There is a North Philly tenacity written all over Dawn Staley’s climb to the top of the women’s college basketball universe.
Before she coached the University of South Carolina to its first ever national championship Sunday night, before she won three Olympic gold medals as a member of Team U.S.A, and before she was phenom at the University of Virginia, Staley was one of the kids hassling Cheryl Hardy to open the gym doors at Hank Gathers Recreation Center at 25th and Diamond Streets in North Philadelphia.
Back then the “Hank” was known as Moylan Recreation Center, and Staley was a constant presence. Hardy oversaw the facility back then, as she does now, and remembers scores of children cycling through. But the little point guard from the nearby Raymond Rosen Housing Projects stood out. Not only did she show up at all hours, she was the only girl who could crack the top-level male pick up games.
Hardy was so sure of Staley’s future success she asked her to sign a dollar bill when the rising prodigy had just entered high school.
“She said get outta here,” Hardy recalled. “I said it’s gonna be worth something someday. And it is. It’s worth a million to me.”
Today Hardy’s office is plastered with pictures of the stars who’ve passed through this legendy gym. There’s a ball signed by Toronto Raptors all-star Kyle Lowry. A stylish black and white photo of NBA players Marcus and Markieff Morris adorns one corner.
And of course there is the looming presence of Eric “Hank” Gathers, the superstar college player whose sudden death during an NCAA game still hovers like a dark fog over this neighborhood.
In the late 1980s, Gathers and Staley used to share the gym here at 25th and Diamond. Both dreamed of an NCAA title. When Staley broke through Sunday, memories of Gathers came rushing back.
“For me, emotionally, I broke down because her and Hank had the same dream,” said Jeffrey Giddings, a neighborhood resident and frequent presence at the rec center. “Listen, if Hank doesn’t pass Hank is in the same position.”
On a stage behind the far basket hang two murals: one of Gathers, the other of Stale— one of the dream deferred, one of the dream realized. All these years and players later, it’s still Dawn and Hank.
The rec center propelled Staley to a legendary career at Dobbins Tech about a mile northeast. Three city championships later she was off to the University of Virginia, where she led the Cavaliers to three Final Four appearances. She later won three Olympic gold medals as a member of Team U.S.A.
Still, the college championship eluded here. It was, as she would tell the press after Sunday’s win, the “void” on her resume.
And perhaps it would have remained void if another North Philly institution hadn’t pursued her with the same tenacity she’d shown back in her rec center days.
As Staley tells it, she had no interest in college coaching. But a dogged recruitment effort by Temple’s then-athletic-director convinced her to take a head coaching job with the Owls.
“I never wanted to be a coach. I never wanted to be sitting where I’m sitting,” Staley said at her victory news conference. “And Dave O’Brien, the late Dave O’Brien who was the athletic director at Temple University, saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. And he asked me to be a part of changing the program at Temple.”
Change the program she did. In eight seasons at the university, Staley lead the Owls to six NCAA tournament appearances.
And she reciprocated O’Brien’s persistence by using the same determination to assemble her own coaching staff. Three separate times she tried to hire her old professional coach, Lisa Boyer, as an assistant. Boyer had an equivalent position with the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers. She wasn’t about to head back to the college game.
But Staley kept trying. For months, as Boyer remembers it, Staley called her every day.
“She didn’t even say hello,” Boyer recalled. “She just said, ‘Are you coming to Temple? You coming to Temple?'”
Boyer eventually came to Temple in 2002, worn down by Staley’s daily entreaties and was sold on her vision of a national championship.
“If you know Dawn, everything she touches turns to gold,” Boyer said.
When Staley left for the bigger stage of a major conference school in 2008, she brought Boyer and much of her Temple staff along for the move. Sunday night’s victory may have belonged to South Carolina, but its roots were undoubtedly of North Philadelphia.
And North Philly still has its memories of Staley.
Lee Roberts, Temple’s associate athletic director of facilities and event management, recalls leaving the basketball court at the Liacouras Center set up so Staley could barrel out of her office for a quick game. Even after her playing career ended, Staley’s competitiveness never waned.
“Before coach’s knees started bothering her she would be out here playing pickup,” Roberts said. “You better come to play. You better put the sneaks on tight ’cause coach was gonna play and play hard.”
From the shadows of an empty arena Roberts could see the same drive that Cheryl Hardy had at Moylan Recreation Center, and that Lisa Boyer could hear over those daily phone calls. On Sunday night, the reward was that elusive national championship.
“I feel so truly blessed to be able to see her accomplish the last goal,” Hardy said. “And she’s not finished. Believe me. She’s not finished. That’s just the beginning for her.”
As the cosmos would have it, Monday was also a day of beginnings at Dobbins, Staley’s alma mater.
The school is undergoing a $39 million renovation, and around noon public officials lined up for a photo op inside one of the classrooms. One by one they donned construction helmets and swung sledgehammers at a chunk of drywall — each blow eliciting cheers from a giddy crowd of students, staff, and alum.
It was hard to ignore the poetry of the moment.
A wall was tumbling down in North Philadelphia — just as the neighborhood’s most famous daughter had broken through her last barrier.