South Carolina Basketball legend Zia Cooke and Coach Dawn Staley competing together again, this time for charity

South Carolina basketball will take on South Florida in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at 1:00 on Sunday. Mandatory Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina basketball will take on South Florida in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at 1:00 on Sunday. Mandatory Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports /

On Wednesday morning, I had the privilege to speak with South Carolina basketball legend Zia Cooke about women’s sports, her family’s charity, and cornhole.

Cooke just finished up her rookie year in the WNBA, and her former South Carolina basketball head coach Dawn Staley is getting her Gamecock squad ready for the 2023-2024 college basketball season. However, this Saturday, the two will be reunited, competing for charity in the Johnsonville Charity Cornhole Challenge.

The event will be held this Saturday morning in Columbia at the Soda City Market on Main Street from 9:00-11:00. Because it is South Carolina vs. Florida Week, “Team South Carolina” of Cooke and Staley will compete against “Team Florida,” NFL All-Pro Jevon Kearse and WWE Superstar Titus O’Neil.

This Saturday, Cooke and her former coach will be competing together once again, this time for charity. Here is what Cooke had to say about the event:

KM: This Saturday, you are going to be back in Columbia for the Johnsonville Charity Cornhole Challenge. What can you tell me about that?

ZC: I’m teamed up with Johnsonville, the official sausage of the SEC, and there will be a prize of $10,000 to give to charity. I’ll be teaming up with my South Carolina basketball coach, Dawn Staley…I’m super excited for it, super excited to be with Coach Staley. Really, like I can’t wait to see her. It’s been a while. I think this will be a good way for us to bond and to compete against Team Florida.

KM: You two will be facing off with Team Florida, former NFL All-Pro Jevon Kearse and WWE Superstar Titus O’Neil. With athletes involved, will there be a little trash talk between Team South Carolina and Team Florida on Saturday?

ZC: I think so. Coach Staley has already been doing some trash-talking, so I’ve got to back her up. I definitely think there will be some trash-talking. It will be a lot of fun for us to compete. With all of us being athletes or former athletes, it is definitely going to be competitive.

KM: Trash-talking in the name of charity is the best kind…Since this is for charity, can you tell me a little bit about the charity you will be representing?

ZC: I will be repping my family’s non-profit, which is Ladies of Athletic and Academic Excellence…I want to be able to get our charity on the map. I want to be able to pour into our charity, definitely in the city of Toledo where I’m from…That’s what I will be fighting really hard to win the prize for on Saturday.

KM: l know you will be ready to put on a show with Coach Staley for the South Carolina basketball fans who come out to see you. Do you feel like being back in Columbia will give you a real home-field advantage over Team Florida?

ZC: Yeah, I think so. I mean, that’s my second home…I hope I get some type of luck being back in South Carolina.

KM: You mention luck, but how do you rate your cornhole skills?

ZC: I’m not really the best. I don’t know the techniques to it or the ins and outs to it. I just hope it goes in, but I think I might have to start doing some practice. I’m confident that I’ll be alright, though.

KM: If it’s anything like putting a ball through a hoop for you and Coach Staley, you will be just fine. With you being an active player and Coach Staley being a former player, do you think that the two of you could take Mr. Kearse and Mr. O’Neil in a game of 2-on-2 on the hardwood?

ZC: I do; I definitely do. As long as they can’t post us up and back us down too much, I definitely do. We might have to make some rules (against posting up), though.

KM: After you dominate them in cornhole on Saturday, maybe y’all can take them down on the court, too. Maybe Johnsonville can put some more money up for charity and make it happen.

ZC: Right!?

KM: With your charitable focus being on seeing women in sports and academics succeed…have you been encouraged by the increased emphasis and promotion of women’s sports, especially women’s basketball that you’ve seen in recent years?

ZC: Definitely. I think women’s basketball is finally getting to where it needs to be. I think the W bringing new WNBA teams to the league is huge. That’s huge. I’m happy to be a part of that era.

I believe that college basketball has been paving the way for the W. They’ve been working hard, but I do think women in college are starting to understand what we need as women and what we need as athletes. I think we’re all tied in together to help us all get what we deserve and be in the place we deserve to be.

KM: Would you mind telling me about how your family’s foundation started?

ZC: Yeah. It started in 2019 [the year Zia joined the South Carolina basketball program]. That’s when it was founded…At the age I was, my parents wanted to push for it but wanted me to be the face of it…Basically, it’s to help young girls become successful at the end of the day, in whatever they want to do.

Whether you want to be an athlete or want to just be better…that’s what it’s all about.

Because I have so many young girls who look up to me, it’s a way to bring us all together and a way to provide some knowledge, some help. It’s something that they started for me before I even understood what my voice could do.

We have different events, different drives, help for Christmas, sit-down conversations about a list of things for women: ways to keep ourselves safe, ways to elevate our minds, and ways to be together.

KM: That’s amazing.

ZC: Yeah, my mom is in the works of getting our website out there…I think right now the best way is to just say the name. I’m not really looking too much for a donation at this point. We’re still trying to figure out the best way for people to donate. That’s why I want to use my voice first to help out with Ladies of Athletic and Academic Excellence.

KM: I have two little girls here at home, so when they’re old enough to understand, I’ll have to show them some Zia Cooke South Carolina basketball highlights.

Zia, I really appreciate you taking some time to talk with me this morning, and I look forward to seeing how things go for you Saturday at the Johnsonville Charity Cornhole Challenge.

ZC: Thank you!

Zia Cooke just finished up her rookie season with the LA Sparks. During her South Carolina basketball career, she was an All-American and the recipient of this past season’s Ann Meyers Drysdale Award given to the country’s top shooting guard.

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