(The Washington Post) – Ruperta Charles knows what it’s like to be away from home for long periods of time, missing family milestones and home-cooked meals. So every year, when the Fourth of July rolls around and the members of the Maryland women’s basketball team are still on campus and yearning — either for good food or family or anything that’s not the inside of their apartments in College Park — it’s guard Kaila Charles’s mother who feeds them.
For a Sunday gathering, the cooking begins Friday. In the Charles household in Glenn Dale, there is no catering allowed.
Ruperta whips up the same food she cooks for her own family, the food she ate growing up in Antigua and Barbuda: barbecued chicken, curried goat with roti, macaroni and cheese, rice and peas, oxtail, and casserole, to name a few dishes. Kaila’s teammates leave with full bellies and paper plates stacked with food.
“Well, you see, I thought since Kaila is local, she’s home, that’s the perfect opportunity to have the girls over,” Ruperta said, laughing. “One girl, Stephanie [Jones], is [also] from Maryland, but everybody else is so far away from home. My idea behind that is giving them the opportunity to get a little home feel.”
Ruperta knows all the good a little taste of home can do for a college athlete — not just because she has raised three of them, but because she was one herself. A former sprinter, Ruperta is a two-time inductee to Howard’s Hall of Fame. She competed in the 1984 Olympics, where she and her 4×400-meter relay teammates finished eighth.
Now she serves as a de facto team mom for the seventh-ranked Terrapins and as a mentor for her youngest child, Kaila, one of four seniors along with Jones, Blair Watson and Sara Vujacic who will be honored in Tuesday’s senior night ceremony before Maryland (23-4, 14-2 Big Ten) faces Purdue (17-11, 8-8).
It will be Kaila’s final regular season game at Xfinity Center, her final go-round as Maryland’s longtime centerpiece. The 6-foot-1 guard leads the Terps at 15.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per game as they speed toward the postseason as the top-ranked team in their conference.
Kaila has shined for the Terps for the better part of four years with her scoring talent, ballhandling and all-around game. But it’s her outstanding quickness — her ability to lead Maryland full-throttle in its transition offense or change speeds while driving for a layup — that perhaps dazzles most.
That’s all Ruperta.
“I brag about her. She’s the original GOAT,” Kaila said, using the acronym for greatest of all time. “Just seeing how hard she’s worked, what she’s accomplished, I’m so proud of my mom and I’m so glad she’s mine.”
Ruperta started running at 13, streaking through the grass and dirt tracks on her tiny home island at a time when it was far from the norm for girls to dedicate themselves to sports. A talented netball player before she caught the eye of regional track coaches, Ruperta was only allowed by her parents to train and travel full time when they understood a college scholarship could be at stake.
She ran well enough at the bigger track meets held among different Caribbean states that scholarship offers from Tennessee, Arizona and Howard rolled in. Ruperta chose Howard because it was the closest to home, but even then, when she arrived in Washington at 17, the only people she knew were a few Bison track teammates she had met through competitions.
“It was hard. I was away from home,” Ruperta said. “I also got here in the summer and everything was green, so it wasn’t so different, but winter — something that shocked me was how life just went on when it was snowing, when it was raining. Nothing stopped.”
Dealing with the difficulties of being away from her family for an extended period for the first time, Ruperta took solace in her sport. She ran the 200 meters in 24.09 seconds to set a Howard record in 1983 that stood until 2018. She competed in the 1983 World Games in Finland and in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics before marrying Walter Charles, a fellow Howard student who himself was an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago.
When her four children were young, Ruperta purposefully kept them from track until high school in an effort to give Darron, Afia, Akil and Kaila something she didn’t have in her youth: weekends off and summer vacation. As a result, the Charles siblings drifted among activities until they found a sport they loved. The talent, of course, came naturally — Afia eventually decided in high school to run track for Central Florida, Akil played college basketball in Canada, and for Kaila, basketball won out over dance and volleyball.
“I tried not to really push them, but they just had a natural ability and they just developed a love. That made it easier,” Ruperta said. “My husband, he played soccer, too [growing up]. He likes to think that mentally, the mental toughness came from him. But I say, ‘Okay, if you want to claim something, that’s fine.’ But of course, everybody knows where it really came from.”
Kaila may not run track like her mother and sister, but Ruperta’s experience as a college athlete shaped her own. She originally wanted to go farther from home for school — she initially loved Duke — but at the last minute she decided to stay close by.
In College Park, Kaila is far enough from home that she has space when she wants it and close enough that she can drive home and have sleepovers with her grandmother on a whim, as she did the weekend before senior night. She has watched her three nieces grow up and was nearby when her first nephew was born last week.
“I know next year I might be in a whole different state, a whole different country,” Kaila said. “So I’m just trying to cherish every little moment that I can get because things aren’t going to be like this ever again. I’m so glad I can play for my hometown.”
As for Ruperta, watching Kaila succeed in college has been like watching a dream come true a second time. She fears she and her husband will have withdrawal once Kaila graduates — but she has decided that for any Terrapins player who might be craving a home-cooked meal, her kitchen will remain open.
“I think we’ll keep cooking,” Ruperta said, “for anyone who asks.”