Staley rises from Philadelphia projects to stardom with Virginia

December 01, 1991|By Michael Vitez | Michael Vitez,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- You can tell by the high-tops that this crowd is serious. As they stride onto the smooth, swept pavement, the trademarks flash like dog tags: Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Converse, Fila. As more and more players arrive, rap spills from a living-room speaker set next to an '80 Riviera parked courtside, announcing that the evening's action is about to commence. Sides are chosen, and soon the basketball is in play.

The Moylan Recreation Center at 25th and Diamond is a proving ground, one of several playgrounds where Philadelphia's best players have always come to learn the game, to test themselves, to put their skills on display. Man and boy, they all played, or are playing, at Gratz or Dobbins or Franklin or Strawberry Mansion or a dozen other high schools. Many of them live on the streets around the playground, or in the Raymond Rosen housing project a block away. Some -- such as the late Hank Gathers -- have found renown. Night after summer night, their hopes -- for respect, for fame, for the exhilaration of athletic dominance -- flow along with their sweat.

And on this August night, one player stands out amid the giants: a diminutive figure, slight, maybe 5 feet 5, wearing baggy shorts, a St. Joe's T-shirt, and low-cut Cons. The shoes and the height make no difference; neither does the fact that she is indisputably female. Once she takes the court, she is a player, driving to the basket, dishing off passes, swishing distant jumpers. When a pass flies down court, she pulls it in like a wide receiver, drives for the hoop and hits a teammate with a pass behind her back. The defense is surprised, the teammate is not; he lays the ball in, detonating a round of cheers on the sidelines. "That's it, Dawn!" "Count it!"

For another 20 minutes the game goes on, full-court, five-on-five, with all the shoving and shouting and pounding playground rules demand. When it's over, her team is on the wrong end of a 52-42 score, but for once that's not so important. Dawn Staley -- Dobbins Tech '88, University of Virginia '92, likely Olympian, and current consensus as the best player on any college women's team in the nation -- is home.

*

The Raymond Rosen project is an imposing sight. Eight towers rise out of the concrete around 23rd and Diamond. Three are empty and condemned. The others all have their share of boarded-up windows. Dumpsters in the street are the first thing you see driving in, plus shards of glass in the street and, depending on the season, shirtless children in old shorts. An outsider might think it's a sinister and depressing place, but an outsider might be in some ways mistaken.

Behind the towers, across a few acres of asphalt, are blocks of row houses, six on each side, plus another row in back of those. Little gardens with sunflowers and pink flamingos lie out front, forming a central courtyard. Colored pennants flap in the wind as they crisscross above the courtyard. Little girls ride tricycles, men linger on porches.

This is home to Dawn Staley, the place that made her what she is -- respected not only for her skills, but also for her character. It is also a place she was expected to return to yesterday, when the University of Virginia women will play Temple at McGonigle Hall in a game arranged entirely to let her play once again before a Philadelphia crowd.

Clarence and Estelle Staley moved to the city from South Carolina as teen-agers with their families in 1956 and '57, respectively. They met and married young and, in 1967, moved into one of those row houses, which they now rent for $400 a month. Clarence worked 22 years for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, jackhammering pavement. A heavy smoker, he had a heart attack two years ago, at 47, and now is on disability. When he stopped working, Estelle started, taking over homemaking duties for elderly people in apartments on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Together, they raised five children, and what they couldn't give with money they made up for with their attention. In an era when gang warfare claimed young lives the way the drug trade does today, the Staley parents simply laid down the law: "There were just some corners you weren't allowed to go," says Dawn's sister, Tracey, who's now 26. "My parents said don't go there, and you didn't go. Not unless you wanted a whupping." Dawn's brother Pete, who's now 28, once had the misfortune to get caught clowning around on a street corner, making the sign of the Diamond Street gang with his fingers. "My dad grabbed me by the collar and shook me so hard," he recalls, "I never had nothing to do with gangs again." Dawn, for her part, says: "Growing up around here, that's all you hear -- the drugs and the crime. But I was more afraid of what would happen when I got home." She may be the family's only celebrity, but when she comes home she still washes dishes.

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