Her first shots were with socks into a heating vent, squaring off against her brothers, before Dawn Staley graduated to a cardboard backboard concocted outside. The next upgrade was to a crate hooked up to a light pole at 23d and Diamond streets in North Philadelphia.
"She used to hit bank shots off the crate - I don't know how she could do that," said her older brother Eric Staley, standing early Tuesday evening at the courts at 25th and Diamond, a piece of asphalt where his sister Dawn really first made her name.
"A rose grew up from the concrete," Eric Staley said of his sister and all she has achieved.
For all Dawn Staley's accomplishments since she left Diamond Street and the Raymond Rosen project - two-time national college player of the year, three-time Olympian, flag-bearer at the 2004 Olympics, head coach at Temple and South Carolina - she has taken her coaching career to new ground. Her University of South Carolina Gamecocks, ranked No. 1 in the nation for a spell earlier this season, are headed for the women's Final Four this weekend for the first time in school history.
In a sense Staley simply is continuing a proud, local tradition. Three of this year's women's Final Four coaches are from this area.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw grew up in West Chester and graduated from Bishop Shanahan High School and played ball at St. Joseph's.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma grew up in Norristown and graduated from Bishop Kenrick High and West Chester University.
Since Staley was raised in the city itself, it makes her the first men's or women's Division I coach raised in the city to reach a Final Four since Villanova's Jack Kraft, who died in August, made it to the 1971 championship game.
Sunday, when her Gamecocks beat Florida State to reach the Final Four, Staley tweeted, "Thank you North Philly for raising me, @TempleUniv for seeing the coach in me that I didn't see n myself & @UofSC 4 helping dreams come true"
George Watson, who was inside the Hank Gathers Recreation Center Tuesday night preparing for some rec league games with 10-to-12-year-olds, related how he used to shoot hoops with a teenage Dawn Staley at the courts at Raymond Rosen way past midnight.
"Four or 5 o'clock sometimes," Watson said.
To anybody who grew up in that area of North Philadelphia, he added, "She's ours - that's all I can say. She's Diamond Street. She's Raymond Rosen. She's ours."
Staley was a national high school player of the year at Dobbins Tech, Class of '88, before she became a two-time NCAA player of the year at Virginia. Picture the Raymond Rosen project any way you want, but Dawn Staley, talking on the phone Tuesday, painted a picture of an almost idyllic training ground.
"We had a big field in the middle of the rowhomes,'' Staley said. "The big field had a basketball court, we made a track, made lines, and there was a baseball field and a softball field. We did pretty much everything. We had an Olympic games in the big field."
The project was dominated by eight towers, long gone now. Staley's family lived in a surrounding rowhouse at 23d and Diamond. Her home is still there. The front yard is now the backyard, but it's still there.
"Honestly, the people in the rowhouses thought we lived in the suburbs," Staley said. "We didn't live in the buildings - that's what we called them. We didn't have to deal with the elevators . . . we thought we were a step up. We were on the fourth block. That's what we called it. When you first enter into Raymond Rosen, there was a circular block. We were in the fourth block. We had the best-looking block in Raymond Rosen. Mrs. Jones, the block captain, lived in the fourth block. Her grandchildren lived in the fifth block. She would not let her grandchildren into the fourth block if she thought they would litter or run across someone's lawn."
Blocks of cheese were delivered to the neighborhood - "They called it
'Reaganonomics,' " Staley said. "They just brought it around; we used to make a grilled cheese sandwich out of it. You had to slice it thinly. And we would pool our money together, we would make cheesesteaks for the neighborhood. Get the meat from Murry's Steaks around the corner."
Staley absolutely believes that growing up in the city shaped her. (She's been known to threaten her star freshman, who went to a prep school, that she will drop her off on a street corner in Philly.) Nobody went on vacation. Everyone was there, every day.
"I really didn't know a difference between North Philly and the suburbs," Staley said. "I knew a difference between North Philly and West Philly and Southwest Philly and Northwest Philly. I didn't know a difference with Narberth because I didn't go to Narberth. But crossing into different neighborhoods in the city, you either had to know somebody or there was a reason, a destination - because you looked different than everybody in that neighborhood.''
She was the youngest of five. Her late father worked for PennDot as a raker, filling in potholes. Their mother kept them all in line. Everybody in the family has stories, like about the time Dawn got into a fight with brother Anthony and she flung "my one and only sports trophy," as he put it, to the train tracks near their house.
"She could fight, too," Anthony Staley said, laughing. "Ask me how I know."
As the youngest, they said, Dawn took her share of hits on the court.
"Plus, she was good," Anthony Staley said. "We had to be rough with her. We played like it was our jobs. She was always saying, 'You're hacking.' We'd say, 'Shut up, stop crying.' She got good."
"I think softball was her best sport," George Watson said, inside the rec center. "She played in adult leagues when she was little."
"Shortstop," Eric Staley said.
Dawn Staley knows, she said, that making this Final Four, facing Notre Dame on Sunday night, she represents others, starting with John Chaney, her men's counterpart when she coached at Temple from 2000 to 2008. He reached five Elite Eight games but never a Final Four.
"Every time we are in the tournament I think about Coach Chaney," Staley said, mentioning that she heard from him Sunday. "I want him to feel a part of it, I really do. He raised me as a coach, he gave me the discipline, he set the stage, he gave an example of how you put your team in a position to win."
Just around the corner from her home, that rec center at 25th and Diamond is now named for Hank Gathers. A mural over the stage is of Gathers in a Loyola Marymount uniform. To its right is another mural, of Staley as a player, looking kind of fierce. When she grew up playing there, it was the Moylan Rec Center and the late Hank Gathers was the older guy who let the little point guard get into games when some of the other guys maybe didn't want anything to do with it, worried about getting embarrassed.
"He sure did," Staley said, sitting in her office in South Carolina, taking 15 minutes out of a most busy Tuesday to wander back to a place never too far from her thoughts.
Notre Dame (35-2) vs. South Carolina (34-2), 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Connecticut (36-1) vs. Maryland (34-2), 9 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Tampa, Fla.