(Elsa/Getty Images)

Recently, every time the upper echelon of women’s basketball comes into focus, Dawn Staley is a part of the picture. In the span of two months in 2021, Staley led Team USA to its seventh Olympic gold medal in Tokyo and signed a record contract with South Carolina for $22 million over seven years, making her one of the highest-paid coaches in women’s basketball. Now, her Gamecocks are the No. 1 team in the nation and the favorites to win the 2022 national championship.

In today’s world, the only thing missing from this level of success is her own podcast. No longer. This week, Staley is launching NETLIFE with Just Women’s Sports, which will feature weekly in-depth conversations with some of the most influential people across sports and other professional industries. WNBA legend Lisa Leslie joins Staley as her first guest Wednesday.

The name of the podcast represents Staley’s own twist on the phrase “ball is life.”

“I’ve given basically all of my life to the game,” she says.

Basketball has been Staley’s north star since she was a kid growing up in the projects in North Philadelphia. She always brought her own ball to the local blacktop courts so that the older guys had to let her join if they wanted to play, since there often wasn’t another decent ball to be found. Staley’s tenacity and love for the game eventually resulted in an athletic scholarship to the University of Virginia, an opportunity she says her family would not have been able to afford otherwise.

Since those early years, Staley has never wavered in her commitment to the game, and it has paid dividends. Her resume includes two Naismith College Player of the Year awards, six WNBA All-Star honors, AP National Coach of the Year (2020), Naismith Coach of the Year (2020) and an NCAA championship as head coach of South Carolina (2017). She’s also a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee and the only person to ever be both USA Basketball’s Player of the Year (1994, 2000) and Coach of the Year (2018, 2021). Remarkably, Staley has been either a player, assistant coach or head coach during six of USA women’s basketball’s seven gold-medal runs. (Yeah, Sue and DT, she’s got six.)

Though she never gave much thought to coaching during her playing days, she couldn’t resist the challenge Temple University’s Athletic Director gave her in 2000. During the Final Four that year, Dave O’Brien asked Staley if she thought she could completely turn around a low-performing program. From 2000-08, Staley did just that, ultimately leaving Temple for South Carolina with a 172-80 record, six NCAA tournament appearances and four conference titles in eight seasons.

Initially tempted by the rags-to-riches challenge, Staley ended up finding deep fulfillment in coaching.

“I’m forever indebted to basketball. It’s given me so much, that every day I try to repay it in some form or fashion,” she says. “Coaching allows me to do that, just working with young people every day.”

Repeating the rebuilding process at South Carolina, she accomplished her life-long goal in 2017 when the Gamecocks won their first NCAA championship in program history behind star player A’ja Wilson.

“The national championship eluded me for, like, 27 years, and once I got it, I felt whole,” she says. “That’s strange because I’ve accomplished a lot in the sport, but that was one of the things that I wanted to check off.”

Staley was so elated after reaching the pinnacle that she wore the championship net around her neck for many days afterward, calling it her “net-lace.” She also promptly adopted a dog and named him “Champ.” The Havanese is now the most prized creature in her life, making regular appearances on his dedicated Instagram account and at postgame press conferences. Staley is not too modest to admit she muses about names for her next pup if she wins another NCAA title.

Over the years, the 51-year-old basketball legend has found another way to pay forward what the game has given her: by speaking up and using her growing platform for awareness of off-court causes. Staley is very active on social media and shares her views openly with reporters, always advocating for the advancement of women and people of color in her sport and in our country.

Now, with the launch of NETLIFE, Staley will sit down with guests across a spectrum of industries and have long-form discussions about the things that matter to her and her listeners. Staley says her dream guests include President Clinton, Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe, Reggie Love, and Michael Jordan. Wednesday’s debut episode features Leslie, and with her widespread connections, Staley will no doubt deliver on more of those aspirations.

“We’re looking for people who have a voice, who have something to share that’s not your average answer,” Staley says. “I want to get to the depth of people. I want to figure out what makes them go, what makes them blossom, what makes them hurt, what makes them who they are. Leaders, politicians, change-makers.”

As a leader and a change-maker herself, Staley is always aware of what her individual accomplishments represent in the larger context. When she and Arizona head coach Adia Barnes became the first two Black head coaches to ever cross paths at the Final Four last year, Staley told reporters, “Our history here in women’s basketball is so filled with so many Black bodies, that for this to be happening in 2021, to me, is long overdue, but we’re proud.”

When she led Team USA to Olympic gold in Tokyo last summer as the first Black head coach of the program, she recognized the impact it held for the future: “I know some people are like, if you can coach, you can coach. That’s true, but when it’s a first, and when it’s history-making, I think it’s something to be proud of. It also allows other doors to be opened and opportunities for Black coaches to hold these positions.”

Staley and A'ja Wilson won a gold medal together with Team USA four years after South Carolina's NCAA title run. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

So it’s not surprising that when Staley was negotiating her new contract with South Carolina, she pushed past her comfort level because she knew it would set the new standard for women’s coaches and gender equity nationwide. “I made a lot of money before the [new] contract,” she told Julie Foudy last month. “It wasn’t for me, and it really wasn’t about the money. But the money is the thing that moves people … the money is the common denominator in it all because it talks, it walks, it shatters glass.”

With a deep, raspy voice that always sounds like she’s just left the sideline of an intensely coached game, and a spunky no-BS communication style, Staley seems to have found a perfect match in podcasting. But contrary to what her Twitter account portrays, Staley says she’s a naturally quiet person.

“All of my life, I’ve been a shy person. I’m OK not talking,” she says. “But I think now is the time in which people are listening. Sometimes people talk and there’s no listening involved, and people shy away from using their voice because they’re not being heard. I think I’m at a place in my career where the things I’m saying, people need to hear.”

Always tactful in her timing and her choices, Staley explains why Just Women’s Sports was a fitting partner for her in tackling this new endeavor.

“It’s time now for us to create our own space because there’s a demand for it. There’s a need for it. There are people out there who want to hear from us,” she says. “When there’s a need for it, we’ve got to give the people what they want.”

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.