Win or lose on the court, UofSC women’s basketball student-athletes have great success in life
By Page Ivey, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3085
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.
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. I reminded them that our success was measured by how we responded to challenges and obstacles placed in our path all season.
Dawn Staley, women's basketball head coach
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 UofSC 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.”
The biggest asset for being a woman in medicine and getting through it and enjoying it was basketball.
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 UofSC 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.”
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. 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.
When 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 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.”
Our tradition is not all about wins and losses, but we do have a tradition. ... It didn’t matter what year you played, you were a part of the story.
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.”
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. … You have to have perseverance. If you have a hard day at the office, you show up the next day.
Lisa Williams Burgess
Brionna Dickerson Zimmerman
Brionna Dickerson Zimmerman came to South Carolina to follow in the footsteps of her “shero” and cousin Shaunzinski Gortman and to study in the Darla Moore School of Business’ international business program.
A South Carolina Honors College student, Zimmerman made the Southeastern Conference academic honor roll all four years. On the court, she averaged 7.8 points per game for her career, shooting an impressive 32.8 percent from 3-point range.
But Zimmerman says she knew a basketball career was not for her, so she used the SEC’s Brad Davis Community Service Postgraduate Scholarship to earn her master’s in international business and start her business career.
“I graduated in 2010 with master’s in international business,” Zimmerman says. “At that time, based on what you could make in the WNBA, I knew starting my career, I could make double that.”
Zimmerman found her first job working for the woman who recruited her to play at South Carolina. When she left UofSC, Walvius and one of her former assistants, Michelle Brooke-Marciniak founded a company that makes specialty bed sheets that keep you cool while you sleep. Zimmerman began her career working in Philadelphia marketing Sheex Inc.
“Coach Walvius always said ‘Bri, I am going to hire you one day,’ ” Zimmerman says. “As soon as I graduated and decided that basketball wasn’t the route I wanted to go, she hired me.”
Zimmerman says it was an amazing learning experience to be such a young worker with so much responsibility.
“But she knew my work ethic and took a chance on me,” Zimmerman says.
Part of that work ethic is what made Zimmerman a star athlete and student at Heathwood Hall in Columbia, where the mother of two young children now works coordinating events in the school’s development office. But, Zimmerman says, she learned a lot of it playing basketball at UofSC as well.
“Basketball taught me how to manage my time and how to deal with a diverse group of people,” Zimmerman says. “Also, at a place like South Carolina, you’re a mini-celebrity so you have to be always mindful of what you are doing and what you are saying and how you are portraying yourself to the public. That’s something I wish more people could experience before entering adulthood.”
Basketball also taught Zimmerman to adapt to change as she got a new head coach her senior year — someone she had grown up watching play for the Charlotte Sting.
“The minute I heard the news, I just cried and felt like my career had come full circle, playing for this person I had idolized my entire life,” Zimmerman says.
Eventually, Zimmerman showed her new coach the photo she had taken with the then-WNBA star after a game in Charlotte and the commemorative Staley bobblehead she had bought.
“It was surreal,” Zimmerman says. “You get this perception of people when you see them on the floor and you just don’t know what kind of person they are. But now here it is 10 years later, and I still keep in touch with Coach Staley.”
At a place like South Carolina, you’re a mini-celebrity so you have to be always mindful of what you are doing and what you are saying and how you are portraying yourself to the public. That’s something I wish more people could experience before entering adulthood.
Brionna Dickerson Zimmerman
When Jewel May came to the University of South Carolina from Atlanta to play basketball and earn a degree in psychology and sociology, she figured she would become a school guidance counselor or a therapist.
After completing her bachelor’s degree and earning an education specialist degree in counselor education, May headed off to Texas A&M to be an academic adviser for student-athletes and help prepare them for life after sport, which is exactly what she was doing at the time.
She came back to South Carolina in 2017 and did similar work for student-athletes at her alma mater, working with volleyball, softball and swimming and diving teams.
“As student-athletes, we had all this support, all the resources we needed,” May says. “I remember I had a really hard math class that I placed into and that fit my schedule and it just ate my lunch every day. I remember meeting with a tutor once a week, sometimes twice a week, and I was doing time with my professors after class. The resources were all there, which is really a good benefit for student-athletes when every minute is so precious.”
May helped create a summer internship program for UofSC student-athletes during her time working there. She also worked in the university’s housing office while she earned her master’s degree in human resources at the Darla Moore School of Business.
In her work in human resources, May uses many of the skills she learned during her undergraduate and graduate career at UofSC, but also some of the lessons she learned playing during the “lean years” in women’s basketball.
“I think we won two conference games Coach Staley’s first season there,” says May, who played her first season under Susan Walvius before Staley arrived in May’s sophomore year. “We just weren’t winning and it wasn’t fun. But we wanted to win and we were there and prepared to work so we got better over time.”
Thinking and working as a team while not feeling defeated by the losses were May’s biggest takeaways from that time.
“I tell people that I never lose. I learn and I figure it out and I pivot and go on to the next thing,” she says. “Whatever is coming next is going to get a better version of me or a smarter version of me or a more prepared version of me as opposed to just taking the ‘L’ and thinking that’s the end of it.”
May feels a bit like a coach in her human resources work, helping supervisors deal with difficult situations and helping workers prepare for bigger assignments through professional development programs.
“I think one thing is having a mindset — and the longer I’ve been working, the more this becomes apparent that I learned this through sports — the mindset that it’s not about you. I say that often now,” she says. “People are thinking ‘What do I need to be doing?’ and it’s not about you; it’s what do WE need to be doing and then WE can carve out what your role is in that.”
That team approach and work ethic were honed during the worst of times on the basketball team.
“Even when we were losing, we were putting all that time into it, everybody was just grinding all day around the clock. When you’re not getting the results you want, it’s frustrating.
“It’s really satisfying to see their success now because you knew it was coming.”
I tell people that I never lose. I learn and I figure it out and I pivot and go on to the next thing. Whatever is coming next is going to get a better version of me or a smarter version of me or a more prepared version of me as opposed to just taking the ‘L’ and thinking that’s the end of it.
Courtney Newton Gonzalez
Courtney Newton Gonzalez knew when she came to South Carolina that her basketball playing days would likely end when her college career did.
She had torn her anterior cruciate ligament (knee) when she was in high school and it happened again during her college days.
“I knew that when I was done at South Carolina, I was done playing,” says Gonzalez, a high school counselor and varsity girls basketball coach at her alma mater in Flowery Branch, Georgia. “Coach was great that last year helping me fight through my injuries and I had a great year.”
Gonzalez, who had redshirted a year after an injury, started 30 of 32 games her final season (2011-12) on a team that went to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, the team’s first tournament appearance under Staley.
Because of her injuries, Gonzalez was able to finish both of her degrees during her time on the team. She also was able to watch Staley in action.
“Coach is obviously a very driven person and she demands a lot of you, she demands a lot of commitment and a lot of hard work, but that’s something that I loved,” Gonzalez says. “I love to be committed to something, and it’s something that paid off in the long run, playing for her.”
Gonzalez certainly picked up the X’s and O’s of basketball, leading her Flowery Branch team to the playoffs in each of her five years there, including three “final fours” and a state championship appearance.
“Anytime you’re a competitor, you’ve got that fire that comes out when you coach and who better to learn from than the best coach in the country?” Gonzalez says.
But, she says, she learned even more from Staley that she applies to helping her girls grow as young women.
“Coach is great off the court as well. She doesn’t just care about basketball, she cares about who you are as an individual, she cares about what your future goals are and helping you get to those goals,” Gonzalez says. “I value all my time I spent with her and the program and I still lean on those experiences to this day.”
In the counselor portion of her job, Gonzalez works with her school’s at-risk students, motivating them and helping them focus on goals.
“It’s good to have a balance between coaching and my regular job,” says Gonzalez, who also is the mother of two children younger than 3. “It’s also about building relationships and that’s the main thing Coach was about, taking that time to build relationships with people.”
Anytime you’re a competitor, you’ve got that fire that comes out when you coach and who better to learn from than the best coach in the country?
Courtney Newton Gonzalez
It was very early in Brett Ball’s experience as a student-athlete with the women’s basketball team that things did not go her way. She came to South Carolina in the summer of 2011 as a scholarship athlete. But before the season began, she was diagnosed with myocardial non-compaction in the left ventricle— a rare genetic heart condition that made it impossible for her to play basketball.
“I totally could have just said, ‘I’m leaving, this is not going to work out for me,’ ” says Ball, a Ph.D. student in health communication at the University of Florida. “But Coach Staley honored my scholarship. I was still part of the team. When we would travel, I was there; when we had film, I was there; I still attended practices. I did pretty much everything the team did, except work out and play.
“She still coached me as if I was on the court, but in a different way,” Ball says of Staley. “I had to be on time for practice. I had to be on time for class. She didn’t let me just go about in my own way.
“At first I didn’t like it because I was just so frustrated with not being able to play. I thought, ‘I’m not playing so why do I need to do these things.’ But it still made me feel part of the team because I was held to the same standards.
“I don’t know if she had ever had a player under her wing who didn’t play. What are you going to say to make them feel better? She would say there was nothing she could do to help me play, and the only thing she can do is be a guide and I totally respect that. The best thing she could do was be a support system.”
Staley and the basketball media team came up with an idea that Ball would do videos with her teammates to highlight their many off-the-court talents and build up excitement among fans. The show was called Ballin’ with Brett.
“Our team was pretty dynamic,” says Ball, who graduated from UofSC with a degree in criminal justice. “We could have had our own TV show. We had rappers, comedians, drama queens. We definitely had a team full of personalities.”
Producing and hosting the videos got Ball interested in journalism and communications — an interest she has pursued since her time at South Carolina, earning a master’s in integrated communications from the University of Mississippi in her home state.
“It was as good an experience as I could have had without being able to play ball.”
She expects to complete her dissertation and Ph.D. in May. Her research focus is on mental health among African American female athletes, a subject she knows much about.
“Being nine hours away from home, if you’re not somewhere with resources — and USC had resources from A-to-Z — it can be difficult,” she says. “The school had people there who helped with the stress. We had two Black psychologists in the athletic department and that was really helpful for me. That’s how I got started looking into the mental health of athletes.”
Ball says she talked with her advisers and mentors at UofSC before each major life decision she has made. She says she is uncertain where her Ph.D. will take her, but lessons learned from her time with Staley and the Gamecocks women’s basketball program will never leave her.
“I am really interested in ways to improve the mental health of student-athletes. I want to figure out ways to destigmatize mental health and mental illnesses within the athletic and sports space.
“I want to use my experience with mental health, my experience not being able to play and experience with cases of depression and anxiety and I want to be able to help athletes, even if it is from an academic standpoint, about what Black female student athletes have to go through."
At the end of the day, I want to be able to say that I did the best to my ability with the cards I had.
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