June 13, 2006

Teresa Pina Follows Her Dream to Stanford

By Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe Staff June 11, 2006

It happened one day last summer, when she was goofing off, which is funny, because if there's one thing that Teresa Pina rarely does it's goof off.

She was sitting in the Teen Center at the Colonel Daniel Marr Boys and Girls Club in Dorchester, surfing the Web on the club's computer because back home, in the second-floor apartment in a Meetinghouse Hill tenement, there isn't one. She plugged the word “Stanford” into the Google search engine, clicked on a link, and something big and bold and crimson exploded on the screen.

She read a little bit and began nodding.

Some people said she had talent, in the classroom and on the basketball court. She was the star point guard at Charlestown High School, one of the best schoolgirl players in the city. She was also a straight-A student. Some people were saying she could get a scholarship to a good state school, and maybe even a smaller private school. But, as usual, she had her own ideas.

As she sat there, clicking on link after link, the shrieks from children in the gym cascading down the hall, Pina says she made a promise to herself: She would try to get into this place they call the Harvard of the West Coast.

“If you don't have dreams,” she says, betraying just the hint of a smile on a face that is invariably serious, “you don't have anything.”

For kids like Teresa Pina, growing up in one of the toughest sections of Boston, the dream is often a hoop dream, that prowess on the basketball court will lift them beyond the ambition-snuffing swirl of hard-luck neighborhoods and homes. Some kids, fantastically, dream of riches waiting for them in the pro game.

But for Pina, basketball was always just a vehicle to get her someplace else. Even at 13, when she got serious about her game, learning to dribble with both hands, Pina seemed as aware of her limitations as her potential. She assessed her future with a cool detachment.

“I knew I was good, and that I could get better, and I was prepared to do all the work that was necessary to get better, but I also knew that basketball was just a means to an end,” she says, sitting on a sofa that her parents, like many who struggle to make ends meet, have wrapped in protective plastic covering. “My goal, going back to about eighth grade, was to get a college education . . . at the best possible school I could get into. And if basketball helped me do that, so be it.”

Ernesto and Celeste Pina grew up together on an island in Cape Verde called Fogo , which means “fire” in Portuguese. Unlike the volcano that dominates their island home, their romance didn't erupt as much as it evolved.

Like others seeking a better life beyond Cape Verde, Ernesto came to Boston in 1975 and got a job at a candy factory. He met women here, but he preferred the kind of girls he knew back home, steeped in the island's old-fashioned ways. He began an air-mail courtship of Celeste. After five years, she joined him in Boston and they married in 1981. While they hailed from big families -- Celeste had eight siblings, Ernesto 12 -- they built their own with fastidious discipline. Celeste gave birth to four children, at two-year intervals: Elisa, Emmanuel, Ernesto Jr., and on Feb. 19, 1988, Teresa.

Teresa was the baby but, as her father recalls, “she was always the boss.”

Like many Cape Verdean immigrants, Ernesto and Celeste Pina were conservative when it came to what they let their sons and daughters do. When 12-year-old Elisa came to them saying she wanted to play basketball at the Marr club, they said no. Elisa would wear a dress and patent leather shoes, her parents insisted, not gym shorts and sneakers.

But six years later, when Teresa came to them saying she wanted to go swimming at the Marr, they had a change of heart.

What changed?

“I don't know,” Ernesto says. “With Teresa, we just said yes.” .

“She's too smart,” Celeste Pina added, glancing at her youngest child, next to her on the sofa. “She can do anything.” .

Still, when Teresa, a short and wiry eighth-grader, first appeared at the Marr, she was painfully shy. Bruce Seals, the club's athletic director, took a shine to her. Seals, a tall, laidback native of New Orleans, whose Big Easy demeanor belies his past as a ferocious rebounder for the Seattle Supersonics, was determined to bring her out of her shell. When she asked to play on one of the club's basketball teams, Seals said no.

“I shouldn't let you play when you can't even say hello to me,” he remembers telling her.

Seals relented and let her play, but his admonition had its effect.

“I realized, right then,” Teresa says, “that it wasn't about me challenging Bruce's authority, but about understanding that he was a role model, and letting him into my life.”

The Marr, an oasis for youngsters tucked off Dorchester Avenue between Savin and Jones hills, was more than a place to polish her basketball skills. Lindsey Charon, the club's education director, encouraged Teresa to take college-preparatory classes. She also instilled in Teresa an interest in psychology.

“I got thinking about assessing my own environment and the formative influences that played a role in my life and comparing it to my peers,” Teresa says.

From the Pina’s three-decker on Fifield Street, you can walk in any direction and score drugs or guns or whatever you want in less than five minutes. Teresa chose to walk past all that, to the Marr.

Since fourth grade, she had been taking advanced-placement classes, and would have seemed a logical candidate for Latin School, the most prestigious and academically challenging of Boston's public schools. But she didn't take the tests for the exam schools in sixth grade. Her parents didn't push her, and, as she put it, “I was having too much fun to care.”

In eighth grade, she said, she took the exams and finished 11th out of the 1,460 applicants for Latin, and eighth out of 1,385 for Latin Academy, where her brother Ernesto was excelling. But, for reasons she still can't quite explain, she missed the deadline to formally apply for admission.

“Maybe it was too easy to forget,” she says, shrugging. “I was really shy. I was worried about leaving my friends. But most of it was probably basketball. When I was in eighth grade, the Charlestown High School girls were city champions. I wanted to go there.”

Charlestown Coach Rayetta Perkins-Jones surprised some by starting Pina, a spindly freshman, at point guard. She liked Pina's toughness. Hugh Coleman, a former Charlestown High star who won a scholarship to Bowdoin College in 1997 and is now an assistant on the boys' team, began working with Pina during the off-season. Coleman pushed her to improve her ballhandling and jump shot. She learned to drive the lane fearlessly and perfected no-look passes, looking one way to confuse defenders before sliding silky bounce passes to streaking teammates.

“I like to score,” she says, smiling, “but I love to pass.”

By her junior year, Pina had established herself as one of the best schoolgirl players in the city. She started getting letters from colleges, most of them small, Division 3 schools. As good as she was, at 5 feet 4 inches, 120 pounds, her relatively small size put off most Division 1 basketball programs.

Her brother Ernesto had gotten a scholarship to Hamilton College, a small school in upstate New York, but he had lasted only a semester. Her sister had gone to community college. Her other brother had earned his GED in jail. Aiming higher, Teresa Pina applied to Harvard, Duke, Stanford, Lafayette, Fordham, and Boston University.

She got the Harvard rejection first, by e-mail. When the formal rejection letter arrived a few days later, she didn't open it.

“I knew what it said,” she says. “What's the point?”

She tucked the unopened letter in the corner of her bedroom mirror. So now she looks past it to see herself.

Kristyn Hughes , Pina's guidance counselor at Charlestown High, who had written a glowing recommendation, called the admissions office for an explanation. She said she was told that the rejection was based on a single grade, which pushed Pina from a select group of straight-A applicants.

“She got one C. The rest of her marks were A's,” Hughes said, standing in the high school cafeteria. “This is a girl who has overcome more than most Harvard students could imagine. She travels an hour every morning just to get here. . . . She has studied hard and persevered in an environment where there aren't a lot of role models for her, where it would have been easy for her to take the easy way.”

Hughes, 26, grew up in Woburn and studied finance at Boston College. She regards Pina with awe. “Teresa has more character than any student I've met,” she says. “There's something driving Teresa.” In April, Hughes sat down at her desk and found a short, handwritten note on lined paper. It was from Pina. All it said was, “I got into Stanford.”

Coach Perkins-Jones has worked at Charlestown High for 23 years. She spent hours combing through records before reaching the unscientific but probably accurate conclusion, seconded by headmaster Michael Fung, that Teresa Pina is the first graduate of Charlestown High School to be accepted at Stanford University.

“That girl,” says Perkins-Jones, “is going places.”

Pina also was accepted at Duke, which, like Stanford, plays at the highest level of women's collegiate basketball and was also interested only in Teresa Pina the student, not Teresa Pina the point guard. Stanford offered to fly her out to San Francisco so she could check out the campus in Palo Alto. It was bigger and more beautiful than she had imagined. She went to the palatial but empty gym and shot a few hoops. She came to believe her future lies some 3,130 miles from the streets where she grew up, even though she would not play basketball there.

She flew back to Boston, and took the T home from the airport.

Mike Joyce , the Marr vice president of programming, and the Marr president, Bob Scannell , were thrilled when Pina told them she had narrowed her choice to Duke or Stanford. She told them Stanford was her first choice, but that even with the generous financial aid package the university offered, she had to come up with $5,000, a sum well beyond her family's reach.

Joyce, who like others at the Marr had worked hard to get Ernesto a shot at college, was heartsick. Scannell picked up the phone and called Carol Fulp , who is one of the most senior women, and African-Americans, at John Hancock Financial Services. Fulp listened to Scannell's pitch before asking just one question.

“When,” she said, “can I get the check to you?”

Six weeks ago, Teresa Pina gave the keynote address at the New England Women's Leadership Awards at the World Trade Center. She walked on stage, a little wobbly, her feet more accustomed to sneakers than high heels. She spoke about how much she grew up at the Marr, how people there believed in her and gave her the confidence to believe in herself. She singled out Lindsey Charon and Bruce Seals, whose wife, Shirley, had died of cancer eight months before. Big Bruce beamed.

“Today,” she told a crowd of 800, “I am apprehensive and excited about the next step I am going to take in my life. . . . Although I will be sad to leave the club, I know that I am prepared to continue my journey and I will never forget what brought me here.”

As applause washed over her, Pina walked across the stage, on the way back to her table, but Scannell called her back. He handed her a check for $5,000.

“Guess what?” she whispered conspiratorily, after taking her seat, picking up a salad fork. “I'm going to Stanford.”

On Tuesday, Pina will graduate from Charlestown High, ranked third in a class of 151. Not long ago, she sat in her family's home talking about her impending graduation, a class trip to Europe, her prom, and her plans to major in psychology at Stanford. She made some small talk, complaining about the weather, then, sheepishly, offered a confession: For all that talk of basketball being just a means to an end, she said she is going to try to make the Stanford women's basketball team, as a nonscholarship walk-on.

Turns out the girl from the three-decker on Fifield Street has still got game. “Hey, why not?” Pina says, this time the smile wide. “You gotta dream.”

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