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Virginia is deliriously happy that Staley came to Charlottesville, for theirs is an improbable union. She hails from the bleak North Philadelphia housing projects in which the late Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, now of the Los Angeles Clippers, forged their friendship. It was a place where the first order of business was survival. Staley is defensive about her neighborhood. She says sharply, "I grew up in a decent environment." There is silence. "Well, not decent. Really, it was bad. But you can learn a lot from a bad environment. The main thing is that you learn what it means to be down and out and have no place to go. It gives you the incentive to get out."
Hanging out on the playgrounds with her three older brothers—Lawrence, 28, Anthony, 27, and Eric, 22—Dawn immediately showed an aptitude for the game. Then she complemented her talent with her smarts. Read: She passed the ball to the boys. At first the guys said witty things like, "You should be in the kitchen cookin'." But when they realized Staley's incredible passing was the recipe for them to score, the jokes stopped. She became such a proficient passer that soon she was getting picked before some of the guys. Says veteran playgrounder Derrick Matthews, 26, "When you played with her, you always had to be thinking—and looking." At Dobbins Vo-Tech High School, coach Tony Coma told Staley, "Sometimes you're too unselfish for the good of the team. It's not called passing ball. It's called basketball."
Said Staley, "I get more pleasure from a pass than from a basket."
Said Coma, "Well, I don't."
Staley knows it was the boys who honed her game as they played on the corner of 25th and Diamond, in the teeth of all that broken glass, despair and drug dealing. "My advice to girls is to play against the guys," she says. "That gave me the heart to play against anybody. I'm glad they were rough. Guys seem to be born with basketball skills. Girls have to work to develop these skills. I don't know why. I do know basketball is my only fun. Nothing else ever interested me."
In 1984, when Staley was an eighth-grader, Ryan was in her seventh season at Virginia, a year in which her team finished 22-7 and earned the Cav women their first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament. Ryan was named ACC Coach of the Year. But foremost on her mind was Staley; Ryan had heard about her flashy ways. Ryan acted; she began writing notes and letters to Staley. She figures she wrote at least 200 over the years. She called her on the phone "hundreds and hundreds of times." Indeed, on the night before signing day in 1988, Ryan was on the phone with Staley from 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Says Staley, "I didn't ever forget that Virginia was the first to contact me."
Of course, by the time she was a high school star (33.1 ppg, USA Today's, National Player of the Year), everyone was on the horn to Staley. In three years at Dobbins Vo-Tech, she led the Lady Mustangs to three city public high school championships. Dobbins lost one game while Staley played there. (Three other games that Dobbins won were forfeited because it used an ineligible player.) Coma still rhapsodizes over Staley: "I enjoyed going to the games because I didn't know what she was going to do. She was the perfect player. She said hello at the beginning of the season, goodbye at the end, and in between, won all the games."
The dead-ahead truth, of course, is that Dobbins simply could not have prepared Staley for the academic rigors of Virginia, though her mom, Estelle, a caretaker for a 92-year-old woman, bristles at such a suggestion. Estelle says, "If she wasn't qualified, she wouldn't be there." At Virginia, the average SAT score for an entering freshman is 1,208 (out of a max of 1,600); Staley scored 790. Still, athletic director Jim Copeland defends the admission of Staley. "The university profits in her being here," he says. "We pride ourselves in diversity." Translation: Her basketball ability swept them away.
Happily, it's working out, because Staley is a plugger. She confesses to reading no books outside of school assignments, but adds that "if someone brought one to my attention, I might read it." Still, Staley is single-minded, and she is a perfectionist. When she was three years old, her mom put socks on her, but Dawn noticed that the red line at the toe of each sock was not straight. After Estelle had her daughter all ready to go out, Dawn took off her shoes and went about straightening the red lines.
Almost certainly Staley will get her degree, in rhetoric and communication studies. After all, since Ryan became coach in 1977, all 23 of her scholarship players have graduated. So far Staley has a 2.3 GPA and seems to be holding her own without special tutoring. As Dobbins principal Ed Magliocco says, "Any place can be the right place for the right person."