First Love

After spending the past eight years of her basketball life in Connecticut—first as a Husky, then as a Sun—Queens product and WNBA star Tina Charles has come home to New York. 
by August 08, 2014

After a long trip, there’s nothing like making the turn back on to your home street. You drive down the road, seeing all the familiar houses. The neighbor’s dog is barking at you, per usual, and another one’s wind chimes are singing away with every breeze. Despite the adrenaline rush you experienced on your journey, there’s a certain serenity and sweetness that comes when reentering that place called home.

This year, Tina Charles returned home.

Born and raised in Queens, Charles grew up going to Knicks games with her father and Liberty games with her mother. She walked the halls of Madison Square Garden to find her seat in the stands and witness the likes of Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson and the rest of the then-Knicks squad. Now, thanks to the off-season trade the city’s summertime hoops team consummated with the Connecticut Sun, the 2012 WNBA MVP is back at the Garden. This time, in a Liberty uniform of her own.

“Being able to play in the Garden every night—the fact that this is my workplace—I think that says a lot,” Charles says. She is sitting comfortably in her locker room chair with ice on her knees after dropping 14 points and 8 rebounds in a win over the Washington Mystics. “There’s been a lot of great talent and performers that’ve come here and done great things. So hopefully I can leave an impression here when it’s all said and done.”

The 12-16 Liberty have a ways to go if they want to win a chip. Although the team started slow, Tina has stuff to strut—and the hardware to prove it—from her earlier stages and the current season.

As a kid, Tina played soccer, tennis and softball, but she always found a basketball in her hand. In 1997, she saw a professional league develop for women. Granted, at the time she was a little girl, not yet hitting the double digits of 10, but to know such an opportunity existed—to become a pro in something she loved—Tina says it was “definitely” a dream of hers to play in the WNBA. Before she got there, she attended Christ the King High School, where multiple organizations named her National Player of the Year. With as many state championships as losses her entire high school career (two), she traveled away from home to Connecticut to play for the first time as a Husky.

With back-to-back NCAA Championships her junior and senior years, more POY awards, and finishing as UConn’s all-time leading scorer (at the time) and rebounder (an honor she still holds), Charles developed her game alongside Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery under Coach Geno Auriemma. Like many young adults in college, Charles learned about life during her four years, too.

“He [Auriemma] doesn’t just teach you the game of basketball, but the game of life,” she says. Charles remembers Coach’s advice: “When you chase perfection, you’ll catch excellence. That’s one of the things I take with me all the time.”

After the Connecticut Sun selected Charles No. 1 overall in the 2010 WNBA Draft, she continued the chase. Rookie of the Year, All-Star selections, three consecutive rebounding titles, double-doubles on the nightly. Yeah, she caught a whole lot of excellence in her time with the Sun.

Now she’s a part of the New York Liberty, who are also back home in the Garden after playing a couple of seasons in Newark’s Prudential Center. She’s with veterans Plenette Pierson, Essence Carson and Cappie Pondexter.

“Man, Tina, she’s my little baby. I’m just trying to help her feel her way in,” says Pondexter. “I was happy she made the decision to come. She makes my life a lot easier, and I hope I can do the same for her.”

The 6-4 Charles leads the Liberty both in scoring (18.1) and rebounding (9.8), and Pondexter says she brings a positive energy to the locker room, in addition to an on-court presence.

“When I was younger, I would watch her games,” says rookie Shanece McKinney, who got some tips on her hook shot from Tina. “It still hasn’t hit me I’m on a team with Tina Charles, one of the greatest post players in the league right now.”

But even with all the accolades, trophies and titles she’s earned so far, Tina considers giving back her real shine. “The highlight of my career is being able to use basketball as a platform to outreach into the community,” she says.

Tina gives away tickets, funded a school for girls in Mali with OmniPeace, and recently donated half her salary to her foundation Hopey’s Heart, which installs automated defibrillators around the nation. Helping out individuals is what she said she would do full-time if she wasn’t a basketball player.

For now, Tina will do what she’s always done as a little girl in her hometown of Queens—play basketball. “It’s been great,” she says. “I love being here, being home.”