Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Adia Barnes, Dawn Staley Make History

The tweets came in from her former Seattle Storm teammates, Lauren Jackson, Tully Bevilaqua and Sue Bird. Swin Cash texted to send her congratulations. It is a sisterhood that Arizona head coach Adia Barnes will never take for granted.

“It means the world to me because I’ve created so many lifelong friendships throughout my years being pro. Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, Sheri Sam, Tully Bevilaqua they all — we had a championship team. I have lifelong friends that I loved dearly,” Barnes said. “I think there needs to be more players, WNBA players, former players coaching women’s basketball.”

The NCAA Women’s Final Four will commence Friday night in San Antonio with the national semifinals. Together, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and Barnes will make history.

The pair will become the first two Black women who have been head coaches in the same Final Four. And it is the first time that two former WNBA players have taken their teams to the Final Four as head coaches.

“When we can represent more than one thing, I think women are kick-ass, we can handle a lot,” Barnes said following her team’s win over Indiana on Monday night, which vaulted the Wildcats into their first-ever Final Four. “I wouldn’t have been able to handle half the stuff I could handle if I didn’t play pro and handled adversity as a pro player. Maybe that made me more resilient, stronger.”

Barnes and Staley were WNBA contemporaries.

Barnes spent six seasons in the WNBA (1998-2004) playing for Sacramento, Minnesota, Cleveland and finally Seattle, where she won a title with the Storm in 2004. She had a 13-year professional career overall before working as a broadcaster and then entering coaching in 2011 at the University of Washington.

Staley, the Hall of Famer and current U.S. Olympic team coach, played eight WNBA seasons, from 1999-2006, playing for Charlotte and Houston.

Staley admitted that she’s been pulling for Barnes, who had a stellar collegiate career at Arizona before returning to coach at her alma mater five years ago, to get the Wildcats to the Final Four.

“I’m super proud of Adia,” Staley said. “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.”

Barnes said she was gratified to hear from Staley during the tournament.

“We all support each other because it’s meaningful when you can play pro, you walked the walk,” Barnes said. “I think a lot of people want to play for players, coaches that have been there, done that. It’s not something you read about in a book. It’s something you’ve actually experienced and went through. I’ve been cut, I’ve been a role player, I was an All-American in college, I’ve been a role player trying to make a roster in the league. I’ve been there and done that. That speaks volumes for people that have been there.”

Staley also addressed the importance of representation for women of color as leaders on the sports’ biggest stage.

“There are so many Black coaches out there that don’t get the opportunity because, when ADs don’t see it, they don’t see it, and they’re going to see it on the biggest stage of a Friday night that two Black women are representing two programs in the Final Four, something that has never been done before,” Staley said.

But Staley also acknowledged that the “player part” of them helps them to connect to their players in a very specific way.

“I know Adia utilizes all of her basketball knowledge as a player, and she’s been a coach long enough that she’s not just a suit,” Staley said. “There’s always going to be part player in us, and that’s why our players, we are so relatable to them. We understand it because it’s coming from a place where we’ve done that. We’re trying to help you get to a place where we can have longevity in our league.”

For Arizona senior Trinity Baptiste, playing for a coach in Barnes who has not only been in her shoes but also where she wants to go – into professional basketball – has been an important part of her experience.

“She understands what it’s like because she’s played at the highest level and she can relate to us,” Baptiste said. “She’s walked the walk. She’s not just talking about it. She’s done what we want to do someday.”

It is also meaningful to Baptiste as a Black woman to have role models like Barnes and Staley.

“It gives hope to people in my community,” Baptiste said. “Because you don’t always see someone living the dream of what you dream about.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.