Dawn Staley taking her place with basketball legends

Dawn Staley among seven Basketball Hall of Fame inductees Monday, April 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Dawn Staley among seven Basketball Hall of Fame inductees Monday, April 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Posted: April 10, 2013

There are the pioneers and then there are the perfecters. Dawn Staley did not come along early enough to be one of the pioneers of women's basketball, but she honored their struggles with her own dedication to the craft.

There were better scorers than Staley, better ballhandlers, better defenders, better passers, better rebounders. But not wearing the same pair of shoes. The word for what Staley was on the court is simple: Player. She combined all of those individual skills - and was awfully good at some of them - into something that approached a perfect balance and harmony for the beautiful game.

There is nothing necessarily beautiful about growing up in the neighborhood near 25th and Diamond Streets or in enduring the pounding of a no-quarter-given playground game in North Philly where she was usually the only girl on the court. Staley found the beauty there, however, just as the great players can find the one true bounce on a rusty and dented backboard.

Someone must have noticed, because they picked Staley for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and announced it on Monday. She will be inducted into the Springfield, Mass., shrine in September and stand next to the legends of the game forever.

"[During the ceremony], I will probably think most about my foundation, where I grew up in North Philly," Staley said on Monday. "People who grow up in North Philly have a mark against them because of the environment they grew up in. I'll think about being the one who got out and who can go back and share a ray of hope to the little boys and girls who sit where I sat, imprisoned by their circumstances. That's the main thing I'll think about."

She can think about all those playground pickup games that put her on the path, and the coaches in the Camille Cosby-Gladys Rodgers Female League run by Sonny Hill who helped her learn the game. She can replay the lessons taken from Tony "Doc" Coma at Dobbins Tech, the Public League luminary who coached Earl Monroe at Bartram, as well as the late Linda Page at Dobbins, one of those female pioneers who preceded Staley. (Page set the all-gender Public League scoring record with 100 points in a 1981 game, breaking the record of 90 points held by Wilt Chamberlain.)

Staley can reflect on becoming the national high school player of the year at Dobbins and then a three-time all-American at the University of Virginia, with three trips to the Final Four. There is a list of collegiate women players who compiled 2,000 points, 700 assists, and 400 steals in their careers. It is a statistical mountain that defines the best attributes of a true point guard. Staley's is the only name on the list.

Those things alone would have been enough to form a great career, and for most of the history of women's basketball, that would have also been the end of what she could dream. But because of the pioneers who came before her - women such as Carol Blazejowski, Lynette Woodard, Ann Meyers, Missouri Arledge, Cheryl Miller, Marianne Stanley and Nancy Lieberman - the sport spread opportunities in front of her like so many open teammates on a fastbreak.

Staley was able to win gold medals in three Olympics, carrying the United States flag at the opening ceremony in 2004; to play professionally for 10 seasons and to be a collegiate coach for the last 13 years, including eight of those at Temple. Now at South Carolina, she tries to find that same harmony on the court for her players, that same safe carom off a swaying backboard, that same drive to perfect the imperfectable.

And, just to top it all, the basketball Hall of Fame.

"I still can't quite embrace how big it is," Staley said. "It's something that I thought, if it were to happen, would happen when I was much older. I'm in disbelief about it."

She will be 43 next month and is still fit enough to play, or to show her players how it's supposed to be done. Staley has gone from player, to star, to legend, and now to teacher. She can teach more than basketball. She can teach hope, the kind of hope one has to have when the canvas life has given you to paint upon is a cracked and weedy blacktop dusted by small bits of broken glass. In the right light, to the right eye, to the right artist, they can look like diamonds.

"I've always wanted to be in the Hall of Fame. Nothing quite preps you for the occasion," Staley said. "Something like this catches you off guard even when you know it's a possibility."

Actually, she has been preparing for this honor for 30 years. She wanted to get it perfect, for those who came before her and for those who will come after. Perfect is tough, but Dawn Staley came pretty darn close.

Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, and follow on Twitter @bobfordsports

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