South Carolina women's basketball is a family as much as it is a program, which is a main tenet of head coach Dawn Staley's approach. This week several of the players who helped lay the foundation for recent success were back in Columbia to work basketball camp and to pass on their wisdom to the Gamecocks getting ready to suit up for the 2014-15 season.
What are you doing now?
I played in Majorca, Spain (IF Air Europa S'Arenal - team-high 15.8 ppg, 11.4 rpg), last year. Playing over there wasn't necessarily harder, but they are quicker to call fouls and travels. Because, over there they move their feet first and then they go, but they don't call that a travel. But they call it a travel if you swing through. That was a little weird for me, some of the calls, but it wasn't too difficult.
Talk about the adjustment culturally.
They really accepted me from day one. I never felt alone or that I really needed to talk to my family. They were really nice girls, so it wasn't like I was uncomfortable. I was pretty comfortable even on the first day I was over there.
Is there a lesson Coach Staley taught you that you applied out of school more than you thought you would?
There's just so much information she gives us. It's just like little pieces of information she gives you that eventually makes a puzzle. You take it all with you when you leave, everything.
Do you still feel like you're helping to build the program by playing with the current team when you're back on campus?
Yes, because it's very competitive. It's the most competitive I've seen it. I live here, so I come to pick-up sometimes. But it's the most competitive I've seen it in a long, long time. So I think we've helped them grow that. When we leave, hopefully [the younger girls] are going to take that to their own pick-ups.
Is there a different mentality working as a professional and not having someone always on you?
Yes, I have to be that for myself. I have to be in the gym alone at night or early in the morning. But it's not that bad because when you're used to it you're used to it. You appreciate it because you know where it's going to take you later. That's another thing [Coach Staley] taught us. You can't always have people around you, watching you, seeing what you're doing. You have to do it when no one is looking too.
What are you doing now?
I've been coaching for the last three months at a junior college in Florida, College of Central Florida, as an assistant. I actually played there two years before transferring to South Carolina. I will be going back and coaching full-time after this.
Is there a Coach Staley lesson that you are applying to your post-graduation life more than you thought you would?
The Coach Staley lesson I learned was to be fearless. In everything I'm going through now, I have a fearless mentality.
Being back on campus, what are your first thoughts or memories?
My first thoughts were how great my two years were here and how the future of the program is just so bright.
Is it exciting to watch the program grow and know that you have a place in setting its foundation?
It's funny because it was only three seasons ago where we went to the Sweet 16 for the first time for Coach [Staley]. And just to see how much they have grown since is an amazing feeling, to know that we were a part of something big.
Coach Staley talks about how every team achievement is built on the backs of everybody before them. Do you feel a sense of pride or ownership over what's going on?
I'm always talking about my Gamecocks, everywhere I go. It's like we're a family. Just because we're not playing right now or we've graduated doesn't mean we aren't a part of what's going on.
What is the Coach Staley story you tell a lot?
The Coach Staley story I tell a lot is when I first decided to come and play for her. I remembered that I called her and told her that I was coming and I said something like, "I'm sorry for making you wait, but I've decided to come play for you." Then, she had me call Coach McCray and tell her that I decided to go somewhere else to play a joke on her.
What are you doing now?
After graduation, I played in the semi-pro league in Atlanta first. Then I went to Taiwan and played in a USA Select Tournament the Taiwan Jones Cup. It was really cool to play against a lot of Asia-Pacific national teams. From there I got a contract to go play in Europe. I played in Finland for seven months. Right after Finland I went to Ecuador for two months, and I just got back Wednesday night.
Talk about playing overseas and adapting to all the new experiences.
Playing overseas is really cool because you're a professional now and you just get to play. You play free and you get to meet different people. Honestly, the whole time I heard Coach Staley's voice in my head - Coach Boyer, Coach McCray, Coach Taylor. Everything I learned here I applied overseas, and I think that's why I was able to be successful. It was kind of scary how in practice with a new coach I was still only listening to my coaches from South Carolina.
Did you do anything adventurous while you were traveling the globe?
Yes, in Ecuador, we went to the Galapagos Islands are and we went to the mouth of a volcano. I have a lot of videos that I'm going to upload to my YouTube channel when I get a chance. I've been traveling, and I literally got off the plane like three days ago. It's crazy.
You're known to kind of stick with what you know. So what's the craziest thing you ate while playing overseas?
Cow tongue in Ecuador. My teammates tricked me and told me it was a sausage because they knew I wouldn't try it. I tried it, and it was pretty good but I wouldn't eat it again. In Ecuador we ate a lot of rice and beans, in Finland a lot of pasta and bread. I think being overseas I've become a little more cultured, and I'm open to a lot more now. It's cool to live with the people in those cultures.
Tell us about the business you've been growing, Fan Favorite, and what the next steps for it are.
I started Fan Favorite apparel after graduation. The idea came out of nowhere. I got some t-shirts printed up, and I posted them on my social media. I got some great feedback, and I have a lot of great fans that have been purchasing my gear, tweeting about it, reposting my pictures. Overseas I'm just kind of like CEO and my mom helps me a lot and my friends help me. I think it's grown because of social media and the fans. If one person buys it, their friend wants it and buys it. I'm just grateful and surprised at how fast it took off.
Talk about taking on a business as you're trying to pursue a basketball career.
I'm just really grateful. I feel like I'm learning as I go, and I think the people that are supporting me know that so they're just excited about it. A lot of people say it's inspiring because I know nothing about business. But each day I just keep growing. I'm learning as I go, and I make mistakes, but I have a really supportive group of people so I'm just really grateful. And in my spare time overseas I read a lot of books. I watch a lot of Shark Tank episodes. I'm just doing a lot of research on my own because I don't have anybody that I know of that started a business. If there's anyone out there who has, I'm very open to learning more information so I can take it to the next level.
What does the next year hold for you?
For me I'm just taking it a day at a time. Right now, my main job is professional basketball. So I don't want to get too sidetracked with trying to get Fan Favorite going. I need that money that I make from basketball to invest in my company, so that's my ultimate goal. I just want to keep going to other countries and leave my mark there. Hopefully, Fan Favorite can be the next Nike or adidas - or we can do a joint venture, whichever works.
Is it exciting to watch the program grow? What are your thoughts or feelings about your place in the foundation?
This program is crazy. It's been so exciting to watch from overseas because we know how hard the girls work and how hard the coaches work. And just to know that we went, my freshman year, from 2-10 to SEC Champions [last year], it's emotional for me. I know everything we've been through each and every year with different people coming and leaving, just sticking together. To see us as a number one seed, an SEC Championship, all the individual accolades, and that South Carolina is getting that recognition now, it's fun to be a part of it. When I came here, no one knew who South Carolina was, nobody believed in us except for us. They are doing everything I envisioned we could do, so I'm just really proud.
What is the value of your relationship with Coach Staley as a player and now after graduation?
I think it's easy to keep a relationship with Coach Staley because we had that relationship when I was here. It goes back to her being a nice, genuine person that you can talk to. She cares about the person not the player. I'm not playing here anymore but she still hugs me, talks to me, and checks up on me as if I was. I'm just really grateful for that. Like I said, I'm grateful she chose me six years ago when I was just a little girl trying to play. I'm blessed and I've grown a lot as a person. The things I went through here and the things I learned, just sticking together and perseverance, they help me conquer the world as I go on each and every day.
What do you miss most about college?
I miss being in practice with Coach Staley, Boyer, McCray, and Taylor and my teammates because each and every day we got better. I miss competing against my team and I miss putting that jersey on and competing against other teams that everyone thought were going to blow us out of the water. I would run through a wall for everyone on our team and our coaches, and I think they know that. So I just miss putting that jersey on and competing and being against all odds and preserving.
What are you doing now? What are your plans for next year?
Since graduating, I played in Spain (IF Air Europa S'Arenal - 15.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.5 apg) on the same team with Ashley Bruner. Right now, I'm actually studying to become a personal trainer. I just have to get my certification, so I've been studying so I can start training people, mostly in strength and conditioning. I also help out with a group called Our Savior New American Basketball, and it's just training kids of all ages.
What was the experience like playing overseas?
It was nothing like what I expected. It was just so different - the language, the food, just the customs that are there. They do some things differently, and of course it's harder with the language barrier so you have to get adjusted and you have to find a translator - especially when you don't speak Spanish. And the basketball was a lot different, too. To me it was kind of unorthodox the way they move or attack the basket, so I had to get adjusted. And some of the rules, especially with the steps and traveling. There were a couple new rules I had to pick up on and then I got it. But that was a big challenge for me to learn the new rules and get adjusted to how the refs referee over there because it's a lot more physical there than it is here.
Culturally, what was your favorite experience over there?
Probably the food. They love to make paella, which wasn't good because I gained weight. But you couldn't tell because I just became solid. But their food is so good. They put everything in their paellas. Paella is basically rice with different vegetables and different seafood or you can use regular meat or chicken. But everybody makes it different where sometimes there is black rice, brown rice, white rice, or yellow rice. I tried so many different types of paella and I loved them all.
Did you try to come back and make it at home?
No, I didn't (laughing). My teammate actually gave me the recipe her mom used with all the stuff she put in there, but I just haven't had time to shop and make it.
Being back on campus, what are your first thoughts or memories?
It just feels like home when you get here. I'm back here and it just feels like I belong and seeing everybody is just so cool. I've only been gone for a year but I felt like I've been gone forever. I was just like, `Man I miss this place.' I miss seeing everybody's face everyday; I miss seeing my teammates and just interacting with everybody. That was just my initial feeling when I got back. I was excited.
Is it exciting to watch the program grow? Do you feel a sense of pride knowing you helped lay a foundation for them?
A little bit. I know I helped lead the way in a sense. The girls are just working. I watched them in practice, and I practiced with them the other day, and I realized, wow they are good. They just have to keep building on their leadership and they can go so far. I just wish the best for them. You know, our time has passed, but we're still here to cheer them on. They were hyped up to play us in pick-up. They were like, `We're going to beat the old girls.' They have to do that with each other and bring that to the game. I just want them to go far and win it all. They could be the best class and I'm going to support them 100 percent.
What are you doing now?
Since graduation, I went to graduate school. I just finished with my Masters in Social Work in the two-year program. I just graduated about three weeks ago, which was exciting. Since then, I've been working in a leasing office at Riverside Apartments, looking for jobs, finishing up my hours for my internship with the Department of Criminal Justice so that was a crazy, exciting experience.
What has been fulfilling in your practicums and internships?
In my first practicum, my field placement was at a non-profit organization called the Cooperative Ministry. It was different and I was out of my element because when I was a student athlete I dealt mostly with basketball and of course we did community service, but [the practicum] was more of an office setting. So it was really exciting, fulfilling and satisfying to serve the community and people that are in need. A lot of the times at the Cooperative Ministry I worked in the Emergency Crisis Department, and we give people who are in need food vouchers, clothing, maybe some type of transportation. So if they are in need of something, they come and we serve them as best as possible. We can also refer people if they come in and need a shelter or another food bank.
Is that the type of work you want to do with your Masters degree moving forward?
Right now I haven't decided exactly what I want to do, but social work was definitely a great experience and I learned a lot. Being in social works makes you do a lot of self-reflection. And it prepares you to do whatever job you need to do. So whatever field I go into in social work, I think I'll be prepared. Social work has a lot of options. Being in social work, I learned that I like to work with families and I have an interest in troubled youth. And within troubled youth, family is an important factor.
What have the pick-up games been like the last few weeks with your old teammates back to take on the current players?
We did play pick-up the other day, and so they won a couple games and we won a game. But it's been very competitive. We rub off on them playing hard with intensity. I think that makes them play hard, even if we take the L. When [Coach Staley] first started we didn't have any height, but we made it with what we had. So we're going to teach them that even though you have height, you still have to be a fighter because you might come up against a team that's bigger than you. And they have to realize that just because they are bigger doesn't mean another team isn't going to fight harder. They can do it with what they've got.
Is there a Coach Staley story you tell a lot?
So it was the day before we played against Tennessee and Coach Staley's college coach, Debbie Ryan, came to talk to us. She was saying how Coach Staley was one of the players who always had faith and was believing in herself and her teammates. They were playing a big game and instead of her coach being the one telling the team `Let's go' and `You've got it,' Coach Staley was like `We've got this,' `We're going to do this,' `We just have to believe in ourselves.' That's a big thing because a lot of times players and teams look up to the coach for encouragement, but sometimes it has to be the players to step up and say `We've got this,' `We've got you coach.' That was one of the things I learned from Coach Staley as a player. From Coach Ryan, though, I saw her in a different light because you come and play for her and you look at her as a coach even if you've seen her play back in the day. But to see her as a player from a coach's standpoint saying something about her as a player, that was different. I just learned that sometimes you have to come in and pick each other up and let your coach know that you've got her back.