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South Carolina’s Women’s NCAA championship has its roots in North Philadelphia

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

There is a North Philly tenacity written all over Dawn Staley’s climb to the top of the women’s college basketball universe.

Before she coached the University of South Carolina to its first ever national championship Sunday night, before she won three Olympic gold medals as a member of Team U.S.A, and before she was phenom at the University of Virginia, Staley was one of the kids hassling Cheryl Hardy to open the gym doors at Hank Gathers Recreation Center at 25th and Diamond Streets in North Philadelphia.

Back then the "Hank" was known as Moylan Recreation Center, and Staley was a constant presence. Hardy oversaw the facility back then, as she does now, and remembers scores of children cycling through. But the little point guard from the nearby Raymond Rosen Housing Projects stood out. Not only did she show up at all hours, she was the only girl who could crack the top-level male pick up games.

Hardy was so sure of Staley’s future success she asked her to sign a dollar bill when the rising prodigy had just entered high school.

"She said get outta here," Hardy recalled. "I said it’s gonna be worth something someday. And it is. It’s worth a million to me."

Today Hardy’s office is plastered with pictures of the stars who’ve passed through this legendy gym. There’s a ball signed by Toronto Raptors all-star Kyle Lowry. A stylish black and white photo of NBA players Marcus and Markieff Morris adorns one corner.

And of course there is the looming presence of Eric "Hank" Gathers, the superstar college player whose sudden death during an NCAA game still hovers like a dark fog over this neighborhood.

In the late 1980s, Gathers and Staley used to share the gym here at 25th and Diamond. Both dreamed of an NCAA title. When Staley broke through Sunday, memories of Gathers came rushing back.

"For me, emotionally, I broke down because her and Hank had the same dream," said Jeffrey Giddings, a neighborhood resident and frequent presence at the rec center. "Listen, if Hank doesn’t pass Hank is in the same position."

On a stage behind the far basket hang two murals: one of Gathers, the other of Staley— one of the dream deferred, one of the dream realized. All these years and players later, it’s still Dawn and Hank.

The rec center propelled Staley to a legendary career at Dobbins Tech about a mile northeast. Three city championships later she was off to the University of Virginia, where she led the Cavaliers to three Final Four appearances. She later won three Olympic gold medals as a member of Team U.S.A.

Still, the college championship eluded here. It was, as she would tell the press after Sunday’s win, the "void" on her resume.

And perhaps it would have remained void if another North Philly institution hadn’t pursued her with the same tenacity she’d shown back in her rec center days.

As Staley tells it, she had no interest in college coaching. But a dogged recruitment effort by Temple’s then-athletic-director convinced her to take a head coaching job with the Owls.

"I never wanted to be a coach. I never wanted to be sitting where I’m sitting," Staley said at her victory news conference. "And Dave O’Brien, the late Dave O’Brien who was the athletic director at Temple University, saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. And he asked me to be a part of changing the program at Temple."

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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