But then there are flashes of unbridled joy. The most memorable moment of the Mystics’ early season may be Charles doing the Kid ‘n Play dance with Natasha Cloud on the sideline during a blowout victory. Even some New York-based reporters who had covered Charles for years hadn’t seen that side of her.
Charles showed some of that vulnerability this week after she was named to her third U.S. Olympic team.
“I’m probably, maybe, the only one that cries every time,” Charles said. “I don’t take it for granted. I just start bawling, crying, just because it means a lot for me. It means a lot for my family and coaches and players along the way that have allowed me to be at this position in my career.
“The fact that I have an opportunity for the pursuit of a third gold medal, it’s surreal. It’s just a blessing. And to be a veteran now on this team, it’s just everything is coming full circle.”
The Olympic news was just the latest milestone during an incredible 2021 for Charles, a 6-foot-4 center who spent a year away from the WNBA because of the coronavirus pandemic. The 2012 MVP leads the league with a career-high 25.3 points per game, and her 9.6 rebounds per game rank fifth. Diana Taurasi’s 25.3-point average in 2006 is the league’s single-season record. Charles’s 34.8 three-point percentage is tied for her career best, but her career-high 5.5 attempts per game are 3.5 more than when she previously shot that well in 2017.
Charles already has set the single-season franchise record with six 30-point games, and this week she became the first player in WNBA history to record consecutive games of 30-plus points and 15-plus rebounds. The offensive numbers have been mind-blowing, and Charles may be the toughest player in the league to defend because of her combination of size and inside-out ability, plus a cadre of offensive moves. But Coach Mike Thibault points out that her defense has stood out as much as anything and she has volunteered to take on top opposing players such as A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart.
And that’s just on the floor. The multifaceted Charles recently missed a game to attend the premiere of her film “Game Changer” at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“There is a sense of urgency, and I don’t mean that in a negative way,” ESPN analyst Monica McNutt said. “Because Tina is clearly one of the most efficient, one of the most talented players in the league. But I do think as we cross 30, all of us, whether we’re athletes or not, you kind of look back at your body of work, and you can say there’s [more] behind me than there is in front of me, so there’s a sense of urgency.
“It just means that I’m truly present in every moment. And I think that’s what we’re seeing from Tina. She is down to go get this ring, and you will not say that she was the weak link in terms of the ability of this Washington Mystics squad to get it once they’re healthy.”
Charles, of course, downplays the remarkable season by saying it doesn’t feel any different from other years. She always aims to improve, and the results have followed. Thibault said he believes she is the most well-conditioned frontcourt player in the league. But the 32-year-old is a prideful woman, and there’s always an underlying hunger to prove she is one of the best in the world. A WNBA championship is the only thing missing on what is developing into a Hall of Fame résumé.
“I don’t think we should be surprised, but I think we need to be appropriately appreciative,” Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo said. “Awed is too strong of a word, but we should be taking notice and certainly appreciating it.
“For a couple of years, even though she was putting up monster numbers, when people were talking about the greats in the game right now or the MVP candidates, they might not be mentioning Tina. And she’s showing everyone this year, like, ‘Oh, I belong in the MVP conversation, and I am still one of the more dominant post players in the game.’ ”
Teammate Leilani Mitchell added, “If you look around the league, players that have taken time out, they don’t come back the way she has.”
Charles was the most dominant of the five Olympians who played in a Mystics win against the Seattle Storm on Tuesday, outshining Seattle’s Jewell Loyd, Sue Bird and Stewart and teammate Ariel Atkins. The inclusion of Atkins is making these particular Games even more special for Charles. She chuckled recalling Atkins getting the more emphatic congratulatory calls and messages after she made the team for the first time. Atkins laughed and said it was like her birthday with her phone “going crazy.”
As tremendous as 2021 has been for Charles, Atkins is also having her most productive year. She has taken her game to another level, averaging career highs in points and three-point percentage and developing into one of the top shooting guards in the league. Her 18.3-point average ranks 10th in the league, and her 44.3 three-point percentage is third highest among players shooting at least five threes per game. Her 2.7 three-pointers made per game are a league high.
Atkins became emotional talking about the Olympic selection, considering she will be playing for Coach Dawn Staley and with players she has looked up to for much of her life.
“I’ve had posters of some of my teammates in my room ever since I can remember; now they’re my teammates,” Atkins said. “So it’s really just an unreal moment, and it’s something that I will never take for granted. There’s not a day I take this game for granted or the ability to be in this league, and now to be able to play at — legit when we talk about the best of the best in the world, I really can’t put it into words, to be honest. I can’t.”
The Mystics (7-6) are just over two weeks away from the Olympic break, with a roster that features the two American selections and Mitchell, who will play for Australia. Emma Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP, has not been with the team this season, but she could return after playing with the Belgian national team. Washington has won five of six headed into Thursday’s game to put a 1-3 start in the rearview and move into fourth place in the standings. The most recent success has come with Charles and Atkins leading a roster of eight healthy players, with Natasha Cloud (ankle), Myisha Hines-Allen (knee), Erica McCall (knee) and Kiara Leslie (concussion protocol) all missing multiple games.
All of them are expected back by the time the league returns from the Olympic break, along with two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne (back) and possibly Meesseman. A healthy Mystics roster is capable of making a real run at the 2021 title, which would put a bow on Charles’s phenomenal year. The dancing, and even the tears, might make a repeat appearance.
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