BROOKLYN –– St. Gabriel Parish in the New York borough of Queens boasts three famous CYO basketball alumni.
Speedy Claxton played eight years in the NBA, while Derrick Phelps starred at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, before playing in the pro ranks.
The third, Tina Charles, made the U.S. women’s basketball competing in the Summer Olympics in London.
The Jamaica native was selected to her first Olympic Games this summer after compiling an impressive basketball pedigree the past few years. All of 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.”
In the U.S. team’s opener against Croatia July 28, she scored 14 points, helping the team to an 81-56 win.
Charles fondly recalls her memories playing sports with the Catholic Youth Organization at St. Gabriel in East Elmhurst. 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 told The Tablet, newspaper of the Brooklyn Diocese. “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 her sophomore year at Christ the King Regional High School. Her work ethic was unmatched by many young women her age.
“The hardest part with Tina Charles was keeping Tina 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 6-foot-4 center averaged 26.5 points, 14.8 rebounds and 5.2 blocked shots per game her senior season. For that, she was named the 2006 Women Basketball Coaches Association National Player of the Year, USA Today National Player of the Year, McDonald’s National Player of the Year, Gatorade National Player of the Year, EA Sports National Player of the Year, and earned 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, where 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.
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.
“It’s a tremendous complement 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.”
“Christ the King is definitely a unique place in terms of how the basketball program is run,” said Bird, 31, currently a guard with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. “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,” she added.
Bird already has two gold medals – Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008) – so Charles hopes this veteran Olympic experience will rub off on her.
Mancari is the sports reporter The Tablet, newspaper of the Brooklyn Diocese.