Ah, the 1990s. In terms of basketball, I’ll always remember the decade as O.J. Simpson’s freeway chase that interrupted my Knicks’ playoff broadcast, Arizona winning the 1997 NCAA championship (Bear Down!) and studying poolside in Tucson while watching my two favorite point guards dish and score their way to success.
The personalities that are Dawn Staley and Gary Payton can be the only explanation why a budding young woman in Arizona would care about Seattle and Richmond, Va. Enraptured, I’d watch Staley high-step, yap-jaw and gum-smack to wins with the defunct Rage on BET. In college at Arizona (Bear Down!), I lived and died with the Sonics and Payton as I studied poolside and watched the playoff struggles on a 8-inch black-and-white TV.
I just loved watching them play and always wondered what the heck they were saying to themselves, teammates, opponents, fans, officials — seemingly anyone within earshot. Who knew I’d grow to actually find out, covering both through the Seattle Times. So, it was especially cool to witness the greatest point guards from my generation enter the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame together on Sunday.
But who entered as the greatest trash talker?
“Dawn can trash talk with the best of them,” said 17-year WNBA veteran Tina Thompson, who won Olympic gold with Staley, played with her for the defunct Houston Comets and against Staley as she starred for the defunct Charlotte Sting (1999-2006).
“Gary’s use of verbiage was a lot different,” Thompson continued in comparing the elite trash talkers. “He would be a lot more tormenting than Dawn. But they’re both pretty good trash talkers.”
Upon getting to know more about Staley, my favorite stories were about the card games the women of USA Basketball would play. Storm All-Star Sue Bird said the Olympians even killed time prior to the Parade of Nations with card games in the holding area for athletes.
“The card games were pretty hilarious,” said Thompson, who didn’t play because she doesn’t gamble. “I remember overhearing them at the back of the bus talking trash and her talking trash during the games and stuff. What I remember more than anything about those card games was that she used to beat (Olympic) coach (Van) Chancellor a lot and gave him a really, really hard time; beating him pretty badly in the games. He’d smile, but I know it irritated him so much. Her personality — she’s just really honest and forthcoming. If something wasn’t right, no matter who it was, she would call a spade a spade. I appreciated that about her.”
Staley is one of the pioneers young woman should thank for the growth of the game on a professional level. Seattle especially, Staley sending messages to Bird at UConn via then-assistant coach Tonya Cardoza for the blossoming point guard to “Go to your left! Go to your left!” among other tips to hone the eventual three-time Olympian.
Cardoza, now the head coach at Temple, and Staley were teammates at Virginia.
“I absolutely love Dawn Staley; she’s amazing,” Thompson said. “She has this drive and excitement that most players don’t have. And she has a really big heart in a really small body (5-foot-6). Her leadership, it resonates far beyond her stature and she’s led some pretty awesome groups of players whether it was in the Olympics or WNBA. Ask anyone about Dawn and the first thing that’s probably said is about her leadership and her drive. I’m extremely happy for her.”
Sunday’s speeches probably proved Payton as the better trash talker. He spent his 11-minute speech and much of the lead-up to his enshrinement making amends for some of that colorful verbiage. Staley’s 16-minute speech was more poetic. But she did get in an early jab to her presenters, five-time Olympian Teresa Edwards (HOF Class of 2011) and two-time Olympian Katrina McClain (Class of 2012).
“I wanted somebody else to feel as uncomfortable as I am in these shoes. If my speech gets a little boring, just watch them sway,” quipped Staley as the star-studded audience laughed of why she chose Edwards and McClain as her escorts.
“Honors like this, although welcomed, have always made me a little uncomfortable,” Staley continued. “I seem to have an internal conflict with receiving recognition for my blessings. I think the best way for me to explain how I feel today and give tribute to the people and the experiences that led me to here is to describe an honor that came in 2004. This is a true story.”
The 2004 Athens Olympic Games were Staley’s last. She was chosen to be Team USA’s flag bearer, walking ahead of our country’s Olympians.
“We are the USA; you keep your head up, walk prideful and never dip the flag,” Staley recalled being told of the duty. The audience gathered in Springfield, Mass. erupted with a long applause. She was the first women’s basketball player to carry the flag.
Using the 100-meter markers of the Olympic-stadium track as storytelling markers, Staley, 43, broke down her basketball career into four sections. First-year Denver coach Brian Shaw borrowed a Drake line to describe Gary Payton’s ascension that equally fits Staley, “Started from the bottom, now we here.”
Staley rose from playing against the boys on the courts in her North Philly projects to become a three-time Olympian, five-time WNBA All-Star and current head coach at South Carolina, which finished 25-8 in 2012-13. And now she’s a Hall of Famer whose impact within the women’s basketball community via playing and charity work is practically unmeasurable.
“She knew I could potentially be the point guard for USA Basketball in the coming years and was always willing to help me take that torch,” Bird said of continuing the women’s gold-medal tradition, winning the country’s fifth consecutive gold in London. “That’s the way she impacted my life, but I know she’s impacted so many more…She had a great career at Virginia and everything, but that 1996 Olympic team was extremely pivotal for women’s basketball (launching the WNBA) and she was a big part of that. Even though she played in the ABL, we won’t hold that against her, she was able to then move on to the WNBA and do some great things here. Dawn just had an amazing career and her impact on women’s basketball is definitely felt.”
Sunday was a beautiful moment for both Staley and Payton. And I’m thankful to have watched them both become greatness — only getting their jawing directed at me a couple of times. Who knew that would be such an honor?