December 08, 2004

Staley: Dream believer

Winning three Olympic gold medals, coaching at Temple, playing in the WNBA and running a foundation didn't allow Dawn Staley much time for gazing in the rearview mirror. Yet when she allows for reflection, Staley sees a young girl in the inner city of North Philadelphia dreaming of better days.

She sees herself, but more important, she sees all the young girls she hopes to know. Being the point guard on gold medal teams and winning games for the Charlotte Sting and Temple get her closer to that dream.

Staley, 34, would admit she can't reach out to every young girl. Yet. That's why she's at Temple - she has 77-50 record (60.6%) six games into her fifth season - and why she started the Dawn Staley Foundation.

"I didn't get into coaching because it was going to be perfect," says Staley, voted the 2003-04 Atlantic 10 coach of the year. "I got in because of the people who grew up in the housing projects in the inner city. I know that I am a product of poverty, a product of the projects. I know that a lot of people don't believe that we can change. But when opportunity knocks, you can change."

Staley, who played in her final Olympics during the summer, won her first gold medal in 1996. As a 26-year-old standing on the podium in Atlanta, she vowed to make sure others got the chance to live their dreams. Months later she created a foundation that offers after-school programs for 11- to 14-year-old girls.

"There is mentoring, tutoring, community relations, community outreach, a computer specialist and a reading specialist," says Angelia Nelson, the foundation's executive director. "A fitness expert comes in and works with the girls ... in terms of positive images and eating healthy."

The foundation, which includes a basketball league, works with about 50 girls at a time; Nelson estimates more than 500 have gone through the program. Most stay through a three-year cycle; some return to volunteer. The "Go Girl Go" program brings in athletes who talk about the challenges they faced when they were 11 to 14.

Staley "is a magnificent person," says John Chaney, Temple's Hall-of-Fame men's basketball coach. "She has perhaps done as much as anyone I have ever known to raise the consciousness of young people and what they should look forward to. Her foundation helps so many people. It is just amazing."

Staley is hands-on at her foundation, the one who hands out the Christmas presents. She heads the annual Thanksgiving "Feed the Homeless" project in which she and the girls feed 200 mothers and children.

"I wanted somebody else to feel what I was feeling," Staley says. "Somebody who needed a ray of hope. Somebody who looked like me, talked like me and came from the same background."

A graduate of the University of Virginia, where she was twice named national player of the year, Staley played in Europe and was a first-round pick in the American Basketball League and WNBA. She carried the Olympic torch (up the Rocky steps in Philadelphia) and the American flag into the Olympic Stadium in Athens.

"Whatever intrinsically makes Dawn tick, that is what sets her up to be successful," says Anne Donovan, the 2004 assistant Olympic coach who won this year's WNBA title with the Seattle Storm. "Whatever goals she had as a youngster, the success of those goals stayed with her."

Passing on the baton

It was this summer in Greece that Staley did something alien to her nature: She retired. She would like to coach an Olympic team, but she will no longer play for one.

"I felt a sense of the younger players understanding the stakes involved in the Olympics," she says. "I didn't feel it in '96. I didn't feel it in 2000. But I felt it before (the Athens) Olympics. I thought we had a great group of great basketball minds who were hungry to win more Olympic gold medals."

Not surprisingly, she spent time in Greece working with that next generation.

"She just wanted to go in and get the most out of it as a player and prepare the younger group," says Sue Bird, an Olympic teammate in Athens and a favorite to take over as point guard in 2008.

"Did I learn by just watching her? Absolutely. But she was basically coaching me, and that was a very valuable experience. The one thing she always said was when you are on the U.S. Olympic team you are the favorite, and in practice you are not necessarily preparing for the 40-point blowout. You are preparing for the two minutes that it's going to take to win that Olympic game.

"She was exactly right," Bird says. "It came down to the gold medal game against Australia and the last minutes decided the game, and Dawn made some huge plays. She not only talks it, but she does it."

A great communicator

With Bird, Staley was continuing Olympic tradition. Staley, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes got prepped by Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain. Staley took Bird under her wing with Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi, the new kids on the block.

"At some point you are going to have to be prepared to tell Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie you have to do this and you have to do that. That takes practice," Staley says. "They are superstars and they know how to win basketball games, but they need direction and leadership to make sure we're all on the same page."

It is that attention to detail that convinces others that even if Staley didn't know she wanted to coach, the ability was always there.

"Dawn is destined to be a great coach because she can communicate with anybody, whether it's the recruit, the parent, the coach or a teammate," Donovan says. "There was not a player on the (Olympic) team who didn't know who the leader was. You respect her, and you would never cross a line with her.

"I don't know if coaching has this anymore, where players want to win for somebody, but players want to win for Dawn."

Before Staley took the Temple job in 2000, the school had 10 losing seasons in a row. Staley's teams have finished 19-11, 20-11, 14-15 and 21-10.

She saw coaching as the one occupation she didn't want and was taken by surprise when she found she was born to the job.

"Now starting my fifth year, I'm home," Staley says. "My kids need me. They need my experience, my influence, my ability to relate to them in a way that benefits them. I don't realize I'm doing it because it comes so natural. It consumes you."

Being consumed is something coaches have used against Staley. She is aware how recruits are told that Staley couldn't be giving Temple 100% of her time. "When you talk to people who say that, you are probably talking to someone who is very stupid or ignorant of the facts," Chaney says.

Her present players never bought into negative talk anyway. It might even have persuaded some to come to Temple.

"It is really a big deal," junior Candice Dupree, an Atlantic 10 player of the year candidate, says of having a high-profile coach. "We have a coach who is one of the best female players in the world. When you think about that you go, 'Wow.' "

Never asleep at the wheel

Staley is less worried about impressing her players than impressing upon them. To be a better teacher she became a better student. She has taken something from the coaches who have touched her, from Virginia's Debbie Ryan, Olympic coaches Donovan, Van Chancellor, Nell Fortner and Tara VanDerveer and Chaney.

Staley sees every day as an opportunity to teach, and she'll use any means possible to reach her players. Bird describes her Olympic teammate as "one funny chick," yet Staley is not afraid to be stern or goofy.

Says Dupree: "Even though she is hard on us a lot of the time, she makes it fun."

"I tried the screaming all the time," Staley says. "I have to use something else, and they have an appreciation for it. I think when you use humor the right way it's healthy, it's useful and the kids get it. They can laugh and they can have fun while I'm kicking their butts. It is a beautiful thing."

What is most beautiful to Staley is watching "borderline" players leave her program having grown up. She looks at them as just older versions of the girls from her foundation.

"I like talented players who some people have given up on," she says. "I like to give them a ray of hope. I talk to coaches who say, 'I wouldn't touch her.' I've touched people like that. Some have worked out. Some have not. But do I sleep well knowing that I've done everything I can? Sure."

More surprising is that she sleeps at all. Her goals: turn Temple into a national power in women's basketball and get a building for her foundation.

"There is another level of basketball being played outside of Temple," she says. "People are saying (being a national power) will never happen at Temple. 'You won't get players to come here.' People may not believe it, but I feel it. When it's a feeling, it usually happens. For some odd reason things happen for me."

The building is more of a long-term project. But like anything with Staley, she is not expecting to wait too long.

"We want to have something that says this is ours and we control. ... I'm not one of those people who likes to lose a fight," she says. "It is just the competitor in me."

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