SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Former Virginia star Dawn Staley insists she's 5-foot-6, relatively small to thrive in a sport professed to be for those with exceptional size. Former Cavalier coach Debbie Ryan believes Staley is barely 5-4.
On Sunday afternoon, Staley will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. alongside towering luminaries of the game. Talent has trumped the perceived vertical limitation.
“It is really gratifying to me because I know all the hard work, dedication and discipline I gave to basketball," Staley said. "The game constantly gives back and this is the biggest way it can give back.”
Crowned the 1988 USA TODAY National High School Player of the Year, Staley was recruited to Charlottesville from Dobbins Tech High School. A year prior to her arrival, Virginia reached the Elite Eight. Staley chose the Cavaliers with the stated goal of launching a program to their inaugural Final Four to compete for a National Championship. The north Philadelphia native delivered on the promise with three consecutive Final Four appearances (1990-92), winning the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award in 1991.
“I don’t think you could measure the impact she had on our program. It’s immeasurable,” Ryan said. “She was always a special player and probably the best ever at UVa.”
Modesty and a calm veneer masked the fierce devotion to succeed.
“There is no one more competitive in these United States than Dawn Staley,” Ryan said. “She’ll be the first to tell you she played with very good players around her, but that’s what makes her so remarkable because she is one of the most humble [people] I know.”
An entire basketball community learned a lesson in perseverance from the determined Staley. Her height and foreign experience were reasons for omission from the 1992 Olympic team. The first could not be changed but the latter was an opportunity for growth on the court. She remedied the deficiency by playing internationally for a few years. Three gold medals earned (1996, 2000 and 2004) are a testament to the vigilant quest to successfully reverse opinions.
Two honors from her voluminous library of distinguished accomplishments reign at the top – a trio of Olympic gold medals and enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Fittingly, the unwavering competitor was voted to be the flag bearer for the United States delegation marching in the 2004 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.
Staley was recognized as an all-star at every level of competition – high school, college and professionally.
Sacrifice and commitment were constant companions in the pursuit of excellence on the hardwood.
Matriculating at UVa dramatically transformed the quiet and reserved prep star.
“Virginia helped her in that respect to broaden her horizons in terms of communication and who she could actually touch,” said Ryan of the two-time ACC Player of the Year. “She is able to get on a level with all kinds of people and able to communicate with anybody.”
School records by the superb scorer, distributor and defender are etched in the Cavalier record books. She leads in free throws made (505) and is second in points (2135), assists (729) and steals (454).
“Like all the great ones, she made everyone better,” said Mel Greenberg, a retired journalist from The Philadelphia Inquirer and basketball aficionado.
Staley is the only player in UVa history to have recorded a triple-double. The versatile guard accomplished the feat twice. Staley and her teammates compiled a spectacular four-year record of 113-21.
“She was a great player because she saw things long before they happened,” Ryan said. “She would see a play developing two or three passes in advance and skip those passes to make it happen right away.”
Staley has traveled the world with President Clinton on many humanitarian trips to aid other countries. She established the Dawn Staley Foundation to provide after school programs to focus on academics and athletics for inner-city Philadelphia youth after being inspired by an Olympian friend from the track and field world, Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Recently she founded Innersole, which provides shoes to children in need.
“There are a number of things that set her apart from the normal Hall of Famer," Ryan said. "She is not just a Hall of Famer in the sport of basketball. She is a global Hall of Famer."
Staley, currently the coach at South Carolina, will be joining fellow Wahoo legend Ralph Sampson in the Hall. She will be just the 16th woman to be inducted as a player. Staley's co-presenters will include former Olympic teammates, as well as Hall of Famers Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain.
“It’s an incredible honor and feeling to be amongst such great basketball players who have contributed to the game,” said Staley, who was a five-time WNBA All-Star. “There is a committee that makes the selection. People who know and study the game consider your contributions along with your total body of work.”
Staley spent a lifetime immersed in basketball as a point guard assisting teammates on the court. Now on the cusp of being recognized for her virtuoso performance on the hardwood, her selfless thoughts are beyond the game’s homage to influencing others positively.
“Hopefully through hearing my story they will fight through whatever crossroad that comes in their life.”