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A little nylon goes a long way: Dawn Staley extends a tradition with a package of inspiration

South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley has led her team to two of the past four Final Fours, and her Gamecocks opened this season ranked No. 1. After cutting down the net following her 2017 national title, she shared the nylon with 80 other Black women’s coaches this fall. (LM Otero/AP)
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Doshia Woods was a senior at Western Illinois when Dawn Staley began coaching at Temple. At the time, Staley was balancing her new job with a still-active playing career for the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting. Woods, now the coach at the University of Denver, was still 10 years from her first coaching job.

Woods’s admiration for Staley dated back years, to when Staley helped guide a seminal U.S. women’s basketball team to the first of seven consecutive Olympic gold medals, fueling her love for the game as it evolved from high school through college and into her coaching career.

Woods, who spent 10 years coaching at Tulane, met Staley a few times while recruiting or at coaches’ conventions, but she doubted Staley gave her much consideration, even after she heard that the South Carolina coach planned to send strands of her 2017 national championship net to every Black woman who led a Division I women’s basketball program.

Then came Tuesday. As Denver prepared for its season opener against Air Force, Woods received a white envelope that carried a letter and a capsule containing a knot from Staley’s championship net.

“I opened it, and I was just floored,” Woods said. “I didn’t think she meant everybody, and to say that I was inspired would feel like an understatement. Honestly, it took me a couple of days to even articulate my words. It was just an incredible gesture that I’d never seen before.”

In 1999, Carolyn Peck led Purdue to the NCAA women’s basketball title, becoming the first African American coach to achieve the feat before cutting down the net that season. Sixteen years later, while working for ESPN, Peck gave a piece of that net to Staley, who carried it in her wallet as inspiration to achieve the same goal.

In 2017, Staley became just the second Black coach to accomplish the feat when South Carolina bested Mississippi State that April.

When Peck gave the netting to Staley in 2015, she asked that Staley return it when she earned her own “netlace” and that she pay it forward, cutting a talisman from her net to pass down to another promising coach.

Staley said she struggled for years to pick one coach. She consulted Peck, but they still couldn’t settle on a single name.

“I wanted us to come up with the next coach who should receive it, but there’s so many,” Staley said. “I was doing an interview, I think we were doing the diary for the entire season, and I just said it’d be pretty cool to give all the Black coaches who are coaching at the Division I level a piece of the net because it’s a tangible thing that sometimes when you’re going through things day-to-day and you don’t feel like you can see your way through it, that little nylon piece of string … [it] rejuvenates you to continue and it gives you that reason to keep pushing.”

Staley finally settled on the idea earlier this year and consulted with South Carolina to send out pieces of the net, hoping the gesture would be most meaningful if the packages arrived just before the season. They sent 80 packages in total, with recipients including Wisconsin’s Marisa Moseley, Coastal Carolina’s Jaida Williams, and Toyelle Wilson of Southern Methodist.

Arizona Coach Adia Barnes came just short of joining Staley and Peck when her team lost to Stanford by a point in April’s national championship game. After her team upset No. 6 Louisville Friday night, Barnes spoke about the gesture and her appreciation for Staley, whose Gamecocks opened the season ranked No. 1.

“It’s just something that I can look at. It’s what I’m striving to do, and she knows that,” Barnes said of Staley. “It was very thoughtful, and people don’t do those things, and I’m just proud to have a piece of it. Hopefully I’ll get one one day. I want the bigger one, too, so hopefully I’ll get the real net.”

Moseley put her piece of net in a trophy case in her office, one shelf above a handsome collection of championship rings she won as an assistant at Connecticut. Woods, the Denver coach, placed hers on her desk, next to a figurine of a Black girl with a basketball whom she nicknamed “Little Doshia.”

“I put the net next to her because it’s a constant reminder of what’s possible,” Woods said. “I felt like [Staley] could have easily just sent it to the Power Five coaches, the ones who maybe have the resources and talent to [win a national title], but for me, it’s motivating to be great where you are and to win championships here.”