Adia Barnes and Dawn Staley are continuing to put on for Black women


South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and Arizona coach Adia Barnes are making history at this year’s Women’s Final Four.

2021 is picking up right where 2020 left off: empowering Black women. From the business sector to the sports world, Black women are continuing to dismantle a system that hasn’t shown them much.

Amidst a year that brought over a quarter million deaths related to the coronavirus (and disproportionately affected women of color), as well as the unleashing of social unrest stemming from the recorded murder of George Floyd, Black women have been superheroes politically, economically, socially and athletically. It is only fitting this spirit of Black women’s excellence continues through the history we are preparing to witness in the Women’s Final Four.

In 2020, Black women not only used their own voice but forced the majority to utilize their influence to create the change they all say they seek.

We saw Bozoma Saint John, Chief Marketing Officer of Netflix, call for companies to put their money where their mouth is and financially support racial injustice. We saw Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike inspire by aspiring to become the first Black woman to co-host her own daily national sports radio show. Let’s not forget that while the country was burning with rage through protests and riots, we saw Ferguson, MO Mayor Ella Jones and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms rise from the ashes of the turmoil. And just over 90 days ago, we began 2021 witnessing the ascension of Kamala Harris from Senator to the second-highest office of the land as the Vice President.

Dawn Staley and Adia Barnes are taking advantage of a rare opportunity

Watching South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and Arizona’s Adia Barnes lead their programs to the biggest stage in college basketball in the same year, at the same time, is not just simply another door opening for Black women. It instead is an entire gateway leading to the portal of opportunity for women of color to solidify their position in an industry that consistently overlooks them.

According to the NCAA Database, only 17 percent of head coaches in Division I women’s basketball are Black women. In fact, there are only 13 Black women coaching in power 5 conferences in 2021 (zero of which are in the Big 12).

While the SEC is far and above its power 5 counterparts, there is still a major disparity in the opportunities available for Black women at the collegiate level. Nevertheless, Barnes and Staley are living proof that success can be attained if given the chance.

Black women are seizing a rare opportunity.

Admittedly, as a Black woman, it is tiresome that in 2021 we are still acknowledging “the first black [fill in the blank with whatever].” That at this point in time, there are still feats and territories in sports, and other industries, still untouched by a woman of color.

However, for Staley, being one of two Black women in the NCAA Women’s Final Four for the first time in history isn’t even her first black moment of the season. Just weeks ago, she met up with Georgia coach Joni Taylor in the SEC Tournament Final, marking it the first time in the history of the women’s conference tournament finals, two Black head coaches faced off in the title game. Wishful thinking that as a society we’d be past these historical firsts, but Staley is masterful at turning these occurrences into teachable moments.

“Our history here in women’s basketball is filled with so many Black bodies, for this to be happening in 2021, to me, is long overdue,” Staley said after the 62-34 win over Texas in the Elite Eight on Tuesday night.

Black women are seizing a rare opportunity.  Let me repeat those last two words: rare opportunity.

Part of what makes this moment so special is also what makes this so hard to digest. Opportunity is not something that knocks generously for Black women. So when Barnes and Staley talk about holding the door open for the next generation of women, it’s not some fancy cliché that sounds great rolling off their tongues in a press conference or some hypothetical scenario ultimately referring to giving someone a chance just because. It means ensuring that the door everyone assumes will be open so graciously for Black women, actually is.

In many ways, there’s a responsibility that comes with breaking barriers. It’s never for the person holding the mallet shattering the glass, but almost always for the group following behind them. Black women have sacrificed careers, reputations, risked public scrutiny, bitten our tongues and kept our cool since the beginning of time to ensure the opportunities we create for ourselves are afforded to those who come after us. It is because of Shirley Chisholm that we have a Kamala Harris, just as much as C. Vivian Stringer is the reason we can witness a Dawn and an Adia. She was the first to crack that door.

It started in 1982.

A young woman with a great vision and a desire to win took a small HBCU (historically black college and university) called Cheyney State to the first NCAA Women’s Final Four. She then took her talents to the plains of Iowa and led the Hawkeyes to that same stage in 1993. Coming back east to the streets of New Jersey, that legendary young woman flexed her coaching prowess and ability to revolutionize young players at Rutgers, where she returned to the Final Four in 2000 and 2007. And while coach Stringer would be the first Black woman to accomplish that level of success, she knew she wouldn’t be the last.

Carolyn Peck came along shortly after and stretched that door open wider, elevating what coach Stringer started by becoming the first Black female head coach to win a national championship in 1999 with the Purdue Boilermakers.

And while there would be a few to follow in the seat of a head coach across the spectrum of women’s college basketball, it would be 18 years before another Black woman won the National Championship. That’s when the former Virginia guard from North Philly showed up winning the 2017 National Championship and keeping that door from closing on Black women in head coaching.

In 13 seasons as head coach at South Carolina, Staley has more than 300 wins, nine NCAA Tournament appearances, eight Sweet 16s, three Final Fours and a national championship to her credit. She led the Gamecocks to a 32–1 record last season, winning yet another SEC regular season, and tournament championship and was ranked No. 1 in the country before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID-19.

Staley swept the National Coach of the Year awards in 2020 and is the first person to win the Naismith award as a player and a coach. A three-time Olympic gold medalist, and head coach of USA Basketball, she has demonstrated domestically and abroad what it meant to win on every level. And she instills that culture of winning in her players. It’s reflected in their play and their attitude on the court.

“When we got knocked down four times this season, they got back up stronger,” says Staley post-game. referring to the Gamecocks’ four losses on their record. “And that’s the mark of a true champion.”

While there are none exactly like Staley, there are other qualified and like-minded Black women in coaching who carry the weight of having to be a catalyst for change on the court and on the sidelines.

As Black women, once you find success, there is no ever losing it.

Barnes faced similar challenges. Leaving a career overseas and stepping into coaching as an assistant at Washington, she aimed to bring a winning culture back to her alma mater.

She told women’s basketball analyst LaChina Robinson on the Around the Rim podcast back in 2020  that it was one of the first orders of business when she arrived in Arizona. “A lot of people said I couldn’t do it here. [So] the first thing I focused on was the controllable things and that was the culture.”

Adia Barnes Women's Final Four
Head coach Adia Barnes of the Arizona Wildcats cuts the net after defeating the Indiana Hoosiers in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

This is a first for the Wildcats. They have never been to the Final Four in school history. But Barnes is no stranger to shining brightest when the lights are on and Arizona is no novice to being champions. Just two short years after assuming the role of head coach, Barnes led the Wildcats to the 2019 WNIT Championship. Ironically, Arizona will be matching up against the UConn Huskies on Friday in the national semifinals, the same school that ended her collegiate career in the Sweet 16 just 19 years ago.

“What I love is to be able to come back to my alma mater and have this community excited about women’s basketball again.”

From the WNIT to the Final Four, even Barnes couldn’t have fathomed this would happen so quickly. “I’m so proud because I’m looking in their eyes now,” Barnes said of her team, “and there’s a fire, there’s a belief, there’s a confidence.”

Could that be Black Girl Magic seeping from Barnes and oozing into her players, providing them that necessary encouragement and discipline and commitment that every Black woman carries with her, as she deals with the curve balls that life throws at her? Could the sting of watching so many incredible coaches get left behind because those with decision-making power only seem to hire and uplift those who look like them be what motivates Staley to continue reaching the heights of success she’s become so synonymous for? Or could it be that for these two women, there is no room for error?

As Black women, once you find success, there is no ever losing it. There’s no flexibility for that. There are no days off. There is no leeway for slippage or failure, because despite the obstacles, as Black women at this stage, there is still an expectation to be successful and a duty to achieve above all others because there is literally no other option.

Through the challenges that COVID-19 placed on teams, conferences, players and the landscape of sports in general, both Barnes and Staley stayed the course, stayed true to the values they teach their players and used their experience in winning and playing at the highest level to maintain excellence in their programs, to which has led them to become two of the best four teams in the country.

If you can see it, you can be it.

For as great and legendary as these women are, there is still a fear that lies within, that underachieving will permanently close the door. A door that was barely open, to begin with. A door that Stringer, Peck and others have worked tirelessly to keep ajar.

“Representation matters,” Staley continued. “Nothing against anybody else that lost to us. But when you see two Black women representing in this way, I hope the decision-makers [notice]. Because there are a lot of jobs out there.

“You give Black women an opportunity. Bring them in, interview them. If you don’t hire them, let them know why. So we can continue to work on perfecting our craft and our profession. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t getting the opportunities they should. Because this is exactly what can happen when you give a Black woman an opportunity.”

Aside from being the first two Black women in this position, Barnes and Staley are also the first two former WNBA players to coach in the Final Four. Barnes played in the WNBA from 1998-2004, finishing her career alongside Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson with a league championship as a member of the Seattle Storm. Staley was drafted ninth overall in the 1999 WNBA draft, where she played the majority of her career with the Charlotte Sting, taking them to the 2001 WNBA championship. She capped her final season with the Houston Comets in 2006.

“I think there need to be more WNBA players coaching women’s basketball,” states Barnes. “I want to see more. Dawn is someone who’s always believed in me and sent me a nice message. We all support each other. When you’ve played pro, you’ve walked the walk. I think a lot of players want to play for someone who’s been there.

Both the Wildcats and the Gamecocks have two of the finest examples of leadership steering the ships. Both coaches literally know what it takes to be a winner. They have been there. They have made the big shots. They’ve had to put teams on their backs. They’ve mastered the art of being a champion. And they have done so knowing this isn’t space that Black women live in comfortably.  Both women also understand the importance of supporting each other, not only in this Final Four but in the grand scheme of cultivating a shift of diversity for others like them. Staley said of Barnes, “I’m super proud of Adia. I wanted that to happen. I was cheering for her to get it done. It was not for any other reason besides us being represented at the biggest stage of women’s college basketball.”

It’s bigger than basketball, and in some ways, even bigger than Staley and Barnes.

This is a proud moment for Black women everywhere. Two people who have put the culture on their backs and the pressure on athletic directors, presidents and others in decision-making positions to pay attention to what Black women are offering.

If you can see it, you can be it.

“There are so many Black coaches out there that don’t get the opportunity, because when A.D.’s don’t see it, they don’t see it,” Staley said. “They’re going to see it in the Final Four on Friday night.”

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