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Staley rises from Philadelphia projects to stardom with Virginia

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

Estelle recalls teaching her children "that anything is possible as long as you work for it," and by the time she and Clarence were through, all five of their kids had graduated from high school and into working lives or college. Putting the Raymond Rosen project out of mind, however, was never much of a priority with them. Pete recalls his father periodically piling them all in the car and driving out to the suburbs. "These are the houses you want when you grow up," he would say. One time, Pete remembers, his father hit the number and asked the family if they wanted to move. "We all said no."

*

Now -- particularly now -- a suburban upbringing is exactly what Dawn Staley doesn't miss. Although her family remembers the youngest Staley crying over something virtually every day until she was 10 or 11 years old, she was also a tomboy. "She climbed fences, climbed trees. Never played jacks or jumped rope," says Pete. "She never liked doll babies," says her mother. Dawn, now 21, will say only that "I was never the prissy type." And she could be hard. Once after a fight with Pete -- he can't remember what it was about -- she grabbed the only trophy he ever won and threw it onto the railroad tracks that run behind their house.

Dawn was about 10 when her athletic gifts -- and her love of sports -- began to draw her outside, and there, they became apparent to the neighborhood kids. Soon enough, the friends of her three brothers would come around and ask not for Lawrence, Pete or Eric, but for Dawn. (Which, according to Tracey, "drove my brothers crazy.")

She would play tackle football with the boys, always at quarterback, scarring her knees with the rest of them. She would play baseball with the boys, too. But mostly she played basketball, out on the expanse of asphalt separating the Raymond Rosen towers from the row houses. The kids called it "The Big Field," and by the time she was in her early teens, Dawn would play there till 2 a.m. Her Mom never worried or objected; she figured Dawn couldn't get into any trouble playing ball.

And Dawn played constantly. She remembers her teen-age summers this way: "Go out in the morning, play a few hours, come in and take a bath and go back out and play all night. There's not a whole lot else you can do, especially when you don't have a car. I wasn't much for parties. That's all I lived for, sports.

"What if I had grown up in the suburbs? I think about that all the time. There's access to recreation centers, but I don't think it's the same mentality. Here, sports is something like a job. It's something you do every day for hours; there's a game going on all the time. At noon. At midnight. In the burbs, people might be on vacation [in the summer]. But here, we don't have that luxury. . . . Living somewhere else, I probably wouldn't have played as much, or worked as hard."

Until she joined her high school teams, she always played against the boys. "Playing that young with guys, you kind of maintain the mentality of guys -- you get aggressive," she says. "And they don't care who you are. They treat you as any other guy."

Reared on that kind of competition, Dawn excelled against other girls. She wasn't merely outstanding; she was in another league. Her high school coach, Anthony Coma, who also coached Earl Monroe, says she even played better in high school than the former New York Knicks star. "You knew what Earl was going to do on every play," he says. "You never knew what Dawn was going to do."

Partly, that was because she didn't, either. What Dawn loves best about basketball is the spontaneity, the speed at which things happen (and at which she can make things happen). She was such a force in the Philadelphia Public League that she led Dobbins Tech to 60 straight victories and three city championships; as a senior, she was USA Today's scholastic player of the year. Before one game, the coach at William Penn High School had her players literally handcuff Dawn when they came out to shake hands before the opening tip.

In all her high school years, she gave the Dobbins coaching staff only one problem: getting to home games on time. Because the games started immediately after school, players were excused early from their last class of the day so they could dress. Dawn, however, had a computer class in her last period, and she refused to leave; she'd wear her uniform to class and sprint for the gym afterward. "I'd try like hell to keep those games from getting started until she got there," recalls Coma.

By the time she graduated, she was rarer still: In an age notorious for pouty overachievers, Dawn was humble, modest and appreciative; she expected nothing. Almost everyone she knew -- not just her friends and coaches, but her teachers, neighbors, even her opponents -- rejoiced in her success.

*

Which is why it was a surprise when she floundered in her freshman year at college. She'd had scores of scholarship offers, but she chose Virginia in part because of its academic rigor -- and almost immediately found herself put on "academic warning."

Classes at a historically Southern-aristocrat university were a big change from a city high school. "I wasn't used to taking notes," she said. "I had never taken notes before." At first, she was too scared to talk to professors, to ask for help, to admit that she was lost. But she took advantage of tutors, and of the university's writing center, and learned how to study, how to write a composition. "Once she knew she could do it," says her adviser, Stephanie McElhone, "it might take her twice as long, but she got it done."

Every summer, including this past one, she has taken courses to keep up. In three years, she has failed only one class, in astronomy, and when she took it again, she earned a B minus.

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