ASU women's basketball coach has lasting impact over 22-year tenure

Charli Turner Thorne has a special place in Sun Devil hearts

Charli Turner Thorne has been at the helm of the ASU women's basketball program for 22 years, during which time she has not only cultivated a top-tier program, but also impacted the lives of those around her. 

For redshirt junior forward Courtney Ekmark, Turner Thorne is a fearless leader who will put in more than her fair share of work in order for the team to succeed. 

Associate coach Jackie Moore said she’s a teacher who has given thousands of lessons and laughs throughout her years at ASU.

Former player turned assistant coach Briann January said Turner Thorne is a mentor who guided her through one of the most difficult times of her life and still stands by her to this day.

And for longtime season ticket holder Patricia Berning, Turner Thorne is the staple of ASU basketball and a pioneer not only for women’s basketball, but for all women’s sports.

The Leader

The first time that Ekmark met the face of ASU women’s basketball, she was 10 years old and attending the Charli Turner Thorne Basketball Camp.

Back then, Ekmark was just hoping to play middle school basketball. She remembers coming to watch the Sun Devils practice and thinking to herself how difficult the drills were on the players.

To complete the experience, Ekmark even snagged a quick picture with Turner Thorne before the camp ended. 

Ekmark kept that picture throughout middle school, high school, the recruiting process and even through her commitment to UConn for basketball.

Last year, when Ekmark transferred to ASU and began practicing with the team again, she dug up that old photo and brought it to practice to share with her coach.

“We were just laughing because we both look quite different,” Ekmark said. “(Turner Thorne) said, ‘Well you’ve grown quite a bit,' because I was tiny.”

Back then, the six-foot forward barely made it up to Turner Thorne’s shoulder and was holding a basketball which was roughly the same size as her head.

Now, Ekmark grinds out the workouts she watched as a kid and has gone from being in awe of Turner Thorne to being inspired by her.

“She is very dedicated to her job and she watches so much film,” Ekmark said. “She just is always so prepared for every game.”

Ekmark said that she and her teammates are motivated by their coach because they see the amount of care and effort Turner Thorne puts into her job, whether the team is in season or not.

“When you see your coach prepare that much, you will do anything for her,” Ekmark said. “Having that relationship, you’d run through a wall for her.”

The Teacher

Associate coach Jackie Moore joined the Sun Devils staff in 2012 after building up more than 20 years of experience as an assistant with various other programs. 

Through her almost six years with ASU, Moore said she has learned a lot from Turner Thorne, but the biggest lesson has been why Sun Devil women’s basketball is so successful.

“She’s always prepared, she (shows up) early,” Moore said. “She’s got good energy every day that our players and staff feed off.” 

The team’s strong and consistent culture has allowed Turner Thorne to thrive during her tenure at ASU, but Moore noticed that the head coach doesn’t expect the players to do anything she wouldn’t do. 

For Moore, it’s not just what Turner Thorne does when leading, it's the way she allows her team to run even when it’s time to be serious.

“She is always telling us ‘don’t be afraid to laugh’ if something is funny, don’t be afraid to laugh, but then we have to move on and re-focus,” Moore said.

This balance between humor and focus is best exemplified in the pre-game huddle, where Turner Thorne will gather the team around her and tell them a funny story before tipoff. The story is meant to loosen up the players and remind them to have fun.

The Mentor

ASU was always a top-five school for assistant coach and former player Briann January during her college basketball search; she knew how talented the players were and how successful the program was.

But the main reason she was looking at ASU was because she knew Turner Thorne was a good coach. What January didn’t know was how committed Turner Thorne was to her job.

“I love the game of basketball,” January said. “We talked on the phone. I could hear her passion for what she did, and from that day on, I was in.”

When she finally made the call to Turner Thorne, January felt as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders, and she immediately knew it was the right call to commit to ASU.

January had a legendary playing career with the Sun Devils, highlighted by 104 career wins, two Pac-10 defensive player of the year awards and more recently being named to the Pac-12 women’s basketball all-century team.

However, the defining moment of her career came after her sophomore or junior year, when Turner Thorne sat her down and asked if she wanted to play at the next level.

After giving the question some thought, January told Turner Thorne that she wanted to play professionally if the opportunity arose. Once January said that, everything was different.

“The way she coached me changed,” January said. “We knew what we were training for, we made it happen, and she had a huge part in that.”

Since that talk in college, January moved to the pros and is still in the WNBA today. She's built up a resume highlighted by a WNBA championship, an all-star appearance and multiple All-Defensive team honors. 

January said that through the years, she and Turner Thorne have had some tough conversations, but she has always appreciated her former coach’s honestly.

The Pioneer

Patricia Berning never considered herself an ASU athletics fan. She was a Phoenix Mercury season ticket holder and decided to expand her knowledge of women’s sports by purchasing ASU women’s basketball season tickets.

This was back in 1996, when Turner Thorne first took over the Sun Devils, and Berning has since seen the coach’s unique leadership transform the program into one of the most successful at ASU.

Berning didn't know Turner Thorne when she first bought the tickets, but she has since developed a close relationship with the coach. 

Berning doesn’t know ASU women’s basketball without Turner Thorne sitting courtside, and she prefers it that way. 

“We (Berning and her spouse) have continued to be season ticket holders, because (Turner Thorne) is such a great coach,” Berning said. “She really appreciates the fan base and the community.”

Not only is Turner Thorne a crucial part of the ASU sports scene, but Berning sees her as a key figure in the sports world.

“Her program helps to elevate women’s sports,” Berning said.

The Caretaker 

Turner Thorne’s greatest skill is something that has almost nothing to do with basketball, it's her ability to care about people.

Moore said the head coach does a great job of staying in touch with people, whether they are former players, coaches or even the spouses and children of people who were involved with Sun Devil basketball.

“She’ll text me on my birthday,” Berning said. “She really goes out of her way to make us feel like we are a part of the Sun Devil family.”


Reach the reporter at Joshua.Zaklis@asu.edu and follow @JoshZaklis on Twitter.

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