For all that Dawn Staley has accomplished in her Hall-of-Fame career, she believes her latest achievement may have topped them all.
"It is basketball utopia for me," Staley said Friday after being introduced as coach of the U.S. women's national basketball team. "For me to sit here as coach of USA Basketball is surreal."
And a long time coming.
She first began playing for USA Basketball in 1989. Staley has won three Olympic gold medals as a player — in the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Games. She was an assistant coach on the 2008 and 2016 gold-medal winning U.S. teams.
Now, it's Staley's turn to call the shots.
"I didn't see this moment ever happening because I just wanted to be part of one Olympic games," Staley told the crowd of about 100 people that gathered at South Carolina's football stadium about five miles from campus, including her Gamecocks players and five-time Olympian Teresa Edwards. "But dreams lead to other dreams."
The dream will become a reality next year when she leads the U.S. in the FIBA World Cup in Spain. Should the U.S. qualify for the Olympics as expected, Staley will look to guide the Americans to a seventh consecutive gold at the Tokyo Games in 2020.
Staley, 46, has coached South Carolina since the 2008-09 season, leading the Gamecocks to four straight Southeastern Conference regular-season titles. They won their third consecutive SEC Tournament title Sunday and are poised to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — as they've been for the past two seasons — when the selections are announced Monday night.
Carol Callan, USA Basketball women's national team director, believes Staley is the right coach at the right time for the team.
"You find successful people and you ask them to do this again and again and again," Callan said.
It will be a cycle of change for the United States with four-time Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings retired and stalwarts Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird still not yet committed to continuing for 2020.
There still is a strong young core of talent with Maya Moore, Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne, Tina Charles and Breanna Stewart. Staley will likely also have a couple of former or current Gamecocks to pick from in two-time SEC players of the year Tiffany Mitchell and A'ja Wilson.
Wilson and her teammates wore t-shirts that said "2020 Vision" on them in honor of their coach. Staley said she got the word from USA Basketball last week while scouting South Carolina's opponent for the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
"Needless to say, I didn't keep scouting the game," Staley quipped.
Besides her work with the national team, Staley has a 21-0 record as head coach of other U.S. basketball teams leading the U18 and U19 squads to gold medals in 2014 and 2015. She also guided the 2007 Pan-Am team to a championship in 2007. She was honored as co-recipient of USA Basketball's coach of the year in 2015.
Staley was also honored in 2004 as the U.S. Olympic team's flag bearer for the opening ceremonies in Athens, Greece.
Wilson, a 6-foot-5 junior, played for Staley on the U.S. team that won the FIBA U19 World title in 2015. Wilson acknowledged thinking their association could continue after college.
"In my head that's something that I've dreamed to do," Wilson said. "As my college coach and now hopefully in the future as my national Olympic coach, that would be amazing."
UConn's Geno Auriemma, who led the 2016 team to victory in Rio last August, said Staley was the obvious choice to keep the program humming.
"I think she's going to be really, really good, because she understands the way the whole system works," he said. "She's been a part of it in every capacity. So, I don't envision that there will be anything that she's not prepared for."
Staley rose to basketball stardom at Virginia, where she led the school to three straight Final Fours and was named national player of the year in 1991 and 1992. She began her pro career in the now-defunct American Basketball League before joining the WNBA's Charlotte Sting in 1999.
Staley began her head coaching career at Temple in her hometown of Philadelphia. She led the Owls to six NCAA Tournament appearances in eight seasons.
Staley moved to South Carolina after the 2007-08 seasons. She has led the Gamecocks five straight NCAA trips, including advancing to their first and only Final Four two years ago.
She was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.