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.
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.