If any WNBA player embodies the adage, “speak softly, carry big stick,” it is Tina Charles.
The veteran center held the New York Liberty down throughout the summer, averaging a team-high 19.7 points and seven rebounds per game. Now at the FIBA World Cup in Tenerife, Spain, Charles has put up an average 13.3 points in each of Team USA’s four winning routs so far, behind only teammates Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson on a star-studded roster.
When Charles has spoken the last few weeks during her time with the National Team, it has usually been to praise her teammates. But head coach Dawn Staley said Charles deserves a lot of credit as one of only two veteran players present during camp, which was in session alongside the WNBA playoffs, and as the only one with Olympic experience.
“She’s a two-time Olympian, and her leadership when the other Olympians weren’t here yet was invaluable,” Staley said. “She lead by example. And then when we scrimmaged against Australia, she turned up her play even more, knowing we were going to need her to lock in on both sides of the ball. It just shows who she is, that there’s always another level to Tina Charles.”
New York native Charles, who will turn 30 in December, helped Connecticut win two National Championships before being drafted No. 1 in 2010 by the Connecticut Sun, and then was named WNBA MVP two years later. Charles has been a league-wide stats leader and an All-Star each season. But for all of her accolades, she flies below the radar. That includes her off-court work with Hopey’s Heart Foundation.
Charles formed the non-profit organization in 2013, after her aunt died of heart failure. One of the missions of the foundation is to install automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in underprivileged communities and recreation centers across the country, to ensure that lives can be saved in the event of a cardiac emergency.
Charles also worked to establish a school in Mali, while also creating a four-year scholarship for women and girls to pursue secondary-school education. She has donated her entire WNBA salary to the foundation since she launched it – an overture that has won her awards from the league. It also won her the Mannie Jackson Award from the 2018 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month, given to an athlete who has “found the game of basketball to be a contributing aspect of their personal growth and accomplishment.”
Unsurprisingly, however, Charles downplays the success of the foundation and her awards, saying the work is a fulfillment of service to others.
“It doesn’t matter if we play basketball or not, to me we’re just humans, we still have a heart,” she said. “We do something because we love it, or because we’re great at it, but at the end of the day, we do have a bigger platform than the average person.”
But Charles’ contributions aren’t lost on Liberty coach Katie Smith.
“Tina has a passion for helping others and we see that on the court. Basketball has given her a platform and a means to impact people’s lives and she’s been able to pay it forward through her foundation Hopey’s Heart,” Smith said. “But basketball is just part of who Tina is. Thinking of others and ways to help others speaks to her true character.”
On the court, USA teammates Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are the senior members of the squad, but that doesn’t mean Charles isn’t old enough to be teased by the rest of the young roster.
“When you’re a young player, you’re not called grandma,” she said. “That’s what they [teammates] call me right now.”
Charles said she is trying to carry on the legacy of those who have mentored her, including Tamika Catchings.
“How you approach every game, how you’re there for one another, especially on the bench, and just how you’re willing to be receptive to what the coaching staff needs from you are just things that I’m passing forward from what Tamika Catchings, Diana, and Sue did with me,” Charles said.
As Charles spends time with Team USA, she is in the midst of an important offseason with the Liberty, which finished a franchise-worst eleventh place this year. She will be a free agent next year, but said she desires to return to New York.
“Obviously I know what my situation is, I know that I’m open, but that my heart is in New York,” Charles said. “I’m always gearing to win a championship, and (to) bring a championship home to New York, but I’m not naive to what my situation is.”
For now, however, Charles is focused on helping guide the National Team to another gold medal, and she will likely execute quietly but deadly, just as she likes it.
The U.S. plays Nigeria tomorrow in the World Cup quarterfinals.
Sue Favor contributed to this report