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A Blazing Dawn

Dawn Staley, all 5’ 5” of her, lifts Virginia to bold new heights

"Dawn is antisocial."

This is Dawn Staley talking, in a halting attempt to craft a portrait of herself.

"She's a loner. She would much rather be behind the scenes than in the scenes. And she always has a blank look on her face."

With that, Staley stares at her inquisitor with the blankest look imaginable. For her, life is lived at an adagio pace. By her own admission, she spends much of her time at the University of Virginia watching movies on her VCR (at least six a week) and ingesting an endless series of TV programs. When she really wants to kick up her heels and go out, which is infrequently, Staley goes to a movie. She estimates she has watched Dirty Dancing 50 times. That alone would glaze anybody's eyes.

All of this changes on a basketball court. There, Staley is transformed into a blazing allegro blur of excitement, a whirling dervish of a playmaker—very likely the best player on the best women’s team in the country this year. Nobody plays with more verve and vigor—more devotion—than she does. “The truth is,” says assistant coach Shawn Campbell, “she’s at a different level. The things she can do, we can’t coach.”

That Staley, a 20-year-old, 5’ 5” bundle of energy, is such a force on the court is proved by the numbers. Last season, as a sophomore, she led the Cavaliers in scoring (17.9 points per game), assists (4.4 per game), steals (3.2 per game) and even tied for tops in rebounds with 6.7 per game, despite her lack of height. She was also fourth on the team in blocked shots (16). In a rare burst of off-court enthusiasm, she says, “I’ll always take a blocked shot over two points. That’s a guard’s dream.” More than anything else, her efforts are the reason Virginia reached the Final Four last season, for the first time ever.

This season the Cavs have three firm goals: to win all their regular-season games, to reach the Final Four in New Orleans and to win the national title. "People have high expectations for us," says Staley. "But ours are higher than theirs."

Seldom, in fact, has a team been such a heavy favorite to win a national championship. Not only do the Cavs have the season’s Player of the Year-in-waiting in Staley, but because their top six players are returning, the Cavs will also retain 94% of the scoring and 92% of the rebounding from last season’s 29-6 team. In that group are centers Heather and Heidi Burge, who, at 6’ 4¾”, will be listed in a forthcoming edition of The Guinness Book of Records as the world’s tallest living female identical twins. And the Cavs get back 5’ 10” forward Tonya Cardoza, the team’s second-leading scorer in ’88-89 (18.2 points per game), who missed last season because of academic problems. Says Cardoza, “We expect to win it all. Nothing less. We have no weaknesses.”

To all of this, coach Debbie Ryan shakes her head and says, "Expectations can ruin a season. But Dawn is special to the game. God decided to make only one of her."

Staley's teammates have learned they must always be on the alert for behind-the-back or no-look passes, both of which have been known to hit the less alert on the noggin. Says teammate Tammi Reiss, "It makes all the rest of us better players to play with the best."

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."

Watch Staley perform on a basketball court: Like a master chess player, she's several moves ahead of everyone else. It is her passing that makes Virginia go. Ryan says Staley's assists send a message to her teammates: "It's like she's saying, I am willing to give up my shot in order for you to have your shot. I don't want you to wallow in mediocrity. I want you involved."

"That's how you make teammates happy," says Staley.

The only weakness other than injuries (Staley has had operations on both knees since coming to Virginia) that might derail Virginia this year is the lack of a team leader. Leadership is crucial because the overtalented Cavaliers will routinely have extraordinary players sitting and watching. Grumbling could ensue, shredding team chemistry. Staley might fill the leadership void, but it seems unlikely.

Bryant Stith, an admiring member of the men's team, says Staley "does all her talking on the court."

Meanwhile, Staley has no plans except more basketball and more movies (Her favorite? About Last Night…) and more TV. “I don’t think about the future,” she says. “But I know it’s out there.” For the moment, Staley’s future is in New Orleans on March 30-31, which is why so many Virginia faithful think of her with nothing but Terms of Endearment.