Let me tell you about the railroad tracks that ran around the North Philly housing projects where I grew up. Just so you understand where I’m from.
My family lived in one of the row homes that surrounded this big circular field. Behind us, circling the row houses, were large high-rises. Behind that, more high-rises. Just one big circle after another.
We felt like — because we lived in a row home — we lived in the suburbs. You understand? ‘Cause we didn’t live in a high-rise.
The big field behind our row house had a softball field, basketball court and baseball field all within it. It wasn’t one of those fancy facilities with nicely drawn chalk lines. Nah — the projects don’t have those. We had to hand paint every line. We had to create everything. We even made a track. Not one of those nice Olympic tracks. We had to hand-draw the lanes. They weren’t straight lines but they were enough to understand which lane was yours when the relay races started.We had to hand paint every line. We had to create everything.
We made baskets out of crates for the basketball court. Just cut the bottom out of the crate and nail it to a piece of wood. Boom — you got a backboard.
I had a mean bank shot off the wood and crate. Mean.
There were these freight trains that ran around our neighborhood on the tracks. Being the entrepreneurs that we are in North Philly, we knew that there were some goods in those freights. So, we’d come up with innovative ways to make those trains stop. The best way was to throw a tire under the train. If that didn’t work, you’d throw another. And another. That train was gonna stop eventually.
Courtesy of Dawn Staley
People would open up the freight cars as soon as those trains hit the brakes. Man, there’d be TVs, baby clothes, everything. All types of manufacturers shipped their goods on those tracks. We were just helping move the product, you know what I’m saying? Inquisitive kids from an impoverished neighborhood. Not drug dealers or thieves — entrepreneurs. I’m not condoning that sort of behavior. I’m just giving you a vision of our neighborhood.
We grew up in poverty. My mom was a domestic worker. She cleaned houses and buildings. That was her only real employment option. We didn’t have a lot of nice things — clothes and shoes, things like that. You don’t think much about it when you’re young. Maybe I wanted some nice sneakers sometimes, but where we were from was all we knew.
But I remember watching this one TV show — Hart to Hart. There weren’t really many black shows on TV, so we watched a lot of stuff like The Brady Bunch and what have you. Shows about white families. I remember the Harts. They were really rich; they had a big house, drove a Mercedes. They weren’t anything like the people I knew, and their world wasn’t anything like the one I was from. Man, I wanted to be their child. I didn’t need for anything, mind you. But to see other people with so many other things, I certainly fantasized about it.
What culture did at the time, intentionally or not, was tell me that to have those things, you had to look a certain way. The haves and have-nots on television were divided by skin color.What culture did at the time, intentionally or not, was tell me that to have those things, you had to look a certain way.
I learned early on that it was that way in real life, too.
I played on an all-black AAU team — with a white coach — for a couple of years. All the girls I played with looked like me. They came from where I came from. Together, we traveled outside of Philly for the first time in our lives. We were one of the best teams in the city. Our biggest competition was a white team. They had more resources than we did; they had money.
They came from the real suburbs.
It always came down to our two teams battling in elimination games. We’d beat them, they’d beat us. It was pretty even, until one year our teams merged. Combining teams meant that I was going to be playing with white players for the first time.
Their lives seemed to be just like the Harts. I remember going to their houses in the real suburbs, and man, they had everything. They had … amenities.
Y’ALL, THEY HAD FOOD IN THE PANTRY.
We spoke different vernaculars. They couldn’t understand me with some of the stuff I said. But I didn’t understand why white people spoke the way they did either. I was like, You’re pronouncing every syllable. C’mon, that’s tiresome.
It was important for me to experience a culture that wasn’t my own. I needed that. But there’s a difference between visiting that world and living in it. And in college, I lived in it.
I got a scholarship to play basketball at Virginia — one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Say what you want, but it’s also a … white university. It was a culture shock. I didn’t fit in outside of sports.
Man, forget basketball — I had to learn how to interact with professors and deans. I didn’t talk like everyone else. I didn’t dress like them. I didn’t know anything about no chinos. There was nothing in common between the University of Virginia and where I grew up. Nothing.
I didn’t go to parties. I played basketball during my free time. While everyone was partying, I’d be at the rec center getting up shots. It was either that or stay in my room and watch ESPN. That was my life. That was how I survived.
At that time, even most of the coaches at major programs were white. Coach Ryan was great — so were my teammates — but there just weren’t a lot of options for me to play for someone who looked like me. Who fundamentally understood me. I had one black coach recruit me: Vivian Stringer. But I’d already committed to Virginia, and us Philly natives are loyal as can be. I didn’t really have an option of playing at a high level and playing for a black coach.
I think about that experience a lot now that I’m coaching at South Carolina — a place pretty defined by racial divides. Especially Columbia. I look around the country at all the options for young black women who play basketball at major programs and most of the coaches are white — almost 90%.
I think I create an option for young black women, and I hope for more representation of all ethnicities in head coaching positions. I do think young black women have to understand how to navigate through life as a black woman. A lot of the girls playing basketball now — their paths to success are probably similar to mine.
I’m very aware of what my success represents. I’m also very aware of what my failure would represent. Black women in coaching positions are held to higher standards — especially because there are so few opportunities. There are stereotypes we have to navigate — like being the angry black woman — even on the sidelines. For other black coaches, they probably watch their behavior even a little more closely than I do. I’ve seen the pictures of me that are used next to headlines — my face all scrunched up, scowling. The stories could be about the most joyous thing … say, winning a national championship. But they’ll show pictures of me yelling at officials. I’m aware of those things. Don’t think I’m not.
(In fairness, I do yell at officials. A lot.)
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports
Yet this is a sport mostly played by black women. So how do we change that? How do we get more black people — especially women — in head coaching positions? How can our sport reflect back to young black girls what they see in the mirror? What their own hopes for success may look like?How can our sport reflect back to young black girls what they see in the mirror?
My mother grew up in South Carolina. This was the 1940s and early ’50s. Segregation was still legal. Separate bathrooms. All of it. She left the South at the age of 13, seeking equality and opportunity. I think about her a lot, especially since she passed away almost two years ago. Because of the way she lived her life, I know what it means for me to be coaching in Columbia. I think about what she made possible for me and maybe what I’m supposed to make possible for others. She left South Carolina because of the racial divide. I came back with a hope to bridge it.
I also know what me coaching here symbolizes in light of history. When I walk around different neighborhoods in this city, I’ll hear black people say, “I had never been on that campus before coming to your game.” I understand that my success isn’t about championships — it’s about bringing together people who were once, and in some ways still are, divided. It’s bigger than basketball.
If I never won another championship but my legacy was that — to have changed the face of opportunity and united communities — I’d take that over most other things in this world.