How Carolyn Peck and Dawn Staley Turned a Basketball Net Into a Baton of Hope

by Jordan Ligons (@_jordanligons)

You can catch to Jordan twice a week as co-host of Spinsters podcast, the podcast that took over basketball internet in 2021. The podcast does longform reporting on Tuesdays and conversations on Thursdays.

When the game clock struck zeros on March 28, 1999 in San Jose, Calif., Purdue and their head coach Carolyn Peck were national champions. The top-ranked Boilermakers handedly beat Duke 62-45. It was Peck’s last game before heading to the WNBA to be coach and GM to the Orlando Miracle. The 17,753 fans in the San Jose Arena went wild. Pom-poms waved towards the court. The Purdue band sounded off. Coach Peck, 33, had just become the NCAA’s first Black woman to win a national championship. And when it came her turn to climb up the ladder to cut down the net — with fans chanting, “Please don’t go!” in the background — she snipped it with a smile, her index finger signaling “number 1.”

See, the thing about “firsts” is you get to be the first person to open the door, but it is your duty — responsibility, even — to make sure you’re not the last to walk through it. Coach Peck wanted to make sure of that.

When Dawn Staley — Hall of Fame WNBA point guard and 6x Olympic gold medalist — decided to coach women’s college hoops, Coach Peck saw the same qualities in her that she had while coaching at Purdue: Young, feisty and determined. She reminded Peck of herself at the beginning of her coaching career.

Pat Summitt hired Peck at Tennessee for her first coaching job in 1993, and in 1995 the Lady Vols lost to UConn in the national championship game. The following season — Peck now an assistant with Kentucky — Tennessee won the title and her former player, Pashen Thompson, gifted her a piece of the net. Peck, a budding young coach, looked at that net
everyday. She even tied it in her game-day coaching shoes.

In 2015, Peck continued this sentiment. She gifted a piece of her 1999 championship net to Staley with a note, reading: “You’re on your way. Keep this and when you get your own, you can give it back.”

Staley said, "It's a tangible thing that sometimes when you're going through things day-to-day and you don't feel like you can see your way through it, that little nylon piece of rejuvenates you to continue and it gives you that reason to keep pushing."

Staley said, “It’s a tangible thing that sometimes when you’re going through things day-to-day and you don’t feel like you can see your way through it, that little nylon piece of string… it rejuvenates you to continue and it gives you that reason to keep pushing.”

Staley kept that piece of net in her wallet for two years until she led the South Carolina Gamecocks to the program’s first national title in 2017. It made Staley the second ever Black woman to win, 18 years after Peck. That tiny, white bit of nylon provided hope. Motivation. Determination. It was more than a hoop’s net; it was a baton. It was meant to be passed along and shared. So, that’s what Staley did.

In November 2021, the 4x SEC Coach of the Year shared a piece of her championship-game net with every current Black woman head coach in Division 1 basketball. Staley sent her #PieceOfTheNet to tangibly remind those 70 coaches to keep fighting to be the next. Arizona’s Adia Barnes, Kennesaw State’s Octavia Blue, Denver’s Doshia Woods — and many more — felt honored and recognized for the rarity of their esteemed position.

Now it seems to be a community of Black women head coaches that feel seen. It’s a sisterhood. As March Madness nears and the goal of cutting down a net crystalizes, these coaches can look to that little piece of nylon as a reminder to keep pushing; to keep believing; to keep leading the way.

And as promised, Staley gave back the net to Peck after her own championship win, which allowed Peck put it all in perspective.

“Now that there’s a one and a two, there’ll be a three,” Peck said to The Undefeated in 2017. “And the excitement that that gives me is thrilling. … I’m a true believer in the power of the mirror. … You have a motivation to become what you see.”

Peck was the first, but it was never intended for her to be the last. Who got next?

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  • Robert

    What an eye opening story. I had never heard of #pieceofthenet before today! Thank God for Coach Peck who saw what we all knew Coach Dawn Staley had within her since her playing days. I hope there are many more black head coaches who get the opportunity to continue the tradition, earning and passing the the net to others! Let’s make this something in the W also!

  • Jamal

    This was an awesome story thank you I had no idea of the net nor the baton that was passed out symbolically. This makes me appreciate women’s basketball and black women in coaching was basketball so much more thanks for an awesome story. Now let’s get a black WNBA coach and to be the first to win the WNBA championship.

  • Ross

    Beautiful piece, Jordan! Let’s hope a lot more nets get passed around soon!

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