The bus pulled up to 25th and Diamond streets and the defending NCAA women's basketball champions all piled out. The South Carolina Gamecocks arrived Wednesday straight from practice over at Temple, where they'll play Thursday night. Their coach, Dawn Staley, got too busy hugging people on the sidewalk, starting with her older brother, to notice the plastic wrapping over the street sign at the corner.
That team bus, coincidently, had the words Champion Coach on its side.
Staley, who has Made in North Philly as the screensaver on her phone, had grown up two blocks over. This was her recreation center, now named for the late legend Hank Gathers, who had told some leery neighborhood regulars more than three decades ago how they had to let this little girl Dawn play ball with them.
"She learned to play here — we knocked her down,'' said one of the men inside wearing the same sweatshirt Staley wore, the words Hank Gathers across the front. A Dobbins Tech assistant coach from Staley's time, Doyt Jones, had gotten there 30 minutes ahead of time, grabbing a seat. Gale Fisher-Glenn brought her twin daughters to the sidewalk. She had played against Staley in junior high school. About to duck in a door, Staley saw Reggie McBride by the front. She moved in for another hug.
How long had he known Staley?
"Babies, man,'' McBride said.
After a ceremony inside, everybody came back out to the corner. Traffic had been cut off a block east and a block west. Her own players took cell phone photos as the wrapping was pulled down. From 23rd to 25th, Diamond Street will be known now as Dawn Staley Lane.
"Dawn, she's the biggest star we've got,'' City Council President Darrell Clarke had said inside the rec center, noting how other stars from the city may come and go and occasionally come back. "Dawn always comes back."
Staley used to shoot into a crate hooked up to a light pole at 23d and Diamond. When she graduated to the rec center, she told the crowd about being a little kid watching the older stars, how when the full-court action moved to the other end she'd be one of those who got a jump shot in before the action returned to her end. "I used to be here dreaming,'' said the future three-time Olympic gold medalist, now the U.S. Olympic head coach.
Joyce Johnson, pastor at Staley's old church, St. Andrew Fellowship Baptist Church, told the crowd she knew something they didn't about Staley.
"Did you know Dawn was a singer?" Johnson asked.
Gamecocks players shook their heads, no.
Johnson starting singing, imitating Staley. She was not trying to carry a tune. The whole place laughed. Johnson was close to Staley's late mother, Estelle. "Her mother had her debit card,'' Johnson said, noting how they'd use it for lunch at a Cheesecake Factory, someplace like that when Staley was a professional player, until Dawn began noticing the charges.
"Dawn's going to shut us down,'' Johnson told Dawn's mom.
"I can't think about Dawn — c'mon, we're going to lunch,'' the pastor remembers Dawn's mom saying.
Staley had brought a present, a replica of the NCAA championship trophy, to stay at the rec center. South Carolina's coach has always threatened to take her South Carolina all-American, A'ja Wilson, to Philadelphia and drop her off on a street corner to toughen her up.
"She would love me to get out here to North Philly,'' Wilson said, standing on the street outside. "So now that I'm finally out here, I'm showing I can hang with her."