What’s it like to be recruited by Dawn Staley? Brazilian steaks, samba dancing and stardom

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Te-Hina Paopao’s heart was set on transferring to TCU.

After Oregon missed the 2023 NCAA Tournament, she entered the transfer portal as a junior seeking change. Mark Campbell, a former Ducks assistant and the new Horned Frogs coach, had recruited Paopao to Oregon years earlier, and they thrived together before he left for another job after her freshman season. She thought she had a plan. A reunion was forthcoming.

But as Paopao was driving to an early morning class last spring, she received a call from her high school coach, Terri Bamford. “Hey, South Carolina wants to talk to you,” Bamford told Paopao. “Dawn Staley wants to call you — like right now.”

Paopao pulled over immediately to focus. “South Carolina? South Carolina? Dawn Staley? The best program in the nation wants to hit me up?” she replied. “Absolutely give them my number. You can tell them to call me right now.”

For hundreds of recruits around the country, that’s what happens when Staley reaches out. You stop what you’re doing. You hit your car brakes and veer to the roadside. “I couldn’t believe that I was on the phone with Dawn,” Paopao said. “Dawn Staley of all people.”

There is Dawn Staley, the South Carolina women’s basketball head coach and winner of two national championships. The Naismith Hall of Fame player. The teacher, the leading advocate for Black women, the dancer (play Mary J. Blige and see what happens), the trash-talker. The fashionista whose sideline outfits — Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Balenciaga — are headlines in blog posts. The star in commercials for major brands.

But before her players experience the many facets of Staley, they first commit to learning from her (and her staff’s) tutelage.

Her blueprint looks foolproof as top-rated high school recruits such A’ja Wilson (No. 1, 2014) and Aliyah Boston (No. 3, 2019) come to South Carolina, win national championships and graduate to become WNBA stars. Unsurprisingly, many of the most sought-after recruits (four of the top 11 in the 2019 class, three of the top four in the 2021 class) make their way to Columbia, where Staley has signed every top-35 rated in-state recruit since 2014. That includes incoming No. 2 recruit Joyce Edwards.

Ty Harris became an All-American and won a national championship at South Carolina (2016-2020). She committed to the Gamecocks largely because she was drawn to Staley’s authenticity. Allisha Gray transferred to South Carolina before the 2015 season believing — knowing, really —that playing for Staley was her best chance to win a title. (She won one.) “I committed right away. I didn’t even have to think about it,” Gray said. Others join the Gamecocks for pro preparation, to learn from a former player and a Black female coach, or to build a culture. “She’s a truth-teller,” longtime Staley assistant coach Lisa Boyer said. “We are who we are, and you either like it or you don’t.”

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Staley’s approach is often central to players committing to her. The Staley recruiting experience, however, can be more involved than the mere phone call that sent Paopao and her family into ecstasy. Players for this season’s top-seeded Gamecocks, who begin their NCAA Tournament quest to complete an undefeated season on Friday at 2 p.m. ET, know that. So do her former players at South Carolina and Temple, where Staley coached from 2000-2008.

“It’s like winning the lottery,” said Keisha Hunt, who coached Gamecocks center Kamilla Cardoso in high school and on the grassroots circuit. “It’s a dream.”

Consider the following tales from Staley’s recruiting trail to explore how and why so many join Staley.


Steakhouses, jollof rice and samba dancing

So much has changed in the landscape of college recruiting since Staley arrived at South Carolina in 2008, but the official visit remains a crucial part of the experience for most top prospects. In addition to X’s and O’s, all successful coaches must know how to entertain in some capacity.

“You know when a school is really interested in you,” Gray said. “If a school will go … out of their way to do things for you, that just shows, they really want you.”

Staley has that down.

She knew Zia Cooke’s family was tight-knit and Cooke might be homesick if she chose to play so far from Toledo, Ohio. So on her official visit, Staley hosted an intimate cookout at her house for Cooke, who would return there many times as a player for Staley’s signature burgers and salmon.

On Harris’ visit, Staley took her and her family to Ruth’s Chris Steak House. When Ashlyn Watkins, a McDonald’s All-American and Columbia native, visited the Gamecocks on her official visit as the nation’s No. 12 prospect in the Class of 2022, it didn’t matter that she grew up as a local and had been familiar with the program since attending camps as a girl. Staley still pulled out all the stops — complete with laser tag and any type of food Watkins wanted. She picked Chinese.

Laeticia Amihere, a ’23 South Carolina graduate and current forward with the Atlanta Dream, grew up in Canada but remembers Staley and her staff bringing in catering from a local African restaurant for her official visit as a nod to her father’s Ghanaian and mother’s Ivorian roots. They dined on jollof rice — a popular West African dish — as well as chicken, fish and plantains. “When you go away from home, it’s kind of hard to get that homey feeling, whether it’s food or even the people,” Amihere said. “(It was) just a lot of stuff that my mom cooks, so I was definitely very happy.”

And when Cardoso, who grew up in Brazil, visited South Carolina after transferring from Syracuse, Staley went even further.

In addition to serving Brazilian steaks, rice, beans and french fries, the Gamecocks had one more surprise for their future 6-foot-7 center. “We had a line-dancing day,” Cardoso said, explaining that Staley brought in a samba teacher to dance the traditional Brazilian number with her. “It was really fun.”


‘Yeah, Mom. She’s a pretty big deal’

Dee Alexander, ESPN’s top recruit in the Class of 2025 and a two-time Ohio Ms. Basketball winner, is naturally reserved. Purcell Marian (Ohio) High School coach Jamar Mosley said she doesn’t tell him every time she receives a call from a college coach.

“But when Dawn called her phone,” Mosley said, “she was pretty ecstatic about that phone call.”

Cooke, now a guard with the Los Angeles Sparks, remembers meeting Staley. She was playing in a grassroots tournament and had performed well, but didn’t know that Staley would be sitting courtside. After the game, Cooke was telling her dad how much it would mean to her if South Carolina recruited her. That’s when Staley tracked her down.

“​When we were walking out, (Staley) was like, ‘You will be getting a call from me,’” Cooke said. “That was by far one of the best moments. … A lot of people look up to her in so many different ways.”

When Amihere arrived on campus for her official visit, Staley took her and her family to Soda City Market — a staple in Columbia with food trucks and local goods. It didn’t take long for fans to swarm Staley.


As a two-time national champion coach, Staley has become the face of South Carolina athletics. (Grant Halverson / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

“I don’t even know how she steps outside. … It was hard to walk through (the market),”Amihere said, recalling that her parents were struck by how famous Staley was. “And I’m like, … ‘Yeah, Mom. She’s a pretty big deal.’”

It’s a similar scene when Staley walks into a high school gym to watch a recruit play.

Will Eudy is the athletic director at Cardinal Newman School in Columbia, where Watkins played. He remembers coaches from nearly every major program walking through the doors to see her games — Notre Dame, Duke, Baylor, Texas, North Carolina and more. But when Staley and her assistants came through?

“Everybody understood when she was in the gym. It was another level,” he said. “It’s a vibe when they walk in. It’s totally different.”

“People were cheering, trying to take pictures,” Watkins said, “trying to come up to her.”

Staley sat in the front row to watch Watkins and was happy to sign every poster and smile for every photo asked of her, Eudy said.

Her star power helps others at South Carolina, too. In spring 2022, the Gamecocks football team needed help at wide receiver. When one of their targets, Corey Rucker, visited campus, coach Shane Beamer’s recruiting department asked if it could do anything to make his visit more memorable. The one thing Rucker mentioned was meeting Staley. She invited him to her home and introduced her to her almost-as-famous pup, Champ.

 

“Whether it was Dawn Staley or Champ, people turned heads,” Amihere said. “Just to see her stardom and how much she means to South Carolina is insane.”

But even as her fame has grown, those who know Staley insist her humility hasn’t changed. Eudy watched Staley sit through more than one Cardinal Newman blowout victory, just to show face with Watkins.

“How do you tell her no when she’s sitting front row at a SCISA (South Carolina Independent School Association) high school basketball game and they’re winning by 60?” he said. “This is what she’s doing on Tuesday night.

“It’s kind of like getting an offer from (Steve) Spurrier or getting an offer from Dabo (Swinney) or getting an offer from (Nick) Saban. That’s gonna be something cool when they come into your school.”


The ‘awe factor’

Staley was 29 years old in April 2000, when Temple hired the Philadelphia native as its head coach. Squarely in the prime of her playing career, that summer the Charlotte Sting’s point guard was preparing for her second of three Olympics. Prior to her coaching debut that fall, Staley told the Philadelphia Daily News that the toughest part of coaching was “having to talk so much.” “I’m better at accomplishing things on my own instead of telling others how to do it,” she said. “But I’m getting better.”

Staley’s accomplishments — two national Player of the Year honors at Virginia, three trips to the Final Four, an Olympic appearance and a budding WNBA career — were appealing to recruits, even if she was still finding her voice on the sideline. “I was very aware of who Coach was as a player,” said Cynthia Jordan, a member of Staley’s first recruiting class. Jordan wanted to play in a city and help build a budding program, but learning from a pro like Staley was a draw, too. “This is the best point guard in the country,” she said. “There was an awe factor.”


Staley’s success in the WNBA as a first-round draft pick in 199 has impressed recruits through the years. She played for the Charlotte Sting until 2005. (Garrett Ellwood / WNBAE / Getty Images)

As both a head coach and active WNBA player, Staley was different from most other coaches recruiting players. “There was a connectivity there, because the player is seeing their coach play,” said Boyer, who joined Staley’s staff in 2002. “I think on the floor, when she was with Temple, she was a player’s coach.” Or sometimes more literally a playing coach. Jordan recalls Staley competing against Temple players in a series of one-on-one games. “I’m not going on record to say how it all went down,” Jordan said when asked who won those contests.

Even after Staley’s professional playing days ended in 2006, her credibility remained. When Staley arrived at South Carolina, she again needed to convince recruits to buy in to the change she sought to create. The Gamecocks had missed the NCAA Tournament five consecutive years (and made the field just twice since 1991). Tiffany Mitchell, a Charlotte native, grew up idolizing Staley from her time with the Sting. She later committed to South Carolina, helping lay the groundwork from 2012-2016.

Staley’s on-court success still matters, even though fewer current players are as aware of her resumé specifics. When Amihere received her scholarship offer, she immediately researched more about Staley, diving into her playing career. “She’s just an icon in women’s sports, and in sports in general, because of her advocacy,” Amihere said.


‘She challenged me’

Paopao knew she would fit into South Carolina’s offense. The Gamecocks needed a 3-point threat after shooting just 31 percent from beyond the arc last season, and Paopao, a 42.4-percent shooter from deep at Oregon in 2022-23, could certainly help.

Still, at the end of Paopao’s visit to Columbia, Staley made no promises.

“She said, ‘You’re gonna come in and compete. I’m not gonna give you any favors or none of that. You’ve just gotta come in here and compete for what you want to work for and become the player that you want. And if you’re not on the court — that’s your fault,’” Paopao recalled. “I thought that was so real. That resonated with me so much.”

She is a go-to deep threat, knocking down a career-high 47.1 percent of her 3-pointers this season, as South Carolina’s overall long-range accuracy has risen nearly 9 percentage points.

It stands to reason that, of course, Staley knew Paopao could come in and make a significant impact. But playing at South Carolina is different than playing elsewhere, said Hunt, who coached Cardoso. Staley’s recruits cannot fear competition.

“There’s two types of athletes,” Hunt said. “There’s the ones that, they might be really, really great basketball players, but they don’t want to go where there’s seven, eight, nine really great basketball players.”

And there’s the ones who go to South Carolina.

“You’re not gonna get the experience that those girls who choose to go to South Carolina are gonna get,” Hunt said.

Like Paopao, Amihere remembers a blunt discussion with Staley during the recruiting process about expectations. During one phone conversation, Staley asked her “What can you do for us?” Amihere thought about her response for a second, then replied: “I want to attack the rim.”

Staley went on to explain what they needed from Amihere and described what she thought Amihere could add to her game. “She challenged me,” Amihere said. That appealed to the former five-star forward.

Staley doesn’t hold back in practices when recruits are around, either. Harris remembers a session when Staley wasn’t pleased with players. “She got so mad at us. She started yelling at us, saying stuff,” Harris recalled. “(I was thinking), ‘Hold on. We’ve got a recruit (here) now.’ But they need to see that.”

Her honesty is refreshing. Her standards remain high.

“When you hear South Carolina, it’s like, ‘Whoa. You play for the Gamecocks,” Paopao said. “‘You play for Dawn Staley.’”

(Photo of Dawn Staley and Ashlyn Watkins: Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)


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