She fell in love with basketball years before there was a WNBA. Back then, few opportunities existed for organized team play for girls, so she’d ride her bike through her Southern California neighborhood to play at the park with the boys. A passion for the game lives deep within Charli Turner Thorne, who has built the women’s basketball program at Arizona State University with determination, a competitive brilliance and the sheer joy of turning young women athletes into community leaders.
What is your first memory of playing the game?
Going down to the local high school with my dad and older brother. It was a huge thrill—a big deal—if Dad would take an hour out of his day and drive us down there to shoot around.
When did you start playing on a team?
I grew up playing at the park with boys in a boys’ league. There really weren’t girls’ leagues when I was coming up. I remember my first coach, Doug Shane. He taught me how to dribble in between my legs. I believe I was probably 9 or 10. I just remember that being the happiest part of my day—getting to play youth sports.
How is it different for young women now, compared to when you were in high school?
We could talk [about that] for hours! The most basic difference is that there are just so many opportunities for them to play. There are girls’ leagues starting from 4 or 5 years old.
Do you think today’s parents sign kids up for organized sports before they are truly ready?
Yes, and I am guilty of that. We signed Conor up for soccer at 3½ and he [was] out there picking flowers and hugging his friend. Totally uninterested, not even wanting to go into the game.
Sounds like he was enjoying himself, though. What’s the downside?
Back in the day, you were the coach, you were the official, you organized your own games and you did it all. And I think in consequence you grew, you became a leader and you became a decision maker. I see a real void in the leadership and decision- making skills of young adults and I think that you can trace it back to signing them up at 3 or 4.
In your role as coach, do you see parents pressuring their kids?
Definitely, and I think parents would admit that. And sometimes that escalates to the college [level] where you have parents that put entirely too much pressure on these men and women to be the star, be the best and either get that college education paid for or get that pro contract. It really makes it harder for coaches and people trying to help these young adults enjoy the process.
What do girls, in particular, learn from playing team sports?
In a nutshell, what don’t they learn? Everything. It completely helps grow their character, their life skills. They learn to be unselfish, to be a better communicator, to be accountable for their actions, to cope when things don’t go their way. They learn how to fail—therefore, they can really develop great success behavior.
What would you say to parents with daughters who hope to play basketball at the college level?
I would encourage them to encourage their daughter, but not provide the passion for them. If the passion is there, then create opportunities and look into leagues. I wouldn’t jump into club basketball as a middle schooler or younger. Don’t spend a lot of money. Basketball is an inexpensive sport. You can go outside, find a basket. And a ball is 10 bucks.
At the end of the day, what do you want out of your career?
No one is in sports unless they want to win championships, so I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was here to be successful. I am here to build a program, a legacy that hopefully will be special and that people will remember.
This interview was published May 1, 2008 by multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint.