Remembering The Heart Of The Belles

Article by Christopher Lawlor of Bluestar Media 



If it was Sunday morning, Nancy Dougherty was setting up shop in a gymnasium in New Jersey. Typically she’d arrive early, set up, start collecting the workout fees and get to work. See, this was Nancy’s sanctuary—working as one of the longest tenured members of the Philadelphia Belles starting in 1991 when she accompanied her daughter, Amy, to a tryout.

Nancy saw it all from Justine Lake on Ridge Avenue in a hardscrabble neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia to RiverWinds Community Center in suburban South Jersey. She thrived during these sessions, creating a learning atmosphere and dispensing advice for the novice.

Whenever the Belles needed help it was customary for Nancy to be the first to volunteer. “What can I do?” she said without fail.

Nancy, the doyenne of the Philadelphia Belles, was a multifaceted and multitasking selfless individual. She was invaluable finding ways to fill in the crevices and allow the organization to run organically. Whenever the Belles or the United States Junior Nationals conducted an event, Nancy could be found courtside dragging her chair to the next game.

Nancy was a throwback coach/mentor from an era of simplicity when teams and individuals would go far assuming their fundamentals were perfected.

Part instructor, part counselor, part teacher, part surrogate mother, part clinician, part talent scout, part soothsayer: Yes that list could on in for perpetuity and it probably will whether through stories, anecdotes, lasting memories, personal interaction and lore.

Mostly, though, Nancy was the coach, most recently, of the Belles 14U team that never sought the spotlight but was ultimately always in control in her taciturn way.

“Nancy was a definition of a Philly Belle,” said Andrea Peterson, one of Nancy’s players who went onto to a storied career at Drexel University and most recently was named the 2015 Naismith National Girls High School Coach of the Year while guiding Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia to the consensus national championship.

Whereas most octogenarians choose to live a pastoral lifestyle, enjoying retirement in the Florida sun and the grandchildren, Nancy had a greater purpose as the Belles’ detail-oriented coach who was a card carrying basketball fundamentalist. “Skills and drills” was Nancy’s credo. She lived it, preached it and loved it.

The same can be said for Nancy, who unexpectedly died on January 26, 2016. She was 81. A Mass and a Christian Burial is scheduled for Saturday morning. Family and friends can pay their respects on Friday evening at St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church in Glassboro, N.J.

The thousands of lives she touched just scratch the surface. To understand Nancy was to watch her in action. She commanded the respect of her players and coaches alike. The Belles were built on the sweat equity of volunteers, parents, players and coaches, but Nancy was the bedrock, the paradigm of what grassroots coaching stands for: Regardless of a player’s talent, make sure she learns, becomes a better player and feels a sense of accomplishment.

Nancy’s passing struck the organization, considered the nation’s elite grassroots girls’ basketball program, particularly hard.

“She always stressed the fundamentals and that has never wavered since I initially met her in 1991,” said Kevin Lynch, the Director of the Philadelphia Belles. “Nancy would work with a kid until she corrected the problem. She did not care if the kid was rich or poor, black or white, or lived near Philadelphia or out of the area, she gave the same amount of effort and commitment.”

To wit, since 1978, the Belles have produced thousands of student-athletes with countless who have pursued a career in coaching. Two polarizing players, Laura Harper and Allie Bassetti, are two of Nancy’s prized pupils.

Harper arrived to the Belles as a gangly, slender 12-year-old needing polish—lots of it. Nancy’s Sunday morning post player tutoring sessions paid off in a big way. At 6-5, Harper, from suburban Philadelphia, went on to star at the University of Maryland helping the Terrapins win the 2006 National Championship. Harper was tabbed the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player for her efforts and went onto to have a brief pro career in the WNBA and Europe. Today she is an assistant at High Point University.

“Laura will tell you that Nancy had a huge impact on her career,” Lynch said.

As for Bassetti, she knew coaching was in her future at a young age. Bassett played point guard at Rowan University, a Division III school in New Jersey, but cut her teeth coaching for the Belles, working especially close with Nancy. Like Nancy, Bassetti worked with young post players as a Belles coach, honing their skills through constant repetition. Currently, she’s the Director of Basketball Operations at American University and quickly points out Nancy’s influence on her career path.

“Nancy was a special, special woman; they don’t make women like her anymore,” Bassetti said. “I latched onto her real quick when I began coaching the Belles. I was like a sponge absorbing everything that I could. She would pick me up for practice and we’d talk about everything on the way there. We traveled to tournaments in New York and Virginia and just listening to her gave me so much insight into what makes a great coach.

“I’m so grateful that she allowed me to tag along to clinics and coaches’ meetings and taught me as a point guard what I needed to know about coaching other positions especially the post.”

For 25 summers, Nancy mentored, taught, guided and coached the young ladies who went on to play in area high schools, college, professional leagues overseas and the WNBA.

She occupied a special place in the hearts of the whole organization.

Even Joe Costa of Pittsburgh, who has coached and evaluated players for Blue Star since 2004, realizes the magnitude of Nancy’s passing. Costa coached against Nancy but truly appreciated her contributions once he joined the Belles.

“Once you get inside the Belles, you understood who Nancy was. She never had an ego, she commanded respect and she never said a negative thing to a kid. She had more influence with the Belles than people will ever know,” Costa said.

The Belles family learned of Nancy’s passing from granddaughter, Amber, who texted Hope Fuery on Tuesday evening. Within minutes of finding out, founder and owner Mike Flynn sent out an email to all the Belles coaches. According to the text, Nancy died from an apparent blood clot in her heart.

Nancy’s death went viral on social mediums, with former Belles players and coaches, college coaches and parents paying tribute to the diminutive Belles icon, who started coaching and refereeing in the 1950s.

Peterson, who coaches a Belles travel team, met Nancy upon joining the organization at 9 years old.

“To this day I’ll pay attention to detail like Nancy always did. Nancy had a way of explaining things, doing it correctly. She made sure the players fully understood the fundamentals of basketball. It’s the attention to the little things that will make a difference. She always brought a smile to your face. She would stress positive reinforcement,” Peterson said.

“It’s going to be different going to Sunday workouts without Nancy greeting you at the door. She was always there … always. She will be missed; a lot of people will miss Nancy,” she said.

One of Nancy’s strengths was vision. She could spot talent at a young age and take the appropriate steps to take that lump of clay and mold it into a refined product. Nancy often birddogged at the local recreation and CYO leagues for the next flock of talent. If a player needed a ride, Nancy picked her up and drove her home. If the player came from an economically challenged household, a lunch or a uniform was routinely purchased.

Whatever it took, Nancy did it.

She also knew her job was to prepare players for the next level, meaning this year’s players would always be bound for an advanced age group.

Nancy was always looking ahead to the next game or workout. Over the Dr. Martin Luther King Weekend, she conducted Sunday morning workouts on January 17 at RiverWinds, jetted over to Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa., to watch the Blue Star Showcase of games and then went to a Belles coach’s meeting.

“There aren’t enough Nancy’s out there,” said Lynch, who previously assisted former Belle Lisa Cermignano at Wagner College before returning to the organization two years ago.

Fuery, who runs USJN and Philadelphia Belles events, worked for the past 13 years with Nancy. Fuery was amazed at the energy and passion Nancy exuded.

“She was an inspiration to me and others for her untiring dedication to volunteer service. Nancy always had a kind word, a warm smile and a giving and committed attitude to whatever she did,” she said.

Nancy and Bassetti were practically neighbors in South Jersey. Besides life lessons and teaching points she gleaned under Nancy’s tutelage, Bassetti wanted to share this lost coaching tenet.

“You don’t have to scream at the players to get your point across. It’s the content of what you say that matters most, “ said Bassetti, who joined the Belles as a junior while attending Washington Township High School in Sewell, N.J.

Most recently, Nancy was named the AAU Mid-Atlantic District Volunteer of the Year for meritorious service to youth basketball. It was long overdue.

Personally, Nancy was quiet and unassuming but her words carried weight within the organization. She was never a heavy-handed coach but coached through the power of observation, always seeing the good in her players and correcting their shortcomings. She was measured with her comments, but when she spoke it was thoughtful and impactful.

“Nancy was the heart of the Belles; no one loved the Belles more,” Fuery added.

What a wonderful epitaph.


About Christopher Lawlor: Senior Writer and national analyst for Blue Media and compiles the Blue Star Elite 25 national boys and girls high school basketball and football rankings during the season. Lawlor, an award-winning writer, is a voting committee member and advisor for several national high school events, including the McDonald’s All-American Games. He previously wrote for USA TODAY and, where he was the national preps writer, while compiling the national rankings in four sports.