She doesn't start. She doesn't come close to being able to look
eye-to-eye at any of her 11 teammates on the U.S. Olympic
women's basketball team. And she so passionately doesn't want to
be noticed that she models her game after that of a paragon of
backcourt reserve, former Philadelphia 76ers stalwart Maurice
Cheeks. Perhaps her self-effacement is the result of being the
youngest of five kids. Or maybe it's an inbred strain of mellow;
if she were a deejay--her tastes run toward the seamless sounds
of Anita Baker and Luther Vandross--she would be of the
more-platter, less-chatter, late-night variety.
Whatever, U.S. point guard Dawn Staley is a Philly street kid
with a heart of sisterly love. "The kind of person," says
teammate Jennifer Azzi, "that you would trust with your life."
Staley, Azzi & Co. showed Cuba no mercy in the two teams' opener
on Sunday, a 101-84 victory for the Americans. But during a
tournament in China in March, the U.S. showed Fidel Castro's
emissaries considerable charity, thanks largely to Staley. The
NCAA Player of the Year in 1991 and '92 organized equipment
drives to benefit the Americans' impoverished opponents. She
cajoled her teammates into contributing everything from extra
shoes to sports bras and then invited the Cubans up to her hotel
room to distribute the booty, all in the name of international
But these are not the Goodwill Games, and thus the Cubans have
had to watch their benefactor turn into a nemesis. Staley
entered the game with Cuba leading 20-17; by the time she left 7
1/2 minutes later, the U.S. was up eight. But it was the way
Staley, a 5'6" Virginia alum, pushed her teammates into the
lead--with a revved-up style learned playing with the guys at
Philadelphia's Hank Gathers rec center--that so impressed. "Dawn
really made some fans for women's basketball with some of the
passes and plays she made," U.S. coach Tara VanDerveer said.
"The team and the crowd were a little flat at the start, and
Dawn got the crowd into it."
She kept the crowd in it too. Midway through the second half she
wrapped a pass behind her back to fellow guard Teresa Edwards
for a fast-break layup. Staley finished with only four points
and played less than half the game, but each of her seven
assists connected with the fans in the stands at Morehouse
July 23, 1996
"She's one of those players you just love watching as a fan,"
U.S. forward Rebecca Lobo says of Staley. "And as a player, you
have to keep your hands and eyes open, because she'll get the
ball to you."
Having played the Cubans so many times--and pulling out one
close call, an 81-78 victory in the tournament in China--the
U.S. had more than its point guard up going into its opener.
"You just never know which side of the bed the Cubans are going
to wake up on," says Staley, "so you just don't take them for
The same could be said of the Americans' opponent yesterday, the
defending European champion Ukrainians. "We've probably played
them 25 times, what with scrimmages and everything," says
Staley. The U.S. won in each of those instances, as it did
yesterday 98-65, to stretch its record to 54-0 since mustering
14 months ago. Starting guards Ruthie Bolton and Edwards pushed
the U.S. to an early 23-11 lead, so Staley was asked to do
little more than drive the garbage truck in garbage time.
Although VanDerveer insists that Staley uses ball fakes and
no-looks only "to make the play," a really Cheeky point guard
wouldn't have the aversion to a simple chest pass that this
drive-and-dish dervish apparently has. But the U.S. team was
chartered in part to sell the women's game to a still-skeptical
American public, and there's no more persuasive moment than when
Staley reaches into her samples case.
The U.S. team's primary goal, of course, is not a sales job but
a prospecting one--to win the gold the U.S. failed to win in
Barcelona in '92 and at the world championships two years ago.
To help visualize what that moment will be like, we engaged
Staley--who nearly lost her love of the game after going
overseas to play for the first time--in a little imaginary
dialogue. What would she say if someone came up to her and said,
"Hey, Dawn Staley! You just won a gold medal! Where are you
In her answer, unlike in her game, there is no misdirection.
"Back to Philly," she says.