Yolanda Laney had a motherly instinct that her daughter, Betnijah, was going to be special in the basketball world. She knew it during a workout session at the Mallery Recreation Center in East Germantown, when young Betnijah paused to tell her mother, "I love basketball!"
"I got her now," Yolanda said. "I didn't tell her that, but I knew once she told me that, I could take her out to train, have her run, ballhandling, and passing. It wouldn't be an issue, because now I knew since she told me she loved the game, she was going to elevate to the highest level possible."
Betnijah, who now plays for the New York Liberty, has spent seven seasons in the WNBA, where she has earned a number of accolades throughout her career. Most recently, though, she was awarded the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award for the work she's been doing off of the court.
Since joining the Liberty before the 2021 season, Betnijah has used her platform to raise the profile of the league and interact with the New York community, primarily focusing on child development and youth education. She partnered with Coalition for Change to help families with educational support, mental health services, financial literacy, and career placement.
Yolanda always expressed the importance of youth sports to her daughter and wanted Betnijah to give back to the next generation of athletes. The Clayton, Del., native grew up watching her mother coach at recreation centers or AAU teams in Delaware, Philly, and New Jersey while also taking the time to improve Betnijah's game.
"We were fortunate enough to have our needs met, but you see people around you who don't have that same opportunity," Betnijah said. "Everyone deserves to have some kind of resource. That's just something that my mom has always provided to the community through basketball.
"Her focus was giving back basketball to allow kids to know the game. Growing up seeing my mom do all that she's done for the community, it's just something that stuck with me."
The Germantown native went to University City High School, which closed in 2013. She led the team to three Public League basketball championships and was named Public League player of the year as a junior and senior in 1977-78.
Yolanda also played in the historic Sonny Hill League. She participated in the John Chaney-Sonny Hill basketball camp until her junior year when Hill started a girls' program called the Developmental Basketball League.
"A lot of girls across the city of Philadelphia played the sport of basketball," Yolanda said. "It was great competition there because you played against all Publics, you played against all Catholics in one week."
Laney played at Cheyney University (then Cheyney State), where she led the women's team to the first NCAA women's championship game in 1982.
During a visit home, 20 year-old Yolanda decided to get involved with coaching. After a year and half overseas, she started teaching skills in the Developmental Basketball League while pursuing a law degree at Temple.
"My goal when I saw all these inner-city kids out there on the playground was that this would be an avenue to help them get an education, a scholarship to college," Yolanda said.
"If their skills were developed and they became strong players, this would be an avenue where they wouldn't have to take out any loans, they wouldn't have to put pressure on their mom or pop about going to college."
She became close with Staley, who competed in the league. Staley, a North Philly native, remembers Yolanda as one of the few who made sure girls had a platform to play in the Sonny Hill League, and that exposure helped Staley get recruited by colleges.
"She was very serious; she barely cracked a smile," Staley said with a laugh. "But she was just serious about basketball. She was serious about making sure that we had opportunities. She didn't just coach us, she taught us how to play.
"There weren't a whole lot of people that were doing what she was doing, meaning leading the way, leading the charge in being able to express ourselves in basketball. … I played in big games in high school and college, and they were much easier to navigate because of the big games that were on display at DBL."
When Yolanda had children of her own — Betnijah and her brother, Shakaris — she wanted them to benefit from those opportunities, like receiving a college scholarship, if they desired to play the game. (Betnijah wound up playing at Rutgers.) The Laney kids tagged along to each coaching session held by their mother, eventually tying up their laces and picking up the ball to join in.
Yolanda credits her desire to give back to those who mentored her as a kid, and Betnijah hopes to continue to follow in her mother's footsteps — in more than just basketball, but life.
"I've never got to see my mom play," she said. "I've just heard great things about her, talking about the player that she was, the competitor she was, her character on and off the court. For her to kind of just put in the time with me and help get me to where she was, following in her footsteps, I'm just forever grateful."
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