Kaila Charles finds motivation in family struggles, success

Kaila Charles poses for a picture during a team photoshoot. (Photo credit: Brianna Fraser)

Kaila Charles poses for a picture during a team photoshoot. (Photo credit: Brianna Fraser)

The University of Maryland women’s basketball fans know Kaila Charles as a star player who has achieved countless Big Ten accolades since arriving in College Park.

Her family, friends and high school coaches know this side of Charles very well, but it’s the qualities of her non-athletic side that allow her to be critical of herself, while maintaining success on the court.

“Kaila has always been the one to have that perception that she has her act together,” said Libby Ellis, director of women’s basketball operations at Maryland. “She is very confident and comfortable in her skin. I think a lot of that stems from her family, who instills confidence in her, but also challenges her.”

Charles’ parents, Walter and Ruperta Charles, both came to America from the Caribbean in their adolescent years to attend college. Her mother, originally from Antigua and Barbuda, attended Howard University, where she starred in track from 1980 to 1984.

Ruperta began her athletic career in Antigua and Barbuda and was named “Sportswoman of the Year” in her country at the age of 17. She also represented her country while competing in the women’s 100-meter race at 1984 Olympic Games.

Most recently, Ruperta was inducted into the Howard University Hall of Fame in 2014 as an individual athlete and the 2018 class as part of the 1982 Women’s All-American 1600 Relay Team.

Although her mother did not talk about her accolades much when she was growing up, the strength both her parents portrayed by coming to the States alone for their education has been inspiring, Kaila said.

Kaila is the youngest of four children who all compete in athletics. Her two brothers, Darron and Akil, played basketball, and her sister, Afia, who is six years older, ran track at the University of Central Florida.

“As a kid, I remember organizing my sister’s medals. She had a whole book shelf,” Kaila said.

Seeing her sister’s accolades pushed Kaila even more, just not in track. Charles said she tried track, but it didn’t resonate with her like basketball.

With both of Kaila’s parents having little knowledge of the game, it was her older brother Akil who had a major influence on her.

Akil played basketball at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada, from 2015 to 2017. Kaila said she is thankful to her brother for pushing her outside her comfort zone as a basketball player. In addition to an extremely competitive household, her brother began taking Kaila to the recreational center to play basketball as a seventh grader.

‘My brother helped me with confidence,” Kaila said. “He would take me to the rec to play with guys and they’d be confused, like ‘Why is this girl here?’”

At the rec center, Akil would force the boys to pick Kaila to play on their team, telling them, “I’m not playing if she’s not on my team.” Eventually, Kaila and Akil started going to different rec centers with a group of five people just to compete.

Kaila credits that time of her playing career to the versatile game she displays at the Xfinity Center today. She was always used to being forced to prove herself as the baby of the family and coming to Maryland was the first step of proving herself to her state, Kaila said.

Originally from Glenn Dale, Charles said, “I love representing my state.”

During the recruiting process, Kaila planned to attend college out of state because she looked forward to a new experience. After her junior year of high school at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Charles made the moved to Riverdale Baptist School in Upper Marlboro. Riverdale has been historically known for its competitive girls’ basketball team, which annually ranks nationally.

Kaila and her family reached out to then-head coach Sam Caldwell about transferring. In order to play with great basketball players on the college level, Kaila knew she needed an extra push in training. The transition from Roosevelt to Riverdale was a smooth one due to her diligent work ethic.

“Kaila is one of the hardest working athletes we had. She was first in everything,” Caldwell said. “She pushed herself and as a result, she [dragged] her teammates along.”

During Kaila’s senior year, Riverdale’s girls’ basketball team went 39-3 and won a national championship.

“We don’t do that without Kaila’s leadership and her excellence on the floor,” Caldwell said.

Leadership is an aspect of Kaila’s game that she has grown into. Since her freshman year at Maryland, Ellis said she has always done a good job of leading my example.

“She’s grown into more of a vocal leader,” Ellis said. “Instead of just leading by example and showing everyone that this is the right way to do things because this is how I do it. Now she’s incorporating, ‘This is why I do it.’”

Afia described Kaila as competitive, determined and humble, three qualities that she has lived by throughout her junior run as the starting guard for Maryland. However, it was one rough performance where being her usual critical and competitive self did not work in her or her team’s favor.

On Feb. 7, the then-No. 7 Terps tipped off against then-No. 14 Iowa Buckeyes in their first meeting of conference play. Charles shot 1-for-13, had three rebounds, three turnovers and fouled out of the game.

“That game was a game-changer for me. I was so frustrated with my performance. I was too within myself and wasn’t being a good leader,” Kaila said. “It made me realize how much my team really looks up to me.”

As a reliable scorer for the team, averaging 17 points last season, Kaila’s teammates tried to help her out of her funk, but she couldn’t and it resulted in an 86-73 loss. After analyzing the situation and fully understanding her role as a captain, leading scorer and teammate, the plan for the next game was in play.

“So for the next game, which was against Minnesota, the game plan was to be a better leader by being positive and supportive, even if I wasn’t having a good game,” Kaila said.

In her next showing, Kaila led her team to a huge win against Minnesota that ended with the junior’s buzzer-beater in a 71-69 win. The Terps went on a 9-0 run in the last 50 seconds of the game, six of which Kaila scored. She ended the game with a then-season-high 29 points, 21 of which came in the second half, eight rebounds and two steals.

“You always want that to play out the way it did for Kaila tonight, the responsibility that she holds and wants, the ownership,” head coach Brenda Frese said after the game.

“To come off of a tough game at Iowa, to flip it that quickly to end the game is why she is such a tremendous winner and competitor and why we trust her so much. Just a night we all won’t forget.”

Always putting things into perspective, Kaila said she holds that Iowa loss very close to her.

“That [Minnesota] performance probably wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have that experience against Iowa, where I realized that I can do more than just score,” Kaila said.

Despite the long list of accomplishments and awards that Kaila once dreamed of while polishing her sister’s medals, the type of person she continues to become is way more important to her.

She watched what it meant to work hard and provide from her parents and still uses that as inspiration on the court. She rarely takes plays off, but if she does, she said Coach Frese does not hesitate to call her out.

“I have tougher skin than others. So I appreciate the criticism because I know I don’t do everything correctly,” Kaila said.

As she enters her senior year, Kaila said she is ready to outdo the success of the previous season. In addition to her goal of leaving a legacy and getting her name hung in the rafters, she’s ready to bring a few more titles to College Park too.

“I know we have the regular season [title], but I need the Big Ten championship,” Kaila said. “And one of my biggest goals that I’m still striving for is the NCAA Final Four at least, and then championship.”

Lauren Moses