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Dawn Staley completes CV and career opportunities continue to knock

Among the small handful of warm memories from the Atlanta Olympics, Dawn Staley stands out. Her combination of gnarly competitiveness and glorious skills – a repertoire of feints, no-look passes and behind-the-back smuggles (her “signature play”, she said) – made the little point guard of the USA women’s basketball team a compelling figure as she and her colleagues swept to victory.

At the time she was a woman playing what many still saw as a man’s game. In later years I was reminded of her playmaking skills while watching Marta, the great No10 of the Brazil women’s football team, and of her focused aggression when Nicole Adams became the first woman to win a gold medal in the Olympic boxing tournament.

Last weekend Staley came back into view when, as head coach of the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, she led her team to victory over Mississippi State in the national college championships final in Dallas – the only significant honour that had eluded her as a player.

Twenty one years ago Staley’s brilliance, and that of her team mates Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie, allowed the worst aspects of the Atlanta Games – the tawdry commercialism, the temporary ethnic cleansing of the inner city and the shock of an anti-abortionist’s bomb killing a person and injuring more than a hundred in the Centennial Olympic Park – to fade into the background, at least for an hour or two.

They were a squad with a mission, recruited 12 months earlier by the US basketball association and promised $50,000 (then £33,000) each in exchange for committing themselves to the project of winning a gold medal – and thereby giving a boost to the launch of a women’s professional league in the land of the all-conquering NBA.

When they did their stuff at the Olympics, inevitably it was in the shadow of a men’s squad featuring such stars as Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway. The men’s job was to live up to the achievements of the original Dream Team in Barcelona four years earlier, when Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan brought a new level of celebrity to Baron de Coubertin’s cavalcade of athleticism. As that group of millionaires took a morning stroll together down the Ramblas, the entire population of Barcelona seemed to gather around them, staring in awe and delight at these giants whose golden aura outshone even the bright Catalan sun.

Their successors did their stuff efficiently enough on home ground in Atlanta but lacked the same magnetism. The women were more interesting as human beings and more fun to watch.

How could you not love a team in which the 5ft 6in Staley had spent the year of intense preparation rooming with the 6ft 5in Lisa Leslie, the first woman to dunk a basketball in a women’s NBA game? If Staley was a tenacious little terrier, Leslie was a beautifully groomed Saluki. “I guess it’s a question of opposites attracting,” Leslie said after their opening victory over Cuba. “She’s East coast, I’m West. She’s a little conservative, I’m known for being a little bit Hollywood.”

Staley, then 26, was a product of the tough housing projects of north Philadelphia. She had played baseball and football as well as shooting hoops with the boys on a vacant lot at the corner of 25th Street and Diamond Avenue. “I wasn’t always the first person to be picked,” she recalled. “But it got to the point where I earned my place.” She was in junior high school when a letter arrived from the University of Virginia offering her a basketball scholarship. “My only chance of going to college,” she said.

She became a college basketball star, but on graduating there was no professional league into which she could make a natural transition. The only serious option was to take her skills abroad, to Brazil, Italy, Spain and France. For a young women from the projects, it was the equivalent of the Grand Tour.

Then came the request to join the Olympic squad, and a year of bonding with her new team-mates. Among them was Leslie, a Californian who had trained regularly with the LA Lakers and formed a friendship with Magic Johnson, who gave courtside support during their matches in Atlanta.

Dawn Staley of the USA looks to make a pass in the match against Italy during the 1996 Olympics at Atlanta. Photograph: Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

While Leslie signed a modelling contract and arranged her elegant limbs in a photo-shoot for Vogue during the run-up to the Games, Staley had the satisfaction of seeing herself featured in a mural seven storeys high on the side of a building in downtown Philadelphia. “Am I flattered? Truly overwhelmed,” she said. “When I heard about it, I thought: ‘Oh, it’ll be just a little wall.’ But it was huge. And every time I see it, it’s like it’s getting bigger.”

Staley went on to win further Olympic gold medals in 2000 at Sydney and 2004 at Athens, where she carried the US flag at the opening ceremony. Having played most of her pro career with Charlotte Sting, she spent four years as a part-time head coach at Temple University before announcing her retirement from playing in 2006. She had never wanted to be a coach but was persuaded give it a go and quickly discovered that she had a gift for organising and motivating.

In 2008 she accepted the head coach’s role at the University of South Carolina, taking them from a win-loss record of 2-12 in the Southeastern Conference in her first season to records of 15-1, 16-0 and 14-2 in the three most recent campaigns, during which the university’s 18,000‑seat basketball arena became the most attended women’s sports stadium in the country.

Her own Olympic involvement continues. She was an assistant coach in Beijing and Rio, and she will be in charge of the USA squad at Tokyo in three years’ time, with the aim of guiding them towards a seventh straight gold medal.

If I were Mark Clark, whose appointment as the performance director of British Basketball was announced a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to encourage more girls to play the game, I’d spend some of the £4.7m allocated to participation by Sport England this year on buying a month of Dawn Staley’s time and sending her on a tour of inner-city schools.

I would be remembering something she said back in 1996, reflecting on the Olympic build-up: “We decided to fight together. Not just for our country, or for women’s basketball, but for all those little girls who might want a chance to play and who might see us and begin to believe that it’s possible.”