Nell Fortner, Dawn Staley reflect on relationship ahead of Sweet 16

SAN ANTONIO — Nightfall came Sept. 16, 2000. The USA Basketball team finished off a 14-point win over South Korea to open the Olympic Games. Nell Fortner walked on the bus first.

The team’s point guard, Dawn Staley, joined a few moments later and became the first player to take her seat. She found Fortner to give the simplest gesture. Staley went to pat her head coach on the back.

“Good job today, Coach,” Staley said.

Fortner had known Staley as her point guard from the moment they crossed paths on a 15-month tour five years earlier. They spent many days together playing games domestically and internationally ahead of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. It could be playing cards or giving her all on the hardwood, Fortner always knew Staley as a fierce competitor.

On that September evening in Sydney, Australia, Staley showed appreciation that Fortner remembered two decades later.

“It really went a long way with me,” Fortner said Friday. “I’m a head coach in that stressful situation of coaching the Olympics, and you don’t get a lot of pats on the back from people who really mean it. Dawn was always supportive.”

Fortner and Staley have a relationship that covers multiple decades, countries, trips and basketball endeavors. On Sunday afternoon, they reunite as two coaches on another big stage as Fortner’s Georgia Tech team meets Staley’s top-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks in the NCAA Tournament’s regional semifinals (1 p.m., ABC).

The two friends are at very different stages than they were as the millennium began. Staley has a national championship to her name while Fortner has led building a program back to the spotlight after taking a hiatus from the coaching profession. The days when Fortner led the way for Staley’s time playing for the United States, however, remain memorable.

“Look, me and Dawn go way back,” Fortner said with a laugh. “There’s no doubt about it.”

“We forever have a bond,” Staley said. “You’re always going to have a strong connection when the goal is as big as winning a gold medal.”

Fortner played an integral role in the USA Basketball teams while working with some other iconic coaching figures. Ahead of the Atlanta Games, longtime Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer led the way. Once Fortner took the reins, Connecticut legend Geno Auriemma served as her right-hand man.

On the way to a gold-medal run in 2000, which ended with a 22-point win over Australia in the finals, Staley presented the true craftiness of a point guard. She averaged five points and 4.8 assists per game through 35 games, according to the USA Basketball archives.

Staley remembered Fortner’s demeanor each time she stood on the sidelines. It’s very similar to how Fortner leads at Tech at the age of 62. She had her bundle of energy and remained positive through any situation.

Her so-called outbursts, however, were iconic.

“She’ll just take her hand through her hair,” Staley said. “We knew that’s the biggest outburst she’d have. It worked for us in 2000. That’s her nature.”

Fortner developed a fondness for her point guard. She saw a special quality. The extension of the coach on the floor might’ve had a future in leadership, Fortner and many others thought. Staley never imagined herself in coaching.

They had occasional conversations about the profession, but Staley made it clear.

“No way,” Staley said adamantly, as Fortner recalled. “I’m not coaching.”

Before the 2000 Olympic Games, Staley took a head coaching job at Temple. It left Fortner with a bit of surprise. In a full-circle moment, Staley leads the USA Basketball team ahead of the 2021 games in Tokyo and has logged over a decade of success in Columbia, South Carolina.

“There was a great opportunity for her to thrive in this profession,” Fortner said. “I’m not surprised at her success.”

During Sunday’s Sweet 16 showdown, they’ll be coaching on opposing sidelines. Staley, regardless of the victor, might have the same greeting for Fortner as she did on that night after beating South Korea.

“Good job today, Coach,” Staley might say.