Tina Charles folds her long legs into a chair at a Chipotle in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y., and hums as she takes a quick look at her phone. Two people in line to order look over at the New York Liberty centre, and their eyes stay on Charles for a few beats. Her jacked arms are visible in a blue Nike t-shirt, and even in a chair her upper body provides plenty of evidence of her six-foot-four frame. Sometimes, Charles gets recognized. More often, she’s the subject of wondering stares.
The restaurant she’s at is just down the street from where the Liberty practised this morning. It’s also just blocks away from a few of the outdoor courts where she started to hone her craft as a kid. “I grew up playing on all these street corners,” says Charles, who was raised in Jamaica, Queens, about a 40-minute drive away in New York traffic, which is buzzing outside on this Friday afternoon. Tillary Park is nearby, and Charles starred in more than a few high-school tournaments there. “New York is home,” she says with a grin.
Charles not only grew up here, she grew up winning here — at one point, her high school team posted 67 straight victories. Lately, though, wins at home have been a heck of a lot harder to come by. The Liberty, led by a pair of all-stars in Charles and Kia Nurse, went 1–10 in August and finished out of the playoff picture. Six years into her tenure with the Liberty and having finished second-last in back-to-back seasons, the 30-year-old faces the biggest challenge of her career: Getting back to her winning ways and leading New York to a first-ever WNBA title. It’s the one thing missing on Charles’s already busy mantle — she has won everything else. The same is true of her city. And she’s determined to fill the void.
One of the best players on the planet, Charles could leave the Liberty for a better shot at a championship elsewhere, but don’t count on it. Ask her what it means to play at home and her answer comes quick: “It means everything.”
Charles was 12 years old when the letter came in the mail, the first of many. Though her college days were still five years away, Stony Brook University, some 60 miles east of New York, had already decided it wanted the Grade 7 student to one day attend and play for its basketball team. “My mother and I didn’t understand,” Charles says. They’d never seen a recruitment letter before. Angella Murry and her daughter knew it was special, though, so they framed it.
Despite the early attention for her skill on the court, Charles swears the sport didn’t come easy. She also played softball and tennis and soccer as a kid, and basketball wasn’t the early natural choice when she joined her first team in Grade 1. “I never said on record that I was good at basketball when I started, and I never will,” she argues, straight-faced. Her black hair is tied back, and she’s swapped her sneakers for Birkenstocks. “I had to spend hours in the gym to work on my craft, to work on my game. It didn’t come naturally to me.” Charles swears that, back in the day in neighbourhoods like this one, she often wouldn’t get chosen in pickup games, “waiting for hours to play on a team.”
By the time she was at Christ the King High School, all that hard work had paid off. Though she’d received that recruitment letter at 12, it wasn’t until two years later that Charles began thinking of her future in the sport, when she was named MVP of a tournament for the first time. “My confidence went through the roof,” she says. She had already seen the Liberty play live at Madison Square Garden, and her focus was on one day doing the same.
In her last two years of high school, Charles led the Royals to back-to-back state championships. As a senior, she averaged 26.5 points and 14.8 rebounds a game, and her team went undefeated. She explains her role was “just to be a dominant force on both ends of the court.”
Named Miss New York Basketball — the best player in the state — after her senior year, Charles was recruited by the top collegiate program on the planet, the University of Connecticut. “I was recognized, but I didn’t let that get to me,” she says, pointing out that her mother raised her to be a humble woman. “I just continued to work hard, because that’s what it took for me to get to that position.”
Her work ethic only intensified with the Huskies, where winning was the expectation and victories again came in outrageous bunches. Connecticut won 78 straight games during Charles’s last two years of college, though she swears playing at UConn wasn’t all fun and easy. “It was extremely hard,” she says. “Everyone watching UConn, they just see blowout games by 20 or 30 points, but you don’t really get to see what goes into it, that our practices are harder than the games, how consistent coach [Geno] Auriemma is chasing perfection in order to try to catch excellence.”
Her sophomore year, in 2008, the Huskies lost in the national semi-final, and Auriemma challenged Charles to become the team’s dominant post player the following season. “That changed everything for me,” she says. “How I went into my weight room sessions, how I was watching film, how many times I would be on the court before practice or early in the morning. I just did everything so I wouldn’t be the person that wouldn’t allow us to win championships.”
The following season, the Huskies won their first national title since 2004 — yes, a five-year wait is long for the powerhouse. “It was an unreal feeling,” Charles says. “For us to be the first team to bring it back that 2009 season, it was pretty sweet.” UConn won again the following year, and Charles set single-season school records for scoring and rebounds. The latter record still stands. It was Charles who presented a jersey to President Barack Obama on her second trip to the White House with the team, and she nonchalantly explains that she wasn’t nervous because she’d paid Obama a visit the year before. “It was pretty expected for us to win going into that senior year,” she says.
The No. 1 pick in the 2010 WNBA draft, Charles was selected into a seemingly perfect situation, playing for the Connecticut Sun in her adopted city. The storybook situation continued when she was named WNBA Rookie of the Year and set league records in rebounds and double-doubles. In just her third season, Charles was named WNBA MVP. She won her first of two Olympic gold medals that same summer.
But after a four-year rookie contract, Charles could exercise her right to leave Connecticut, and she did. While she was a cored player — meaning the Sun had exclusive negotiating rights — Charles asked for a trade, with her sights set on one team. The Liberty came up with a big offer, including two first-round picks, to land the star centre.
“I just wanted to go home,” Charles says. “It was always a dream for me to have New York on my chest and try to be the one to bring this organization its first championship.”
Six years later, and No. 31 is still working on it.
It’s August, the Liberty are not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and an off-day practice just ended. Stuart Pradia is sitting on a courtside bench, still breathing heavy. Of the practice squad players on the Liberty’s staff — all of whom are former NCAA men’s players — Pradia has the least enviable task. From his first day with the Liberty, the Brandeis University grad has been matching up against Charles. “These guys never help,” he says, gesturing at his practice squad teammates with a smile and a shrug. There’s been no offer to double-team the Liberty big. “They just leave me,” he says. “I do my best.”
When Pradia considers how an opponent could hope to contain Charles around the bucket, he shakes his head. “She’s just got moves — over either shoulder, fakes — she can shoot, she’s strong,” he says, before honing in on a possible strategy: “You try not to let her catch it, and hope she doesn’t feel like scoring that day.” The perfect plan.
Liberty head coach and Hall of Famer Katie Smith can confirm that. She was an assistant coach when New York signed Charles, and knew exactly what the team was getting, having guarded Charles a few times during her own WNBA career. “Her moves finishing with both hands, it was tough. She demands a double team, that’s pretty much what it is,” Smith says. “One-on-one, it’s really hard to contain her because she does have the skill set, the quickness, the length, all that, to be able to score in a variety of ways.”
That’s among the reasons the Liberty lean heavily on Charles: She averages a team-leading 31.5 minutes per game and she’s vital at both ends of the court. “She’s the backbone of what we’ve done and who we are as a team,” Smith says.
If you ask Nurse, there is nobody in the WNBA who’s better around the basket than her teammate. “She has by far the best skill set and move package of anybody in the league — that offensive arsenal,” says the Hamilton, Ont.-born guard. “Pretty much every time she’s on [the court], she’s getting a good shot off and there’s probably a bucket. She’s really fun to play with.”
Getting others to talk about Charles’s on-court dominance is essential, because she’s not doing it herself. Though she’s flattered by Nurse’s thoughts on her offensive skill, her initial assessment of the assessment is a simple “nah.” Charles, the Liberty’s all-time leading scorer, who recorded nearly 18 points and eight rebounds per game this year on the second-worst team in the league, says she’s a “work in progress” who needs to improve “all aspects” of her game. Fine.
What Charles is much happier discussing is her work off the court, the causes she believes in. She’s been vocal in speaking out in the name of social justice and against gun violence, and since 2013, Charles has been donating her WNBA salary to a not-for-profit called Hopey’s Heart Foundation, which she founded to raise awareness for sudden cardiac arrest in memory of her late aunt, Maureen Vaz. The foundation has donated more than 400 Automated External Defibrillators to date, and two years ago, she met a man whose life was saved by one of the devices Hopey’s provided. “It was a great feeling to just see the fruits of our labour,” she says.
Like most other WNBA players, Charles suits up overseas in the WNBA off-season, and as if playing on two pro basketball teams and running her foundation wasn’t enough, she also directed and produced a documentary that debuted earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. Charlie’s Records is about her father, Rawlston Charles, who helped popularize calypso and soca music in New York in the ’60s after immigrating from Tobago, and the film looks at his time working in his Brooklyn studio with artists like Run DMC and Slick Rick. When it debuted earlier this year, it rendered her father speechless — a rarity for the man you’ll see at every Liberty home game.
Nurse loved the film, and she’ll tell you Charles has “the best time-management skills ever,” considering all her projects outside of basketball. But to Charles, it’s vital work. “I don’t want to be known for just putting the ball in the basket,” she explains. “To me, at the end of the day, that’s what I’m doing in my job. I just want to be known for how I made those around me feel. How I was able to bring them up. That’s just really important to me.”
And it’s also why, when it comes to putting the ball in the basket, her biggest goal is to deliver a title to the people in her home city. The motivation has nothing to do with her own fame. “My goal isn’t going out here to be the face of the league,” Charles says. “What drives me is to win a championship. That’s what has me in the gym on off-days, that’s what has me in the gym in the off-season. That’s what drives me to play overseas when I don’t want to. Because I want to get better and the team gets better when individuals get better.”
Overseas play also comes with a lot more money, upwards of eight times what women make in the WNBA. Charles has played her WNBA off-seasons in Russia, Istanbul, Poland and the last three in China, though her Mandarin is still limited to one word. (It’s “hi”, and, Charles says “that’s all I got.”) She gets by with the help of a translator.
Charles hasn’t announced yet where she’ll head this off-season, but she’s enjoyed her time playing in China since the pay is good and the season runs a little shorter than in other countries, meaning she can have a month off before things kick back into gear in New York.
In an ideal world, Charles would be playing into October with the Liberty, though that hasn’t happened often in her five years with the team. Her best season here came in 2015, when the Liberty finished atop the conference, but lost in the Eastern finals to Indiana. “We talk about it all the time. That was just a great team, we had a great coach in Bill Laimbeer,” Charles says. “I wish we could’ve gotten it done, but things happen.
“I think about it all the time,” she adds. “Just wanting to get back, at least having a taste of what that experience is, getting to the semifinals.”
Charles hasn’t had even a sniff the past couple of seasons. “It’s been tough,” she admits. “There’s been great years, but there’s been tough years … I still just hold that dream dear to my heart and keep that my motivating factor every day that I wake up to go to practice.”
It isn’t lost on anyone in the Liberty organization how special it would be for Charles to lead the city to its long-awaited first title. Smith compares Charles in New York to Lebron James going home to win in Cleveland. “It would be like a fairy tale for someone like Tina,” the coach says. “It’s just a different connection. It’s the history and bond she has with the city.”
About 40 minutes away from where she grew up, Charles sits beside a very cold vegetarian taco. She has decided to take it to-go. The woman who has accomplished nearly everything in her sport has just one more hope for her future in basketball, and she’s optimistic that it can happen right here at home.
“A WNBA championship,” Charles says, with a nod. “That’s all.”
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