COURTING SUCCESS: USC women’s basketball players, including one future Coker University coach, have found success

University of South Carolina

The University of South Carolina women’s basketball team opened the 2020-21 season the same way it ended last season — at No. 1 in the polls. But that was not exactly the way the team wanted the season to end. After going 32-1 — including being undefeated in the Southeastern Conference and winning both the regular season and tournament titles — the Gamecocks were poised for yet another quality run through the NCAA tournament. They had made the tournament in each of the past eight years, including two Final Four appearances and one national championship. The fans who had filled Colonial Life Arena night after night, with an average of more than 10,000 spectators per game, were ready to do it again for the first two rounds of the NCAA — and were anticipating a trek to nearby Greenville for the Sweet 16. There seemed to be very little standing between the Gamecocks and the Final Four and a shot at a second national title for Coach Dawn Staley, who was named the national coach of the year by The Associated Press, and seniors Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. In the end, what stopped their quest was a global pandemic. “Having the NCAA Tournament canceled, even with how necessary that was, brought out feelings of frustration, sadness, disappointment and a sense of emptiness from our players,” Staley said at season’s end. “I reminded them that our success was measured by how we responded to challenges and obstacles placed in our path all season.” It is such lessons that Staley, and other coaches before her, have sought to pass along to the young women who have come to South Carolina not just to play ball, but to earn a degree and start successful careers off the court. For Staley, that off-the-court success has been just as important as the records set on the court. During her tenure, which started in the 2008-09 season, every student-athlete who has completed her four years of eligibility at South Carolina has also earned a degree. About a dozen former Gamecocks have gone on to success in the WNBA — none quite as successfully as recent grad A’ja Wilson, who earned the league’s rookie of the year honors in 2018 and this past season earned the MVP trophy as her team made the finals. But even more former Gamecocks have gone on to become successful teachers, doctors, social workers and corporate vice presidents following their playing days. Those who have “gone pro” off the court credit the lessons they learned while student-athletes at UofSC with much of their success. “Basketball and sports are a great way to teach a life lesson,” says Staley, who herself was a student-athlete at the University of Virginia before going on to have a hall-of-fame career as a professional and Olympic player as well as a college and now U.S. Olympics coach. “We teach discipline because discipline is something that will carry them throughout their entire careers. We teach being timely because that’s something that obviously if you go into the real world and have to work for somebody, you have to be on time. We teach the ability to persevere because every single thing is not going to go your way.” This season, the pandemic continues — and it could continue to wreak havoc on college sports schedules. But the lessons learned on the court are enduring, no matter where the players end up in life. Shannon Johnson When Hartsville native Shannon Johnson joined the Gamecocks in 1992, it was a particularly difficult time as South Carolina has just joined the Southeastern Conference and it would take a decade before the women notched a winning conference record. “It gave me some tough skin,” Johnson says of the SEC losses. “Nobody wants to lose, nobody goes out there with the intention of losing. But we kept on working during that time.” Johnson personally went from about 99 pounds and averaging nine points a game to 120 pounds of muscle and an increased average that peaked at 24.7 points per game in her senior season. Johnson is the only Gamecock to average more than 20 points per game for three consecutive seasons and her career average of 20.4 points per game is also a school record. “What it gave me the opportunity to do — although we weren’t winning as a team — was the opportunity to win individually,” she says. “I saw my stats go up every season.” When she graduated from South Carolina in 1996 with a degree in retailing, she had 2,230 career points — No. 2 on the all-time scoring list. Johnson went on to play in the American Basketball League, before joining the WNBA where she played 10 years and was an All-Star in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003. She also was a member of the 2004 Olympic gold-medal winning Team USA, along with Staley, whom she calls a mentor and a friend. Johnson found herself looking to Staley for advice when the opportunity to return to coaching came up. “Dawn coached me right through it. She coached me through the interview, the process, what to expect,” says Johnson, who was the head coach of the women’s team at Coker University in her hometown of Hartsville from 2015-20. She previously served as an assistant women’s basketball coach at Northwestern State University. In between her coaching stints, she joined the corporate world with Enterprise. “That was one of the best things that happened to me,” Johnson says. “It taught me about customer service and how to sell a product. We had been selling ourselves that entire time we were playing professionally, but I didn’t understand the value of selling when I was a player.” It was her work with Enterprise that brought her back to Columbia and she found herself coming back to watch the women play and to catch up with Staley. “It didn’t matter what year you played, you were a part of the story,” Johnson says. “Our tradition is not all about wins and losses, but we do have a tradition and the way she has taken this program forward has been so great because we were the foundation of it. Dawn loves and understands that tradition.” Martha Parker-Hester Columbia native Martha Parker-Hester played on three early NCAA tournament teams (1986 and 1988-89). Highly recruited by marquee programs around the country, Parker-Hester chose to stay home. “It was all about wanting to play for Coach (Nancy) Wilson and in front of the people who had supported me all my career,” says Parker-Hester, who graduated from South Carolina in 1989 before going to the USC School of Medicine. She has been a practicing physician in Columbia for 25 years. Parker-Hester compiled some serious stats as a player. She is seventh on the all-time scoring list with 1,728 points and second on the all-time steals list with 284. She started all but two games during her 124-game South Carolina career and is in the Letterman’s Association Hall of Fame. She says basketball was the perfect prep for med school and life as a doctor, who also happens to be married to a doctor and has three children. “The biggest asset for being a woman in medicine and getting through it and enjoying it was basketball,” she says. “The hard work, the discipline and having a balanced life. Knowing every 30 minutes of my day was planned out in college — where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing — I think that certainly bled over into medicine and into life as far as how do you balance a demanding career and want to do well with how do you love your husband well, how do you love your kids well?” Parker-Hester faced her greatest personal challenge when her oldest child was diagnosed with leukemia at 5 years old. “How do you man up for that up? How do you persevere?” she says. “God just totally prepared us all along the way, and it started with basketball and all the principles around it.” Treka McMillian Since leaving South Carolina in 1992 with a degree in physical education and athletic training, Treka McMillian has pursued two very different lines of work, but whether coaching women’s basketball or running a successful financial planning and investment office, her focus is on education. A native of North Carolina, McMillian has returned to her home state to run her father’s Primerica Inc. office, a branch of the national financial services company based in Duluth, Ga. Though her degrees — she also has a master’s in sports management from the University of Minnesota — are not technically in the field of financial services, McMillian says her primary job is to educate folks on building a secure financial future. “People don’t know what they don’t know,” she says. “So we educate them and help them put their financial house in order.” When McMillian came to South Carolina, she knew her playing days would end at the college level, so she took advantage of every opportunity to learn what she didn’t know. “I just had a good feeling that South Carolina was a good atmosphere, a good environment for me to grow,” McMillian says. “It was a good experience for me on the court and off the court. Coach Wilson was not just about basketball, she was about teaching life skills and helping you grow off the court so that was really invaluable to me as a young person.” Whether it was learning how to communicate with teammates, to look someone in the eye when speaking with them or even just how to be on time, McMillian says the things she learned at USC have stayed with her through the years. As head coach at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, McMillian led her team to the 2004 National Junior College Athletic Association Division III national championship. She then helped create a women’s program at Guilford Tech Community College in Jamestown, N.C., before becoming an assistant at Western Carolina University to former Gamecock teammate Karen Middleton (1987-91). “I liked helping young women move from one place to another in their life and seeing them grow into adulthood,” she says of her 22 years of coaching. “When they leave you, they are empowered to be good people and good citizens. “The most fun part is always seeing them graduate. You see them finish something that they start.” As when she was a student-athlete, McMillian always tried to make her time with her students about more than basketball. “I think you do your players an injustice if you are just a basketball coach to them, if you’re not teaching them life skills,” she says, recalling that Wilson brought in guest speakers to teach her players a variety of skills, including manners and etiquette, how to deal with large crowds and how to build relationships with people. “No matter how good a player you are, at some point, you are going to stop playing and you still have to be able to transition into life, whatever you’re doing — no matter if it’s sports, if it’s entertainment or if it’s business.” Lisa Williams Burgess Lisa Williams Burgess came to South Carolina to play in the vaunted Southeastern Conference and “as an Indiana kid, there is no way I was going to Kentucky.” The SEC was and still is where the best in women’s basketball play, but during the Gamecocks’ first few seasons in the conference, they were not among the best, struggling to win a handful of conference games each year. “It was hard times. We didn’t win a lot of games,” says Burgess. “But it was also great times because we had Shannon Johnson there as a senior.” Burgess played her freshman year alongside Johnson and still managed to have her own 1,000-plus-point career — 1,099 career points to be exact. She also made the SEC academic honor roll three years in a row and was named to the SEC Community Service Team. She was recruited by Nancy Wilson, but played her final two years with Wilson’s replacement Susan Walvius. “Nancy brought a sense of stability and her ability to be rooted in who she was and her faith and dependence on her Christian background,” says Burgess, who grew up Catholic. “Her faith and her aspect on life were strong and at 18-19 years old, I probably didn’t appreciate it. But she had grace and class, that’s something that I admire her for. “Susan brought a different tenacity to what she wanted to do at South Carolina. She built a mentor community and kind of tried to build a culture — something I would say Dawn has completed.” Walvius coached the Gamecocks’ first SEC winning season, going 10-4 in the conference and 25-7 overall in 2001-02. That year’s team made it to the round of eight in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. “Susan brought a business side to the game,” Burgess says. “I was in the business school and ended up getting my MBA and I appreciated that piece of what she brought. It’s definitely a business and she started to run it like a business.” Her playing days behind her — “I went to get my MBA rather than going to the WNBA” she says — Burgess has worked in finance for 20 years, first with automotive lender GMAC in Charlotte and Detroit and now with Wells Fargo back in Columbia. She has two daughters 12 and 10 who play a wide range of sports and Burgess is a board member for the South Carolina Letterman’s Association. She also mentors a current student-athlete. Burgess says her time at South Carolina prepared her for ups and downs of real life. “You lose more in life than you win and it’s not until you’re in your 30s and 40s that you learn to enjoy the process,” she says. “As a student-athlete, if you focus on the process, results happen. You have to have perseverance. If you have a hard day at the office, you show up the next day.”

Author: Rachel Howell

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