by Jim Mancari
St. Gabriel’s parish, East Elmhurst, boasts three famous CYO basketball alumni. Speedy Claxton played eight years in the NBA, while Derrick Phelps starred at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, before playing in the pro ranks.
The third alumna, Tina Charles, is currently suiting up for the U.S. Women’s Basketball Olympics team.
The Jamaica native was selected to her first Olympic Games this summer after compiling an impressive basketball pedigree the past few years. All her hard work paid off as she’s one of the key components of the U.S. team trying to capture its fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
“I was elated; it was a blessing,” said Charles, 23. “Overall, it was just a great joy.”
She fondly recalls her memories playing CYO sports at St. Gabriel’s. From second to eighth grade, the active child was always playing one sport or another at any hour of the day.
“That’s where it all started,” she said. “I used to love just playing all sports with the guys, whether it was touch football, kickball or basketball. I was always after school just playing with a bunch of my classmates.”
Though she used to simply run up and down the basketball court – even sometimes scoring on the wrong basket – Charles said playing CYO basketball was tons of fun and made her hungrier for the game.
“I think that opportunity helps younger kids stay in line,” she said. “Having CYO basketball was really good for me.”
From there, Charles emerged as a star in her sophomore year at Christ the King R.H.S., Middle Village. Her work ethic was unmatched by many young women her age.
“The hardest part with Tina Charles was keeping her from overdoing it,” said Christ the King head girls basketball coach Bob Mackey, who is entering his 23rd year coaching the Lady Royals.
During Charles’ junior and senior years, Christ the King won 57 straight games en route to back-to-back national championships. The six-foot four-inch center averaged 26.5 pts., 14.8 rebounds and 5.2 blocked shots per game her senior season, which earned her the 2006 Women’s Basketball Coaches Association National Player of the Year, the USA Today National Player of the Year, the McDonald’s National Player of the Year, the Gatorade National Player of the Year, the EA Sports National Player of the Year and the crown of “Miss Basketball New York State.”
Charles credits her early basketball successes to the Christ the King program, especially the emphasis on academics before basketball.
“The coaches there not only teach you the game of basketball but also the game of life and how to go on to the next four years of your life,” she said.
Charles was recruited to play for legendary coach Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, Conn. A dominant force in the paint, she led the Huskies to NCAA national titles in 2009 and 2010. The Connecticut Sun of the WNBA made her the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft.
It turns out Auriemma is the coach of the Olympic team, so Charles was reunited with a familiar face.
With her selection to the U.S. roster, Charles becomes the third women’s basketball Olympian to have gone through Christ the King, joining Chamique Holdsclaw (2000) and Sue Bird (2004, 2008, 2012). Christ the King now has the most women’s basketball Olympians of any high school in the nation, with Morningside H.S., Inglewood, Calif., as the only other high school with at least two: Lisa Leslie (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008) and Tina Thompson (2004, 2008).
“It’s a tremendous compliment to the school, to the program and to the girls that have played at Christ the King,” Mackey said. “It’s great when you see young people achieving their goals, especially when it’s representing one’s country in London on what really is the greatest stage in the world.”
Charles is excited that she’s able to play with Bird, who not only attended Christ the King but also UConn. Bird, a guard currently with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, is a few years older than Charles, but the values they learned at Christ the King remain the same.
“Christ the King is definitely a unique place in terms of how the basketball program is run,” said Bird, 31. “It’s probably one of the few high schools in America run similarly to a college program. The goal is to win a championship every year, and I think dealing with that at a young age prepared us for what we were going to face later on.”
The former Lady Royals’ and Huskies’ stars have the utmost respect for each other. Bird already has two gold medals – Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008) – so Charles hopes this veteran Olympic experience will rub off on her.
“She’s (Bird) a great player with great leadership qualities that knows how to get everyone involved,” Charles said. “She knows how to plug you into the game.”
Both players like their country’s chances to take home a gold medal in London, as the U.S. team attempts to add to its record four straight Olympic golds. If the team advances, the gold medal game takes place on Aug. 11 at 4 p.m. (EDT).
Contact Jim Mancari via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.