Saturday, March 11, 2006 | STORRS, Conn. – On a crisp fall afternoon, Charde Houston strolls across campus at the University of Connecticut in the New England country town of Storrs. Cows graze along the hillside of the two-lane road that leads to campus.
Houston is a 6-foot-1 African-American woman who stands out in this environment, but not just for the color of her skin. The McDonald’s High School All-American basketball player from San Diego High has found her niche in this unlikely place far from the urban communities of her Left Coast hometown.
As Houston walks outside UConn’s Gampel Pavilion, she crosses paths with a 50ish white gentleman with graying hair. His face lights up at the chance encounter with one of Huskies’ most recognizable women’s basketball players.
“Good to see you, Miss Houston,” he says.
Before he draws another breath to provide Houston a moment to respond, he begins speaking rapidly, expressing what must be the views of his circle of friends.
“We’re hoping Coach (Geno) Auriemma puts you in the high post more this year,” he says. “Didn’t you shoot 46 percent on three-pointers in high school? See, I know that.”
He peppers Houston with more observations. He tells her that although she played well in the low post as a freshman, he wants to see her positioned further from the basket as a sophomore to utilize her shooting range and unique spin move. He also says he wants to see Houston and Barbara Turner, a UConn 6-0 senior forward/guard, paired together more often.
Houston listens patiently. This is a rabid basketball community. Every UConn women’s game is broadcast on TV and every home game is sold out at either Gampel Pavilion in Storrs or nearby Hartford. Eight newspapers cover the team daily and 15 show up for the big games.
“[Auriemma] always has a plan,” Houston tells her new friend when finally given a moment to speak. “He’ll come up with something. It doesn’t matter if I play the high post or the low post.”
Houston, who has an appointment to keep, politely excuses herself and wishes the UConn fan a nice day.
How often does that happen? She’s asked.
“All the time,” Houston said. “Everywhere you go – to the grocery store, a restaurant, the movies. Everywhere you go, you’re bound to get some words of advice from someone.”
People love women’s basketball at UConn. That’s another reason Houston is a world away from sunny San Diego and its untapped women’s college basketball potential.
Fast forward to NCAA Tournament time that is upon us with the brackets to be filled on March 12, and you’ll see that Houston’s sophomore season didn’t go quite as planned.
An early-season foot injury slowed her until she found her stride in mid-January, when the Huskies upset No. 3-ranked LSU 51-48. Houston scored 22 points with 14 rebounds, three steals and one blocked shot in the win.
Auriemma has coached five national players of the year at UConn, so a performance such as Houston’s in the LSU game is why he isn’t shy when projecting Houston’s potential:
“She could be a National Player of the Year.”
As a freshman in the 2004-05 season, Houston led her team in rebounding and steals and was named third-team All-Big East choice as well as to the All-Big East Freshman team. She put up those numbers despite averaging only 19 minutes a game.
As a sophomore, her injuries forced her to settle for All-Big East honorable mention. She played in 29 games but started only four while averaging 9.8 points and 5.0 rebounds through the ninth-ranked Huskies’ 33rd game, a win over West Virginia on March 7 to earn the Big East Tournament title and automatic NCAA berth.
She might only play 16 minutes with no points and three rebounds – as she did against West Virginia on in the Big East final – but Auriemma considers her game suited for the big time and short only on consistency at this stage of her career.
“She plays her best in our big games and on national TV,” Auriemma said.
Broadway Avenue in San Diego is a downtown street that runs a just a few blocks south of San Diego High. It’s a major street in San Diego, but without a pulse much different from other downtown streets.
Ironically, Houston has learned from a coach in the country setting of Storrs that a Broadway pulse should equal the big time.
“I take my kids to check out a Broadway show every year when we go to New York,” Auriemma says of a conference schedule that includes games against St. John’s. “I tell them that these [performers] come out here five times a week and for a matinee on Wednesdays; they’ve got to make every performance look like the first one for the people who are paying $75 to $150 a ticket.”
Auriemma’s point to his players is to relate a Broadway performance to a UConn game.
“You can’t come out and say, ‘I don’t feel like it tonight’ on Broadway. That’s how it is at Connecticut. You can’t come out and say, ‘I don’t feel like it tonight.’ That appeals to some kids and it doesn’t to others.”
When Houston first left for Storrs, some San Diegans didn’t think she would be able to accept Auriemma’s demanding coaching style. But throughout Houston’s career in high school, she has shown an ability to rise to the level needed when challenged.
“Sometimes it’s hard to deliver, but [Auriemma] always tells you to find a way,” Houston said. “When you’re in college, you’re on your own. When things break down, you have to find a way or you’re going to be gone. He tries to teach you mental stuff all the time. What the game is about is who can set up in their halfcourt offense and execute at the end. When things break down, you still have to find a way.”
UConn’s campus is a halfcourt game for Houston compared to the fullcourt expanse of San Diego’s city limits. Everything for Houston is within walking distance at UConn.
Her on-campus apartment is just a few minutes down a rolling sidewalk shaded by trees to Gampel Pavilion, where the Huskies practice. She’s just a few minutes to classrooms and a few minutes to town. There is a quiet pond at the center of campus where the urban girl stops to read alongside ducks between classes.
“I love it here,” said Houston, who attended summer school last year. “I feel like this is my home now.”
When Auriemma convinced Houston to sign with UConn and travel across country, it represented a recruiting coup. Houston is California’s career scoring leader, breaking Cheryl Miller’s record her senior year at San Diego High, and one of only four Californian’s Auriemma has landed in 21 seasons at UConn.
Auriemma says he hopes to bring Houston back to San Diego for a homecoming by scheduling the Huskies in a San Diego State or University of San Diego holiday tournament.
“We’re working on it,” he said. “That’s something we like to do for our kids. We did it for Ann Strother when we went to Denver and for Diana Taurasi when we went to Los Angeles. I’d say there is a 90 percent chance we’ll be in San Diego her senior year.”
By then Houston might be a national player-of-the-year candidate. Before the start of her sophomore season, Auriemma pulled Houston into his office and showed her game-by-game box scores from her freshman season.
“She had a stretch of games when she scored 4, 2, 0, 13 and 6 points,” Auriemma said. “In that stretch we lost to Arizona State and Michigan State – ranked teams.”
Those were games when Houston played like she did in high school – relying too much on her talent that couldn’t be stopped at the high school level. But there were other nights when she combined talent with the mental toughness that Auriemma demands she develop at the college level.
“I showed her a stretch of games when she scored 10, 14, 19, 19, 20, 25 and we beat ranked teams,” Auriemma said. “I said, ‘You’re way too good of a player to be on that kind of a roller coaster.’ But that’s not that unusual for a freshman to have all those dips. Now we want to make sure she finishes more of a straight line. She has unbelievable skills that are difficult to match up.”
The plan was to gain consistency this year, but that was before her injury delayed fulfilling her promise at UConn. She played Broadway-like against LSU with her career-high performances, but she’s still seeking that straight line Auriemma demands that she chart throughout the season.
“[Auriemma] teaches you to be a better person and to respect yourself or you’re not going anywhere,” Houston said. “You have to respect yourself and your community. I feel I’ve matured a lot here. I belong here.”
Tom Shanahan is Voice’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at