Staley brings high standards to USC
She would eventually parlay that thirst for greatness into a storied high school career at Dobbins Tech High School, which culminated in Staley's being named the USA Today National Player of the Year in 1989. But it was during her middle school years when the future Olympic gold medalist's skills really started to become apparent. It was then that she would hang out at the local rec center, playing pick-up games, taking on anyone, boy or girl, who was up for a game.
Among those hoop junkies that Staley would see on a daily basis was a classmate's older brother. Tall, muscular and ridiculously agile for a high school senior, this young man served as inspiration for Staley to work harder, to spend that extra hour in the gym, to run one more game of "16" before calling it a day (or night). She was driven to be the best as she prepared to enter Dobbins, to try to duplicate the level of success her friend's older brother was realizing as a senior at the school.
His name was Hank Gathers.
Gathers, of course, went on to be an All-American at Loyola Marymount University. In 1989, while Staley was having the best season of any high school girl in the country, Gathers was busy becoming only the second player in NCAA Division 1 history to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding. Then came one of the tragic moments in college sports history. In the West Coast Conference semi-finals a year later, Gathers collapsed on the court and died of heart failure, a victim of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart).
Staley vividly remembers those days of hanging out and playing ball at the gym where Gathers ruled the courts.
"Hank grew up in the same housing projects that I grew up in, so we played at the same recreation center," Staley recalled Wednesday at USC basketball Media Day. "Back then it was called the Moreland Recreation Center. It has now been renamed the Hank Gathers Recreational Center.
"At that time, I wasn't fortunate enough to play on the "big-boy" court. You have a full court and you have some courts on the side. I was one of the little kids that were playing on the side. When they were down on one end of the floor I would shoot on the other end. Just watching them, you know, because he was a little bit older than I was.
"It was really hard to get on the court with them when the guys from the neighborhood were playing," Staley continued. "Remember, Bo Kimble was on that Dobbins team too! I was in eighth grade when they were seniors, so you can imagine what it was like watching those guys go at it. Hank's younger brother, we went through high school together. Our families know each other pretty well."
Like everyone else, Staley was shocked and dismayed by Gathers' sudden passing. But the greatest female player in Dobbins' history is able to find light in the darkness surrounding the death of her high school's male counterpart.
"Oh, you know, it's incredible," Staley recalled. "We (UVA) were in the NCAA tournament when Hank passed away. Anybody that's from our neighborhood or Philadelphia, we always embrace. So it was disheartening. It's kind of hard to fathom someone of his age dropping dead.
"But the way I look at it, he was doing what he loved the most. He went out the way he would have wanted to go out. He wasn't as young as you want to think of yourself dying, but he was doing the thing that he loved with a passion. And, you know, there's something to say about that. I don't know if that's any relief or makes it any easier to take as a family member. But as a basketball player, someone that basketball is your passion, there's no other peace than to go out like that."
Staley has since fashioned a resume that surely would make Gathers proud. Among her seemingly endless list of honors are NCAA National Player of the Year in 1991 and 1992, 3 Final Four appearances, five WNBA All-Star selections, and three Olympic gold medals as a player (1996, 2000, & 2004).
So which accomplishment in her remarkable career tops her list?
"Probably my first gold medal (as a player) because it was a life-long dream," Staley said after a moment of consideration. "It was something that a lot of people didn't think I could accomplish. Height-wise, socio-economic background-wise, just growing up where I grew up. You know, the neighborhood that I grew up in. They just really don't think that a gold medal should be bestowed on those things. I was able to kind of peel off the speculations of what an inner city youth can amount to."
Her playing days now over, Staley expects to attain the same kind of success as a coach that she once did as a player. At Temple, where she compiled a 172-80 record and six NCAA Tournament appearances, she set the expectation bar high, and delivered at every turn. As for the move to a USC program that has taken a beating in the SEC in recent years, her high standards remain intact.
"Well, I think first and foremost, you have to have the players to win a national championship," she explained. "You have to have the players. I think we have the platform to bring the players here. We have the resources to bring the players here. I think we have the profile and the coaching staff to bring the players here. I think with all those things in place, we're destined to win.
"I don't think there's a staff that works harder," Staley surmised. "Just from top to bottom, always trying to just get better. I may be biased, a little narrow minded, to think of us that way, but I see Carla (McGhee) and Nicki (McCray) in a different light because I've played with them. We've won gold medals together. And I see Lisa Boyer as someone who's tireless and always thinking of basketball. Where I'm weak, they are strong. Where I'm strong, maybe they have some shortcomings. That's the beauty of our staff and I think we all want to win the national championship. I think Carla is the only staff member that's been a part of a national championship team (with Tennessee).
"I think we have the makings of a tremendous story. We just have to fill in the blueprint."
Despite a Carolina team that features no less than 9 first or second-year players, Staley refuses to downplay expectations for her first Lady Gamecocks team, even in the uber-strong SEC.
"No," she replied when asked if this year's squad should be expected to be rather average. "I play the hand that I'm dealt. This is a team that maybe people look at as not as talented (as others in the conference), but there are things that you can do to make up for the lack of talent. And I think our particular team has chemistry. When you have chemistry you can accomplish a lot.
"They enjoy each others company off the floor," Staley went on. "They work extremely hard. They're encouraging to one another. And I know that everything is pretty innocent right now because no one is a starter, no one has had minutes, long minutes. But I think that this is a group that is starving to be winners. When you're able to let loose what it is that you want to accomplish as a player to give it up for a team, you're going to be able to go far. And you're going to be able to accomplish whatever you want to accomplish individually.
"It's going to be the same (goals) as always. I think when you modify you may find yourself coming up a little short. But our goal is to get to the NCAA tournament. The best way to do that is to win your conference. That's what we'll shoot for. We want to be the best. I think we're playing from an underdog position. We'll ride that out until we relinquish that particular role. But our kids – we're going to give them the mindset that we're in the Southeastern Conference and that would be our goal and continue to be our goal, ultimately to win the national championship.
"I'm excited, I'm really excited. Some of our younger players are poised and ready to challenge for some playing time and our experienced players don't want to relinquish their playing time. But the slate is clean for everybody. Everybody is starting from ground zero. So whoever's the most impressive collection of players, we'll put on the floor."
Staley's roots are deep in Philadelphia and she is a genuine local legend. So why leave the comfort of hometown Temple for what is considered a tough place to win big in women's hoops?
"I think timing is everything," she explained. "Sometimes when things line up for you personally and professionally, you have to have enough bravado to make the change. I never considered the University of South Carolina to be my dream job. I never really had a dream job. The big thing for me is the (gut) feeling that I get. I'm drawn to the challenge of turning this program around just as I was when I took the job at Temple.
"So I think it's more so the challenge and then the fact that my mother is from here and the fact that my mother's family is still here. I think it all played a role in me taking the job here. It just fit. I wouldn't have taken a job in, say, Michigan. I wouldn't have left Temple to do that. And when I came down here, I just felt like I could feel it. When I bring recruits on campus I always ask them at the end of the recruiting trip, ‘Did you feel it? Did you feel it yourself here?' And I asked myself the same question when I came down and visited.
"And it felt great. It felt like that this was supposed to happen. So I just let it play out. I don't have a five-year plan or a ten-year plan; I just let basketball choose my course."
A course that has taken her from rubbing elbows with Hank Gathers back in North Philly, to carrying the American flag at the 2004 Olympics Opening Ceremony, and now to head coach of the Lady Gamecocks, with tons of triumphs sandwiched in between.
Hank would be proud. Very, very proud.
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