Dawn Staley was once that one girl playing with the boys. She never saw it that way, though.
In Staley’s eyes, she was just a basketball player. It was those around her who brought her gender into the equation when she’d play basketball at the local North Philadelphia playgrounds and the rec center at 25th and Diamond Streets.
That experience is one reason that Raven Johnson’s fit at South Carolina is tailor-made. Johnson became the first girl to play in a boys’ basketball All-American game when she appeared in the Iverson Classic on May 8. She’ll be playing for the Gamecocks under Staley in the fall.
“I’m just very happy for Raven,” Staley said. “She worked really hard. Sometimes you don’t get the notoriety when you put in the work. I’m just happy to see the fruit of her labor pay off in this way.”
That historic moment has Philly imprints all over it. Last season, Philly native and Neumann-Goretti alum Diamond Johnson, no relation to Raven Johnson, was the first girl ever selected for the Iverson Classic. But her chance at playing was canceled because of COVID-19.
This year, Raven Johnson, a native of Georgia, is playing for Staley, who might be as Philly as they come. Staley embodies the “never forget where you come from” label daily, especially when she’s enthusiastically yelling, “Philly is in the building,” when she sees players from Philly or media members at press conferences.
And, of course, there’s Allen Iverson, who hosted the Iverson Classic for the third year.
“I know he’s born and bred in Virginia, but he’s a Philly guy to us,” Staley said.
Staley’s selflessness won’t allow her to take much of Johnson’s light. Even in her biggest moments, like when she led South Carolina to a national championship in 2017, Staley gifted each of her former players and coaches she’s worked with a miniature national championship trophy.
So it’s easy for Staley to talk about Johnson. As she put it, Iverson and the rest of the world got a taste of what they already know at South Carolina: Johnson is fearless.
Johnson’s experience at the Iverson Classic was fruitful. The handshakes, the pregame introduction, and the postgame speech from Iverson are all examples.
When history involving equality is made, it often includes a slew of people who came before the inevitable breaking point. Staley was one of those when she had to bring her own basketball to ensure she’d get playing time on the playgrounds.
“[The Iverson Classic] has invested in women, and when you do that, you get an opportunity to see some great basketball,” Staley said. “And not just girls and women’s basketball. It’s just great basketball.”