that moment when she realized she had countless pairs of new sneakers that she never expected to wear.

She happened, that day, to speak to Staley, a friend who was looking for a new service initiative, having discontinued the Dawn Staley Foundation upon her departure from Temple, where she served as head coach from 2000-08.

“We were just on the phone talking and she had all of these new sneakers and she just kind of wanted to get rid of them,” Staley said. “We came up with the idea of giving them to someone that needs them. Innersole was birthed from that conversation.”

The not-for-profit Columbia-based Innersole is a national and international initiative that operates with the goal of providing new sneakers to children who either are homeless or in need. Since August, Innersole has given out more than 500 pairs of new sneakers to children.

“Kids these days want to feel good about themselves in school,” Staley said. “They want to not have to walk down the halls and see that they don’t have what some other students have. It creates that feeling sometimes that they are less than someone else, and it’s a whole self-esteem issue.

“We don’t want any child to have that feeling,” Staley continued. “From that, there are barriers that you are breaking down – learning barriers. Basketball has really been so great to me. Now, I want somebody else to find their niche in life and live out their passion.”

Staley’s team of McCall-Flint and Angela O’Neal, who together head up daily operations for Innersole, contacted The Salvation Army of the Midlands, looking to align Innersole with the Columbia-based organization’s Clothes for Kids program.

“One of the main parts of the Clothes for Kids program is that we provide at least one set of brand new clothes for children and provide a new backpack and school supplies,” said Melani Miller, Director of Program Services for The Salvation Army of the Midlands. “This year, Coach Staley and Innersole came alongside and provided sneakers for every child in the program.”

According to Seth Taylor, Director of Development for The Salvation Army of the Midlands, Innersole provided brand-new sneakers for 248 local children this past summer, marking the most children the organization had ever assisted through its Clothes for Kids program.

“I know Coach Staley doesn’t want to just hand out shoes; I know that she wants those shoes to make a difference in that child’s life,” Miller said. “She’s spending time with this project not to gain the spotlight, but provide for children that don’t have. Kids outgrow sneakers in about 6-8 months. Families can’t afford to buy even one good pair of sneakers a year, much less accommodate growing feet. To have a pair of sneakers that fit, that means more than most people know.”

Staley’s initiative in providing new shoes for impoverished youth has moved countless people in her own community and beyond. Among those who reached out to Staley and wanted to be a part of the program include Tanner and Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin.

“When I learned about Innersole, I was inspired,” Tanner said. “I’ve got a few extra pairs of sneakers and I shipped them over to Coach Staley. It’s a wonderful venture for everyone involved.”

It is a commitment to serve others that Staley has passed on to each player on her team.

“For me, there is no greater feeling,” Welch said. “I’m the type of person who if I can help someone out, it makes me feel better about myself. That’s how we all are. To help someone in their time of need or make them smile when they’re having a bad day, that’s going to last a lot longer than simply winning a basketball game.”

The stories of how Staley’s efforts have helped those in need span far and wide. The impact Staley has made on countless individuals are imprinted in their own memories, but Miller is fortunate to have a photo that reminds her daily.

“We were distributing clothes and shoes and school supplies and there were these two little boys who were brothers,” Miller said. “We were putting the items up on the table for their mom to take and the boys asked if they could open their shoe boxes. We told them that they could. We were able to get a photo of them opening their shoe boxes and the expressions on their faces were just the brightest smiles. When we’re distributing things, that’s the reaction, especially from the kids – one of tremendous excitement.”

When it comes to an opportunity to give back, Staley almost always answers the call. On one particular occasion this year, the question was barely asked before she answered in the affirmative.

Staley was offered the opportunity by the WNBA to serve as its representative on an African outreach trip with the Clinton Foundation. She and Brook Lopez of the Brooklyn Nets would travel across the continent of Africa with former President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea to visit various Clinton Foundation projects on the continent.

“I didn’t even look at my schedule or anything,” Staley said. “This opportunity came and I jumped on it. I just wanted to make sure I was on this trip. Without any of the details, I knew there was going to be a trip to Africa with the Clintons. I didn’t know where we were staying or what we were doing, but I knew that I wanted to explore a different culture.”

Upon hearing of the prospect of the 10-day trip, Staley’s boss found it to be quite in character for the coach to participate.

“It wasn’t surprising to me at all,” Tanner said. “She was excited about that opportunity. She is passionate about basketball, but she is equally committed and embraces other people – people in need – and she has a tremendous love for mankind.”

Staley, certainly well-versed in community outreach, found herself to be a pupil on the trip. She was notably moved as she soaked up knowledge of the initiatives of the Clinton Foundation.

“I didn’t know that the Clinton Foundation had been servicing the whole continent of Africa for as long as they have,” Staley said. “They’ve been doing it ever since he left office. To see so many people there, just helping raise an entire continent from grassroots on up, it was a tremendous trip all around.”

Staley witnessed local farmers being educated on how best to cultivate their land, she saw local businesses receive banking and financial advice on how best to operate their companies, and she toured Clinton Health Access Initiative clinics in rural areas.

Then, there was one experience in Zambia that Staley won’t soon forget.

“I saw a deaf person hear for the first time and I was a part of helping them experience that, which was really emotional and moving for me,” she said. “The group of people that [President Clinton] assembled were all people who want the world to be a better place.”

Staley’s trip to Africa with the Clinton Foundation was one that not only affected her own life, but the lives of those on her team.

“I definitely thought it was great,” Welch said. “She told us she was there and encountered some things that she never thought would be a part of her life. That perspective was amazing because it’s not every day that you get an opportunity like that. It was eye-opening for all of us, even though we weren’t there to experience it.”

If it’s possible, Staley’s commitment to public service was strengthened through her experience in Africa.

“It pretty much changed my life,” Staley said of her trip to Africa. “I’ve always had a passion to help people, but it was heightened because of this trip.”

That Staley has been transformed through her service efforts is unmistakable. Still, even though Staley has found success in every avenue of her life, her mission continues to center on being the person who brings change to the lives of others.

“It’s really important for me because the generations that come after me won’t have to live like I lived,” Staley said. “It’s not like I lived a bad life but, from the outside looking in, where I grew up in the projects, that’s not the best place to grow up for some people. If they don’t have people in their lives to expose them to different things, they’ll think that’s the only way to live.

“There’s another lifestyle out there,” she continued. “It’s not materialistic, but another lifestyle in which you can expose yourself to being more cultural and learning more. When you are equipped with knowledge, it is a very powerful thing to have. I feel like I want to share what I know because people have helped me along the way.”

From her experiences, Staley derived this year’s theme for her team. Entitled “Be the Change,” the mission of Staley’s team this season is to perform 50,000 random acts of kindness during the year.

“We want to be the change in ourselves, share our story and help other people,” Staley said. “We set up a Facebook and a Twitter account. All of our players are feeding these accounts so that people can hopefully pay it forward. We want to show that there are good people in this world who are willing to do something random that will uplift others on a daily basis.”

Staley’s players have bought into the concept and have been eager to find ways to perform acts of kindness. While those acts are helping others throughout the community, they have also taught each of the South Carolina players an important lesson.

“I think it definitely came from her trip to Africa and seeing how things were over there,” Welch said. “She wants us to be the change that we can be for other people, whether it’s basketball related or outside of basketball. She just wants us to be a change for people. We’re doing 50,000 random acts of kindness and documenting things on a daily basis.

“Whether it’s opening a door or helping pick something up, I have definitely learned that people appreciate the little things and they go a lot longer way than what I thought they did,” she continued. “Just saying thank you and helping someone out goes a long way.”

Spontaneously assisting others in need is nothing new for Staley, who is always looking for an opportunity to make a difference.

“When Coach Staley was here talking about our Clothes for Kids program, we happened to go in the back parking lot, where we have a Disaster Canteen, which is like a food truck, and we were in the process of trying to set up an outreach program in one of the poorest projects in the area,” Miller said. “Coach Staley told us that she wanted to participate in that. She came to the poorest housing facility in Columbia and brought toothpaste, toothbrushes and dental floss, and Coach Staley line-danced with the kids. It was really uplifting.”

The life of a student-athlete in the SEC is one of relative privilege. While the demands to put in elite-level work both on the court and in the classroom are time-consuming and expectations are high, Staley is quick to remind her student-athletes that they are receiving a free education along with access to countless other resources.

That platform is one that Staley knows is imperative to use for the greater good.

“I think it’s important because it is necessary,” she said. “There are people out there that need it. I think it is embedded in our athletes to do community service because our platform at the University of South Carolina kind of speaks for itself. They get to see and are exposed to things that other people aren’t. If they can lend what they’re exposed to, you can give hope to someone else who thinks their outlook and future is bleak.”

While Staley could influence countless lives with the example that she set on the basketball court alone, she has never forgotten her roots and those who helped her along the way. She is constantly striving to give back to a game that has helped her achieve great success.

“She is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and that’s the truth,” Miller said. “She has a special place in her heart to reach out to children and youth who are living in financial crisis. She’s a remarkable woman for reaching back and wanting to help those who are still living in those situations.”

For Tanner, Staley sets the standard for what he wants his athletics department to represent.

“She is the epitome of what a coach should be in my estimation,” Tanner said. “I understand time demands in all of our sports, but I encourage our coaches and student-athletes to take time when they can to not just do something from time to time, but to take part in an ongoing and important initiative. We couldn’t be more blessed to have Coach Staley leading our women’s basketball program.”