Over the weekend, Dawn Staley coached the University of South Carolina to its first national championship in women’s basketball. The legendary point guard returned to her roots in North Philadelphia Thursday to bask in some hometown revelry.
It wasn’t quite a parade down Broad Street, but from inside the auditorium at Murrell Dobbins High School you could hardly tell the difference. Luminaries from across the sports and civic worlds gathered with hundreds of fans to salute one of their own — Dawn Staley, a kid from the neighborhood.
Mayor Jim Kenney, legendary Temple University coach John Chaney, and even Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery showed their love.
Staley showed it right back.
“Everyone that know me knows where I’m from — knows specifically where I’m from,” Staley told the crowd. Because you can say Philadelphia and it means the big. I’m from North Philly!”
In a city of basketball giants — among them Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant — few figures stand taller than the 5-foot-6-inch Staley. The star point guard turned star coach grew up in North Philadelphia’s Raymond Rosen Housing Projects and first gained attention playing nearby at what was then known as Moylan Recreation Center.
She turned Dobbins into a basketball powerhouse during the late 1980s, leading the school to three consecutive city championships.
Staley left to attend the University of Virginia where she became an All-American, but she’s never drifted too far from Philly’s orbital pull. She played professionally for the Philadelphia Rage of the now-defunct ABL and got her first head coaching job at Temple University — collecting three Olympic gold medals all the while.
Staley eventually moved to South Carolina where she revived the school’s women’s basketball program. On Sunday, the Gamecocks defeated Mississippi State for the national title.
At Thursday’s event Staley was still wearing her “netlace,” a strand of the championship net she’d cut down after the victory and slung around her neck. It’s remained there ever since, she said, with short breaks when she goes to sleep.
Though she no longer plays or coaches in Philadelphia, she’s still connected to and identified with her hometown. After the ceremony ended, she reflected on the meaning of that bond.
“These are the people that knew you when you weren’t good — knew you when you were honing your skills to become good. And they’ve helped you along the way,” she said. “You come back, and you’re just incredibly proud to know you’ve made them proud.”
Pride was abundant Thursday. South Carolina may have won the game. But the triumph belonged just as much to North Philly.
Click through the above gallery for pictures of Staley’s triumphant homecoming.