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Dawn Staley has always had a special relationship with Philadelphia

The NCAA women’s basketball championship coach never forgets her roots

Dawn Staley is used to being in the spotlight. She’s used to seeing her shadow in its illuminating glare.

But there was no glare last week in Staley’s hometown of Philadelphia, only a festive atmosphere full of appreciation and pride for the second African-American coach to win an NCAA women’s basketball championship.

The 46-year-old Staley has never forgotten her roots.

“That’s me,” said Staley, who led South Carolina past Mississippi State, 67-55, in the title game. “I’m proud of being from Philadelphia. I’ll tell anyone at any time that’s where I’m from. Philly people are confident. Philly people are blue-collar workers. Philly people are passionate about their sports. They are passionate about their city. They are passionate about things that are their lifestyle.

“Philly has a way of rubbing itself on people and it sticks. When I was [the head coach] at Temple [University] and I used to recruit players, they initially turned their nose up at Philly. And then they found themselves in Philly 10 years after graduating from Temple. It’s amazing. The city has a certain pulse about it. It’s real. It’s authentic. It’s genuine. I’m not saying that it’s always positive, but you know what you’re getting, and that’s appealing. We don’t have layers to us. We are who we are.”

She was introduced at a special assembly at her alma mater, Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School in the heart of North Philadelphia.

The gym at Dobbins is named after Staley, who graduated in 1988. There’s also a wall mural dedicated to the former national high school player of the year who went on to star at the University of Virginia.

There was cheering, hugs, kisses and plenty of selfies taken at her homecoming. Staley smiled broadly with the championship net dangling around her neck.

Al Miles, who coached Staley in the Camille Cosby-Gladys Rodgers Female League, was impressed by the outpouring of affection.

“I’m ecstatic,” Miles said. “I think this is a great thing for not just Dawn and her family but for the city of Philadelphia.”

Public officials, coaches, former teachers, administrators and others crammed the auditorium to congratulate Staley. She received tributes from Mayor Jim Kenney, former Temple University men’s basketball coach John Chaney and many others.

“It feels good to have all these legendary coaches and people who have had an impact on my life growing up and still as an adult,” said Staley. “They still have an impact on my life as they keep me grounded. They help and support [me] along the way, because to win a national championship it takes more than the current people in your life.”

Later that evening, Staley presented University of Washington guard Kelsey Plum with the 2017 Dawn Staley Award. Plum, the consensus national player of the year, is the leading Division I scorer of all time, amassing 3,393 points in her collegiate career. She could be the top overall selection in Thursday’s WNBA draft.

Established in 2013 by the Phoenix Club of Philadelphia, the Dawn Staley Award recognizes the nation’s best guard in women’s Division I basketball. The inaugural winner was Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins in 2013, followed by Baylor’s Odyssey Sims in 2014, South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell in 2015 and Connecticut’s Moriah Jefferson in 2016.

“The award symbolizes and honors Dawn, who has been recognized as one of the best point guards in women’s college basketball history,” said Michael G. Horsey, founder of the Phoenix Club of Philadelphia. “Dawn is Philadelphia and has represented the city around the world. She’s a three-time Olympic gold medalist. She’s now the head coach of USA Basketball. Dawn Staley is a legend.”

She’s a legend who keeps Philly on her mind.

“I always love coming back to Philadelphia,” Staley said. “I love going back to 25th and Diamond [streets]. When you have achieved your lifetime dreams, you want to reach out and be a help to other people. I always try to inspire and cheer. I try to share my story because it’s powerful and because it’s real. I want them to know that success is real when you put the work in behind it.”

Basketball impresario Sonny Hill knows exactly why Philadelphia remains so important to Staley.

“It’s part of her DNA,” said Hill, an executive adviser for the Philadelphia 76ers and director of the Sonny Hill Community Involvement League. “Dawn grew up in my league. She never really left from where she nurtured her talent. She realized how important it was to come back and be a part of where she grew up. I’ve known Dawn Staley since she was about 12 years old. She’s never forgotten her roots. She wins the [NCAA championship], but she’s saying the same things she said when she was at Virginia [where she made three NCAA Final Fours and one championship game appearance], when she was in the Olympics, when she was in the WNBA. Remember where you come from. Remember the people who helped you along the way, and be prepared to reach back. That’s what she’s done. Does it make me proud? Yes it does. It’s what I preach.

“It’s what [NBA Hall of Famer] Earl Monroe always says,” said Hill. “He says, ‘I’m from Philadelphia. If it weren’t for Philadelphia, I wouldn’t be where I am.’ Dawn feels the same way.”

As a youngster, Staley’s confidence grew. She played against boys and earned their respect with her headiness and play. She was a prodigy with dreams.

“Growing up, I was pretty shy,” Staley recalled. “I let my game speak for itself. I felt like I could always play basketball. I can’t remember any time that I wasn’t good at playing basketball. I was gifted with basketball. I was able to use sports to channel my competitiveness in a positive manner.”

Staley won two National Player of the Year awards as an All-American point guard at Virginia. She finished her collegiate career with 2,135 points and holds the NCAA record for career steals with 454.

After a stint overseas, she became a two-time All-Star in the now-defunct American Basketball League. She played for the Richmond Rage and guided them to the ABL finals in 1997. A year later, the team relocated to — where else? — Philadelphia. The following year she was the ninth overall pick of the Charlotte Sting. In 2001, she guided the Sting to the WNBA championship game.

Toward the end of her playing career, Staley began coaching at Temple. In six years at Temple, she amassed a 172-80 overall record that included six NCAA tournament appearances, three regular-season conference championships and four Atlantic 10 Conference crowns. Presented with an opportunity to coach at a larger school, Staley boldly went to South Carolina.

When Carolyn Peck, the first African-American coach to win an NCAA women’s championship, gave Staley a piece of the net she cut down with Purdue, the gesture became inspirational. Staley kept it in her wallet, and it was with her when the Gamecocks won the title.

“I am going to return it,” Staley said. “She gave it to me two years ago when she was commentating. She felt that I was close to winning it. Sometimes you need an edge to get you over the top. That gesture of hers, letting me touch and feel the nylon … the national championship net was another carrot that was dangled in front of me.”

Staley hasn’t decided who will receive a piece of her net.

“I plan on doing the same thing that [Peck] did for me,” said Staley. “I want my piece of net to be an inspiration for someone else to win the championship.”

With the championship, South Carolina becomes a destination for top prep talent. Junior guards Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray will give up their final years of eligibility and declare for the WNBA draft. Davis transferred to South Carolina from Georgia Tech. Gray came from North Carolina. They played together for the first time this season. Gray averaged 13.2 points per game, while Davis averaged 12.7 points per game.

“There are a lot of great teams out there,” said Staley. “There are a lot of challenges out there. My team, my staff, we’re drawn to challenges. Next season will be another challenge.”

The legend from Philadelphia wouldn’t have it any other way.

Daryl Bell is the assistant news editor and columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. He's a veteran journalist who has covered every major sport, and many minor ones.