One worker steadily filled bags and handed them out for two hours in the rain, dressed in a black hooded coat pulled over her head, black Nike sneakers, purple gloves and a pair of weathered blue jeans that had seen better days. Her black face mask read “NY Tough.” Few seemed to realize that the 6-foot-4 woman bundled up against the elements, steadily working, was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a two-time NCAA champion, a former WNBA MVP and a future Hall of Famer.
This is who Tina Charles is. Instead of just lending her name to a charity event or making a brief appearance, Charles is hands-on for the duration, weather be damned. She donated her WNBA salary to her Hopey’s Heart Foundation to buy automated external defibrillators for years before switching that to covid-19 relief and social justice causes this season. She made numerous $846 donations to Black-owned businesses and organizations, a symbolic amount that matched the original reports of 8 minutes 46 seconds an officer had his knee on George Floyd’s neck. The actual time turned out to be 7:46.
The 2020 WNBA season was moved to a single location in Bradenton, Fla., in an effort to safely hold the season during a global pandemic. Charles received a medical exemption to opt out because of a preexisting condition of extrinsic asthma after being traded to the Washington Mystics in April heading into the final year of her contract. The Mystics moved Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, their 2020 first-round draft pick and all three of their 2021 picks for Charles.
She’s a free agent now but told The Washington Post she has every intention of re-signing with the organization.
“My plan is to be playing in a Mystic uniform,” Charles said.
Mystics fans never got the chance to meet Charles, and there was some concern that she could sign with another team. Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault has insisted Charles intends to re-sign, but hearing it directly from her eases some worries.
Charles pointed out that she was the one who initiated the trade talks. Her time with the New York Liberty was coming to an end, and Charles wanted to reunite with Thibault, her first coach after she was drafted No. 1 overall by the Connecticut Sun in 2010. Since then she has been named rookie of the year, the MVP in 2012 and an all-star seven times and won a pair of Olympic gold medals. There’s only one thing missing on Charles’s résumé — a WNBA championship.
The return makes the Mystics legitimate contenders as she joins a loaded roster that includes 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Myisha Hines-Allen, LaToya Sanders and Leilani Mitchell. Aerial Powers and 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman are free agents who could return and further bolster the roster.
“It's not just all about that,” Charles said. “To me, it's about what impact I have on a player as well. How am I carrying myself? Can I be an outlet for them? Can they lean and depend on me?
“Definitely I want to win a championship. I think that’s the only thing missing on the mantle for me, personally. But it’s just all about how can I impact the next woman next to me the way that Tanisha Wright and Swin Cash did, the way that Kara Lawson and Asjha Jones did. Because toward that time of their career, that’s what they meant to me.”
The summer was the longest stretch of Charles’s career without playing. She took the time to focus on social justice causes and other charitable endeavors but also got a chance to rest and watch as a fan. Charles was lucky enough to have a trainer with access to a gym, so she was able to work on specific parts of her game that she declined to share.
The Mystics, on the opposite end, were lucky to have Thibault running the show when Charles decided her time in New York had come to a conclusion. Playing for her hometown team was a dream come true, and she prefers not to discuss the details of her departure. The opportunity in Washington was twofold with Thibault’s presence and the most talented roster Charles has been a part of since she won titles at the University of Connecticut.
“I chose D.C. I chose a familiarity,” Charles said. “He was the first person to believe in me. He drafted me. So I was really looking forward to getting back to that. To have someone who has confidence in you, someone who believes in what you do, not only as a player but just who you’re striving to become as a person.
“At the end of the day, I’m extremely proud to have been able to represent my city. To have worn a New York Liberty uniform. That was the ultimate for me.”
Having a life away from the court has always been a priority for Charles, something Thibault continues to encourage to this day. On top of her many philanthropic pursuits, Charles owns a production company, Thirty-One Enterprises, that created the documentary “Charlie’s Records” that featured her father, Rawlston Charles, and was a Tribeca Film Festival selection in 2019. The documentary shares the name of her father’s music label and features his record store, Charlie’s Calypso City, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The film tells the story of Rawlston moving from Tobago to the United States and promoting Calypso and Soca music.
Rawlston actually wanted Tina to slow down during the production of the film, but that fell on deaf ears. His daughter has had an unusual work ethic, and Rawlston proudly takes credit for that. His father was a farmer in Tobago who would endlessly tend to the cows, donkeys, goats and sheep. The work was nonstop, and Rawlston was expected to chip in. That, in part, drove Rawlston to the United States — getting away from the endless farm work — where he entered the music business.
“I used to go into the studio and never wanted to quit,” Rawlston said. “Never spent a whole lot of time eating. Just working, working, working.”
So it was no surprise when Tina wanted to push and push and push to construct the film, which featured musical legends Doug E. Fresh and Kurtis Blow, from Rawlston’s memories. Just like it was no surprise when longtime Christ the King High Coach Bob Mackey wanted to discuss Tina and described her as relentless.
Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma raved about those exact traits when Charles was named 2011 role model of the year by the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce.
They’re the same habits that drive Tina to organize a food drive in her old neighborhood and fill bags for the less fortunate for two hours in a constant, bone-chilling rain.
“It’s in the genes,” Rawlston said. “My father was a driven person, and I had to run away from him. … But I wasn’t aware that that was in me.
“When I saw Tina and her work ethic and how she put pressure on herself … the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
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