Feb. 25, 2010
By Larry Watts
Helen Darling has always been ready to lend an assist, both on and off the basketball court. The only trouble is this former Penn State standout needs more than 24 hours in a day.
Preparing for her ninth season in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), this 31-year-old is also an author, a literacy advocate and runs a web site for her books (www.mydarlingtots.com) while working on her master’s degree in children’s literature at Penn State. She has also dabbled in hair care products and starting a class called “Uniquely Made” for inner-city teenage girls, but both projects have been put on hold. In addition, she happens to be the mother of seven-year-old triplets – sons Je-Juan and Jalen and daughter Nevaeh.
“You have to be organized,’’ says Darling, who currently lives in Memphis, Tenn. “I’m up by 5-5:30 each morning and off to the gym for my workout. I’ll come home, iron the kids’ clothes and make them breakfast and then it’s off to school by 8:30. I’m at work by 9 and then I pick the kids up at 5:30 following their after-school activities. We eat at 6, then there’s homework and a little time to relax before they go to bed at 8:30. Then I have the time to do some work of my own.
“The crock pot has become my best friend. I always fix dinner in the morning.’’
Rating herself as the “worst speller in the world’’, Darling says her interest in writing comes from her enjoyment in reading books ever since she was a youngster.
“I would read anything from children’s books to adult novels,’’ she says. “Andrea Garner, a teammate of mine at Penn State, used to tell me I was always misspelling words because I was pronouncing them wrong. I was spelling them the way I said them. She was always correcting me all through college and still helps me out a lot now. Even today, when my kids want to know how to spell a word, I tell them to go to the dictionary.
“But I am getting better. I know after my first paper is edited, it’s going to be better the second time. And the third paper is going to be better than the second. I always ask why changes were made, so I don’t keep making the same mistakes.’’
An education major at Penn State, the Columbus, Ohio, native helped lead the Nittany Lions to their only Final Four appearance in 2000 and was named the team’s Most Valuable Player three times in her career. The Big Ten’s Player of the Year in 2000, she scored 1,294 points and ranks second in school history in steals (314) and third in assists (791). Her total of 274 assists as a senior is seventh best for the Nittany Lions.
“I thought I wanted to be a track star, but I kept losing and losing,’’ Darling says. “I was looking for something I could be successful in, so Bruce Howard, who is now deceased, had me come out to an open gym and work with his sixth grade team. I started having some success and he made me stick with it.’’
Darling has three older brothers, but they were often reluctant to let her play when they went to play hoops at the park, especially her middle brother Ronald.
“I would just sit on the sidelines dribbling the ball,’’ she says. “I would finally get my chance when there weren’t enough players. I think Ronald got over it once he realized I could play.’’
Toss in a cousin as they got older, the Darlings became a force in local pickup games.
“My brothers wanted me to play with them whenever I came home from college,’’ says the 5-foot-6½ point guard. “My brothers were all big guys, not tall but wide. They would rebound and set screens on the base line, so I could get open. We had a ball.
“But I did get beat up sometimes. There was one game after my freshman year at Penn State where I was coming down the sideline and some dude cut me off, so I put a spin move on him while another guy was coming up for the trap and we hit headfirst. He busted my eye open and blood started gushing out. My brothers wanted to beat him up, but I kept screaming that he didn’t mean to. My brothers could be mean to me, but they were very protective.
“We had to call the ambulance and I got five stitches,’’ she added. “But that’s just the way I played. I always had black eyes at Penn State because I was always getting hit in the face.’’
Although she got a number of letters and phone calls from coaches, the only schools she took interest in were Penn State and Ohio State. And she eventually eliminated Ohio State because it was a little too close to home.
“I really wasn’t into that recruiting process,’’ says Darling, who was a high school All-American at Brookhaven. “I told all the coaches if they were more than seven or eight hours from Columbus, I wasn’t coming. When I chose Penn State, I really took a lot of heat from the Ohio State fans when I came to Columbus. But over all those boos, I could always hear my family screaming and hollering for me.’’
With the graduation of Tina Nicholson, Darling saw a great opportunity to play early at Penn State. The battle for the starting job figured to be between Darling and Chrissy Falcone, a good friend from Independence, Ohio. But Falcone blew out her knee on the first day of practice.
“Fortunately, Tina (Nicholson) had stuck around and I was able to learn a lot from her,’’ she says. “I was a little overweight and that first year was a real experience. I had never worked so hard and I think Andrea (Garner) and I must have threatened to quit every other day, but we kept pushing through it.
“I made mistakes and (head coach) Rene Portland kept a tight rein on me, but she allowed me to grow. I ended up going from the doghouse to the penthouse. By senior year, Andrea and I were running that team as the leaders and we had a great supporting cast. I just wish we could have had one more year together.’’
After losing to Connecticut in the Final Four, Darling was drafted by the Cleveland Rockers in the WNBA. She spent three years in Cleveland, the first working behind former Penn State great Suzie McConnell. She sat out the 2002 season due to pregnancy with the triplets.
Following the 2003 season, the franchise folded and she was picked up by Minnesota in the 2004 dispersal draft. She was reunited in Minnesota with McConnell, who was in her second year as head coach, and also had a chance to play with former two-time All-American and Olympian Teresa Edwards.
“I had the chance to play and learn from some of the best guards in women’s basketball history — Suzie, Teresa and then Dawn Staley (at Charlotte),’’ Darling says.
After only one season with the Lynx, Darling was traded to Charlotte, where she remained for two years until the franchise folded in 2006. She was then picked up by the San Antonio Silver Stars, where she is preparing for her fourth season. In nine seasons, she has scored 1,243 points while dishing out 839 assists and collecting 324 steals.
It was during her time in Minnesota when Darling first started writing. She had already been part of the WNBA’s “Read to Achieve’’ program and had visited several youth groups. She had two novels, one on a man with a split personality and another on basketball, in the works, but she changed directions and put them on hold after her pregnancy.
“Traveling through the WNBA and seeing the illiteracy rate so high, I really saw a need,’’ she says. “These kids were eager to read, but they couldn’t and they didn’t have anyone to read to them. It really touched my heart and I wanted to do something.’’
So Darling took what she knew best, using her own children as models, and began writing children’s books associated with each day of the week. Her first three books were “Hide N Seek Monday,’’ “Yummy Tummy Tuesday’’ and “Free Frog Football Friday.’’ The father in her Friday book is Tot, named after the children’s father and Darling’s boyfriend, Orlando Tot. It was also the start of My Darling-Tots Publications, with Tots standing for both her triplets and Orlando.
“They are assimilation books, based on the way I taught my children the days of the week,’’ she says. “For example, every Monday we would play hide-n-seek as an activity for 20-30 minutes. So I would say, ‘Today we are going to play hide-n-seek, what day of the week is it?’ Each day of the week has its own special activity.’’
She also developed an eight-page coloring book that she would take around to schools and parenting workshops. In simple form, the book stressed five keys to education: coloring, writing, word recognition, picture clues and rhyming words.
Paperless activities with her children have been a great learning tool, according to Darling.
“I carry a big purse and I always have games for my children in it, especially for when we have to wait at a restaurant,’’ she says. “They can be very simple, like using a three-letter word and each child is allowed to change one letter to make a new word. For example, dog can become dot, then lot, then lit and so forth. It’s very simple, but the children can be working on concentration, spelling and word recognition.’’
Darling had planned on more books centered around her children and their activities as they proceeded through junior high and high school, but she has since changed her mind.
“I enjoy doing children’s books so much,’’ she says. “I’m currently doing a research course and picture book course online through Penn State and I have learned so much about picture book meaning. Picture books and fairy tales really tickle my stomach, so I want to see what I can do with that.’’
Darling was a national spokesperson for the March of Dimes after the premature birth of her children and worked with the Chicago chapter of Project Jumpstart. She is currently doing an internship with BPC Assessments in Memphis, where she runs a program for illiteracy for kindergarten through second grade at a local church.
“It’s tough because these kids don’t have a lot of support at home,’’ she says. “Many of them don’t know my name; they just call me ‘Miss Lady.’ All I want is to be a positive influence on them.’’
Her internship also includes working with Friends for Life, a program for adults trying to achieve their GED who have been infected or affected by the HIV virus.
“I never thought I would work with adults,’’ she says. “But what I have found so gratifying is these people may have a terminal illness, yet they are still trying to better themselves. They have been through so much, but they keep showing up once a week. We hug them, encourage them and treat them like gold.’’
At some point, she would like to return to building Uniquely Made into a reality.
“When I first started it, I was young and wanted to change the world,’’ she says. “I had all these ideas, but I didn’t have the financial backing or manpower.
“I just think something needs to be done to help young girls understand we are all unique and God made us that way for a reason. I want to get them comfortable with their body and help them stay away from peer pressure. I would love to make it a class, where they could graduate after one year. We could teach them about hair, fashion, finances and etiquette — the things they need in order to achieve.’’
With three children at home, Darling admits it gets harder and harder each year to return to the WNBA. She has one year remaining on her contract with San Antonio, where she leads the team’s “Read to Achieve’’ program and has also worked with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“Orlando has been really great with the kids; he’s an awesome man,’’ she says. “He had them cleaning up after themselves by the time they were two-years-old and he also potty-trained them. He is very patient and has really eliminated a lot of my duties.
“But I am starting to get burned out (from basketball). We’ll just have to see what happens at the end of my contract.’’
But before she does retire, she does have one wish.
“My goal coming into the WNBA was to make the All-Defensive Team and I don’t know why that hasn’t happened,’’ says Darling, who has appeared in 28 playoff games. “I’ve never been a big scorer, even in high school, but I do take pride in my defense. I complain about it (the selections) every year, but they seem to keep picking people because they are all-stars and that’s not fair. To make the All-Defensive Team would be a great way to go out.’’
Through her fight against illiteracy, some would say Darling has already made her mark in the WNBA.