Yolanda Laney had a motherly instinct that would make her daughter, Betnija, stand out in the world of basketball. She learned it during practice at the Mallery Recreation Center in East Germantown, when young Betnija told her mother, “I love basketball!” when he stopped.
“I got it now,” Yolanda said. “I didn’t tell him that, but after he told me that, I know he took him out to practice and he ran and played with the ball and passed. That wouldn’t have been a problem, because since he told me he loved the game, I knew he was going to take it to the highest level possible.
Betnija, who now plays for the New York Liberty, spent seven seasons in the WNBA and earned a number of accolades throughout her career. Most recently, she was honored with the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award for her work off the court.
Since joining the Liberty through the 2021 season, Betnija has used her platform to raise the league’s profile and engage with the New York community, focusing primarily on child development and youth education. She has partnered with the Coalition for Change to help families with education, mental health services, financial literacy and career placement.
Yolanda always told her daughter the importance of youth sports, and Betnija wanted to give back to the next generation of athletes. Clayton, Del., grew up watching his mother coach at recreational centers or AAU teams in Delaware, Philly and New Jersey, while also spending time improving Betnija’s game.
“We were fortunate enough to make ends meet, but you see people around you who don’t have that opportunity,” Betnija said. “Everyone deserves to have some kind of resource. That’s something my mom has always given to the community through basketball.
“His focus was giving back to basketball to give kids a chance to learn the game. Growing up, I grew up watching all the things my mother did for the community, and that was something in my heart.”
The Germantown native attended University City High School, which closed in 2013. He led the team to three Community League basketball championships and was named the Community League Player of the Year in 1977-78.
Yolanda also played in the historic Sonny Hill League. She attended the John Cheney-Sonny Hill Basketball Camp before starting a girls program called the Hill Developmental Basketball League.
“A lot of girls played basketball in the city of Philadelphia,” Yolanda said. “It’s been great competition here because you’re playing against the whole community, you’re playing all Catholic in one week.”
Laney played at Cheyney University (then Cheyney State), where she led the women’s team to its first NCAA Women’s Championship in 1982.
20-year-old Yolanda decided to become a coach when she went home. After a year and a half abroad, he began teaching skills in the Developmental Basketball League while studying law at Temple.
“When I saw all the kids in town on the playground, my goal was to help them get an education, get a college scholarship,” Yolanda said.
“If they can develop their skills and become strong players, that would be a way for them to go to college without having to take out any loans and put pressure on their mom.”
He became close with Staley, who competed in the league. Staley, a North Philly native, remembers Yolanda as one of the few people who made sure girls had a field to play in the Sonny Hill League, and that influence helped Staley get recruited by colleges.
“He was very serious; he barely cracked a smile,” Staley said with a laugh. “But he took basketball seriously. He was serious about making sure we had opportunities. He not only coached us but also taught us how to play.
“There were not many people who did what he did, that is, he was able to show the way and show us in basketball. … I played in big games in high school and college, and because of the big games shown in the DBL, they were a lot easier to manage.”
When Yolanda had her own children – Betnija and her brother Shakaris – she wanted them to benefit from opportunities such as college scholarships if they wanted to play. (Bethnija ended up playing at Rutgers.) The Laney kids attended every coaching session their mother held, and eventually strapped on the ball and took the ball to participate.
Yolanda wants to give back to those who mentored her as a child, and Betnija hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps — not just in basketball, but in life.
“I never saw my mom play,” she said. “I’ve heard good things about him, about his player, his competitor, his personality on and off the court. I am forever grateful that he spent time with me and followed his path to help me get there.”