TO THE 14 members of the South Carolina women’s basketball team, the coaching staff and their families, today’s Senior Day celebration at Colonial Life Arena will be anything but ordinary.
Five seniors will be recognized before tipoff for their contributions in building the foundation of Dawn Staley’s program. Charenee Stephens is one of those five. She will proudly stand at midcourt with her mother, Charlotte, and her 3-year-old son, Christian.
The ceremony will not allow enough time to recount the arduous journey Stephens took over the past four years, an adventure that began with an unexpected pregnancy, continued through a difficult battle of wills with her coach and ultimately will conclude in May with her graduation from USC.
We have the time here to tell the tale, so let’s start at the beginning.
Staley first recruited Stephens out of Decatur, Ga., outside Atlanta, to play at Temple. Staley then continued her pursuit of the athletic, 6-foot-1 forward when she took the coaching job at USC. After landing Stephens as part of her first recruiting class, Staley headed off to coach the United States team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Stephens enrolled at USC that summer and worked out with her future teammates. Upon her return to Columbia, Staley began noticing Stephens seemed to lack some of the athleticism that made her the fifth-best high school forward in the country, according to Scout.com.
So Staley went to the athletics training staff with one request.
“Can we eliminate this as a possibility?” Staley asked of administering a pregnancy test to Stephens.
She was pregnant. Seven months pregnant.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Staley said. “I could not believe it.”
The easy option was for Staley and USC to wash their hands of the situation, send Stephens home where she would forever reflect on the missed opportunity of playing college basketball and earning a college degree.
Staley had other ideas, perhaps because she saw a little bit of herself in Stephens’ fighter mentality. Staley grew up in the projects, the product of a single-parent home, determined to find a different life than the one she saw on those North Philadelphia streets. Staley became a star point guard at the University of Virginia, graduated and played in the WNBA before going into coaching.
Staley mapped out a similar plan for Stephens that would make her young mother-to-be the first in her family to graduate from college. The way Staley saw it, Stephens had a chance to affect her family’s future for generations.
First, though, Staley wanted to take care of Stephens. Prenatal care was arranged. Stephens was healthy, as was her baby. But the news of the pregnancy took a toll on Stephens’ mental state.
Too embarrassed to tell her in person or by telephone, Stephens emailed the news of her pregnancy to her mother. Charenee is named for her mother, Charlotte Renee. Charenee might have some heroes and role models on the athletic fields, but there is one person she idolizes. That is her mother, a single parent to five children.
“I love kids,” she said. “I’m just dedicated to them. They’re my life.”
She works the 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift in the collections division of the Genuine Parts Company in Atlanta. The job has provided enough over the past 11 years to make rental payments in the family’s three-bedroom Decatur home, food on the table and clothes on their backs.
Early on, Mom recognized the middle of her children as the most athletic. Mom never could get Charenee interested in dolls. She preferred tennis balls, basketballs, softballs, anything that provided an outlet for her competitive spirit.
Her basketball skills helped lead Southwest DeKalb High to a state championship and her Georgia Metros AAU team to a national championship in 2007. She spurned offers from Florida and Auburn within the SEC because she connected well with Staley during the recruiting process.
It would prove to be the most fortuitous decision of her young life.
Christian William Stephens was born Nov. 17, 2008, the day before his mother turned 19. Upon returning from their season-opening game at Penn State, members of the USC women’s team gathered in a Palmetto Richland Memorial Hospital room to celebrate.
“It was a team,” Staley said of the occasion. “(Charenee) was part of our team. We had a new addition to our team. It was a good thing.”
Within a few weeks, Charenee turned Christian over to his grandmother, allowing her to turn full attention to being a student and athlete. Her weight had soared to 245 pounds during pregnancy and remained at 185 after birth.
Getting back in basketball playing shape at 167 pounds took nearly a year, but Stephens somehow managed to work her way into a game against Connecticut just five weeks after Christian was born.
“I needed to play,” she said. “I needed minutes.”
She was not to be denied, a characteristic that no doubt stems from a stubborn streak that has been both beneficial and costly to her over the past four years. Stephens admits to being immature early in her career. She admits to being a rebel. She admits to succumbing to her instincts to question authority at every turn.
The battles between Stephens and Staley can only be described as royal. In what became an annual occurrence over the first three years, Staley ordered Stephens off the team, telling her to come back when she was willing to listen, learn and change.
“I might not have understood something and she might not have understood me and we bumped heads,” Stephens said. “But it was never disrespectful. It was just intense.”
Staley admits there were times when she had doubts. She doubted whether Stephens would ever mature to the point of turning the corner. She questioned whether it was worth keeping Stephens around.
“That’s the thing that forced me to go toward her instead of pushing her away,” Staley said. “Sometimes you think she’s not going to ever get it. I thought about that. I thought about, do I let this one get away for the betterment of the team?
“But I think Charenee needed us more than we needed her. When it’s like that, you’ve really got to grab them. You’ve got to pull them in to make sure they don’t get lost.
“A lot of that had to do with Christian, her son. I wanted him to see something different in their family. I wanted to see her graduate, be the example for what is to become of him.”
It is a message that has not been lost on the Stephens family. Charenee’s older brother and sister are out of the Stephens’ household and working in the Atlanta area. Her younger brother and sister want to follow in her footsteps and attend college.
As much as today’s Senior Day will recognize Charenee for persevering through difficult times and remaining committed to completing her college athletics career, it will pale in comparison to the celebration in May when she wears a cap and gown and holds a diploma in her hand.
“The first one in the family. The first one,” Charlotte said this past week while fighting back tears of joy. “It’s just exciting. It’s unbelievable. It’s like a dream come true. She’s a mentor to her smaller brother and sister and to Christian.”
So there you have it, the compelling story behind Senior Day at Colonial Life Arena for Charenee Stephens.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)