Commentary

Charles rides tall tale to fairy-tale finish

Two days after a second straight NCAA title, UConn center is WNBA's No. 1 pick

Updated: April 9, 2010, 9:48 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The girl was only 4. She had a doctor's appointment, one of those routine checkups where a person with a degree on the wall tells a mom that her daughter is in the 80th percentile or whatever.

Only this time, Angella Holgate left the doctor's office with tears in her eyes. She'd just been told her little girl, Tina Charles, probably would grow to be 6 feet, 5 inches tall. Holgate wondered about the kind of life Tina would have, the kids who would tease, the boys who would do double-takes.

[+] EnlargeTina Charles
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesTina Charles, a 6-foot-4 center, is the third UConn player to be drafted No. 1 overall.

"I don't know if I should tell you this," Holgate says, "but I literally started bawling. I was worried.

"I wasn't thinking about sports at the time."

Holgate is sitting in the back seat of a black Suburban on Thursday, telling stories about her tall, unique daughter as Charles occasionally rolls her eyes and flips through messages on her BlackBerry. A driver named Jerry has picked them up from the Sheraton Hotel, and now they're stuck in an early-morning slog through rush-hour traffic. They don't talk about it, how today is possibly the biggest day in Tina Charles' life.

In seven hours, Charles will be the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft. She will have cameras pointed right in her face. She will do teleconferences and news conferences and get whisked from hairdressers to crowded studios.

Charles will do it all with little doubt about where she's headed.

"This is the day the Lord has made," Holgate whispers to her daughter.

They approach the Lincoln Tunnel, and the Suburban stops in gridlock. Charles pushes back her seat, closes her eyes, and softly sings a few lines to Michael Jackson's "Rock With You." It's the only rest she'll have all day.

Back to the beginning

It started, really, in a living room, when nobody was looking. Rawlston Charles, Tina's dad, was watching a New York Knicks game. And when Patrick Ewing went up to dunk, little Tina grabbed a tiny ball and tried to do the same with her Fisher Price hoop. She was only 3 at the time, and, quite frankly, Rawlston didn't think much of it.

He didn't know a lot about women's basketball, and he certainly didn't think Tina could make a career of it. Neither did Holgate. But a few years later, Holgate found herself trapped in another car, driving Tina everywhere in the New York area to play AAU ball. From Brooklyn to the Bronx to Queens. For a while, it seemed as if she knew the Triborough Bridge toll workers on a first-name basis. Mother and daughter were always going somewhere for basketball.

There was never a disagreement between me and Tina. … You do what you have to do as a coach, and if kids don't like it, they leave. And if they do like it, they stay and they get to be really, really good. Tina decided she wanted to be good, and she won two national championships and [had] two undefeated seasons.

-- UConn coach Geno Auriemma on Tina Charles

Tina never walked anywhere. She skipped, jumped or ran.

She went to Christ The King High School in New York, dominated at center, and led her team to two straight state titles and a 57-game win streak. When Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma showed up to recruit Charles, the family's hearts went aflutter.

"I was just a big Geno fan," Holgate says. "Geno couldn't do anything wrong."

But he did rattle Charles' world a little when she was a sophomore at UConn and struggled with inconsistency. Auriemma didn't think she expected enough out of herself and benched her during the NCAA tournament; Charles says she was an underclassman who acquiesced to letting the older players take charge.

"There was never a disagreement between me and Tina," Auriemma says. "I don't think it was much different than any other kid who tells you they want to be the best player in the country.

"You do what you have to do as a coach, and if kids don't like it, they leave. And if they do like it, they stay and they get to be really, really good. Tina decided she wanted to be good, and she won two national championships and [had] two undefeated seasons."

Charles elevated her play in the 2008-09 season, the same time the Huskies' women's NCAA Division I-record 78-game win streak -- capped with Tuesday's national championship -- started. She calls Auriemma's hard-line tactics in the early days "tough love" and says she wouldn't be in the position she's in now without her coach's help.

She is known for her swagger on the court, for being unstoppable in the paint. Charles averaged 19 points and nine rebounds a game as a senior, and held Stanford star Jayne Appel scoreless in the national championship game. (Appel was playing on a severely sprained ankle and with a stress fracture in her foot.)

As the Suburban stops in Manhattan for one of her interviews, Charles, without prompting, repeats one of Auriemma's mantras.

"Coach always says to chase perfection, and you will catch excellence,'' she says.

Attaining the dream

She might not show it -- they never saw it -- but before every game, Charles gets nervous. Her stomach does a few flips, and the jitters often linger in the locker room. She got these even though UConn was winning nearly every game by at least 20 points.

She worries about legacies. She can't imagine what it will be like for the Huskies' underclassmen, who have never lost a game, and now must replace two WNBA draft picks (teammate Kalana Greene was selected 13th overall by the Liberty).

But Charles knows her team will be fine. And she says the 78-0 run hasn't hit her yet and probably won't until at least May, when she graduates, leaves campus and starts playing in another uniform.

After Tuesday night's victory, she was seen hugging Auriemma, who whispered something in her ear.

Charles says the conversation went something like this: "This is what you wanted," he told her. "And you got it."

Ready for the next step

It is just after 3 p.m. ET, and more than a dozen women are seated in tables at the NBA Entertainment studio. The Connecticut Sun are on the clock with the first pick, and the room fixes on a middle table where Charles is seated with her mom, dad and Auriemma. Everyone knows Charles is going No. 1. It's anticlimactic, but Charles doesn't care. She knows how far she has come.

Her name is announced, and Auriemma wraps her in a hug. He tells her she has earned it.

Charles holds up a Sun jersey, then holds court in an upstairs media room with a bunch of reporters.

She's asked whether she wanted to go to the New York Liberty and play for her hometown. Charles says that everything happens for a reason and that "this is God's plan."

She scurries off to do a teleconference and hears that the Sun made a trade with Minnesota and have acquired Nebraska's Kelsey Griffin.

"You guys are going to be young," a WNBA PR person tells Charles.

Charles eases her 6-foot-4 body into a chair and smiles. It's less than 48 hours after the national championship game, and the No. 1 pick has a hundred things to do.

Just a little while earlier, a person in the hallway had seen Charles rush by and made a comment that she thought the 6-4 center was supposed to be taller. On Thursday, No. 1 was larger than life.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.

ALSO SEE