Hoop Dreams: Olympic Newbie Preps For Games

The U.S. women's basketball team is favored to win its fifth consecutive gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Tina Charles, a former University of Connecticut Husky, will play in her first Olympics as the team's center.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

Only 26 days to go until the Olympics, and the U.S. women's basketball team is ready for gold. They're looking to win their fifth consecutive gold medal in London this month. Six members of the team played for the University of Connecticut, and they'll be heading to the games with their former coach, Geno Auriemma.

Lucy Nalpathanchil of member station WNPR reports that all eyes will be on their six-foot four-inch star player.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL, BYLINE: Like most basketball centers, you can't miss 23-year-old Tina Charles on the court. She is one of the tallest players, and she's powerful. She uses her size to easily get jump balls from her opponents. Thousands of WNBA fans fill the arena of the Connecticut Sun to watch her play.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tina Charles.

NALPATHANCHIL: Basketball has dominated much of her life. She started playing at six, after watching countless games on TV with her dad.

TINA CHARLES: A lot of the girls want to do jump rope, gossip. I was just all about sports. And I was a big Knicks fan, you know, just growing up watching Patrick Ewing and John Starks and Allan Houston. I was a big fan, so I will always try to imitate them.

NALPATHANCHIL: Her height helped her when she played pick up with the boys in her Queens, New York, neighborhood and when she landed a spot on the varsity team in high school.

It was at UConn where her career exploded. She helped lead the Lady Huskies to two NCAA trophies. Her second title came right before graduating in 2010. She quickly turned pro. Charles was the WNBA's number one draft pick.

Now, into her third season, she continues to rack up double digits in points and rebounds. The fans love watching her reach another double-double.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

NALPATHANCHIL: In this game, The Connecticut Sun beat the New York Liberty, with Charles making 25 points and 11 rebounds. She doesn't fixate on her stats, though. Charles says remaining humble helps her concentrate on winning. Charles learned that focus from UConn Coach Geno Auriemma. He was tough on her, but she says she needed it.

CHARLES: I definitely struggled. I struggled to grasp what Coach Auriemma wanted out of me and where he saw my talents could go. It took a lot of hard work, a lot of individual workouts. Everything was just mental; how to break through that wall, how to get through what he's saying to me but not taking it personally.

GENO AURIEMMA: Tina really did herself proud and really made us all proud at UConn when she went to the WNBA. And the way she handled herself, boy, Tina's really grown up, and I'm just so happy for her.

NALPATHANCHIL: Auriemma has a fan base of his own after leading UConn to seven NCAA Division 1 titles. His fans see him as a legend. They call him Geno. Auriemma's Connecticut office is full of trophies and championship pictures from his coaching career. Right now, his attention is on the London games.

AURIEMMA: It's exciting. It's daunting. It's pressure, overwhelming at times. I'm like a little kid sometimes that I can't wait to get there and get started.

NALPATHANCHIL: This is Auriemma's first time as head coach of the Olympic team. He was an assistant coach of the national team in 2000.

AURIEMMA: However big you think you are, when you go there, you get bigger, no question.

NALPATHANCHIL: Game preparation will have to wait. All of his players are deep into the WNBA season until mid-July, when the league takes a month-long hiatus to accommodate the Olympics schedule

When they get to London, they'll concentrate on their competitors. Australia is in the hunt for gold after finishing behind the U.S. in the last three Olympic Games.

For NPR News, I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil in Hartford.

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