The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tina Charles presses pause on her career year to pursue a third Olympic gold medal

Assistant Coach Cheryl Reeve talks with Tina Charles during an exhibition game. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

A photo in a previous version of this article incorrectly identified Tina Charles. The article has been corrected.

LAS VEGAS — The drive from her mom’s place on Long Island to the charter school in Brooklyn took about 40 minutes. Those June 2020 days were strange as New York was bombarded by the coronavirus pandemic at the same time it neared a boiling point with protests of systemic racism within law enforcement. All of that weighed on Tina Charles, but she was able to find some regularity in that long drive.

Five days a week, Monday through Friday, Charles was up for a weightlifting session at 5 or 6 a.m., and that was followed by the drive to the gym for work with trainer Tim Burns of Pro Hoops. That was the lead-up to a season that would never happen for Charles. She decided to opt out of the 2020 season because her extrinsic asthma put her in the high-risk category.

Those summer workouts, however, have led to an unprecedented 2021 for Charles. She will begin her quest for a third gold medal Tuesday when the U.S. women’s basketball team faces Nigeria as the Americans seek an unprecedented seventh consecutive Olympic title at the Tokyo Games.

The U.S. women’s basketball team is as deep and strong as it has ever been. Look out.

“He changed my shot completely,” Charles said of Burns. “It’s funny because we never went into it saying, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to change your shot.’ It’s like he just started doing little things … and then I realized, like, ‘Oh, okay, my shot is changing.’ ”

The goal was to get more consistent from long range, and that came as her form shifted to a more forward release, rather than being pulled farther back above her head. Charles has been one of the most dominant post players throughout her career, but she keeps a watchful eye on what’s going on around her. She noticed an emphasis being placed on the three-point shot, realizing that area of the floor is no longer reserved for the diminutive. Charles watched her Olympic teammates Sylvia Fowles and Breanna Stewart and two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker and thought: “How can I separate myself from them as much as I can? How can I stand alone?”

Charles, 32, leads the WNBA with a career-high 26.3 points per game for the Washington Mystics — that would break Diana Taurasi’s 2006 single-season record of 25.3 — and her 10 rebounds per game (her highest average since 2013) rank second in the league. The biggest improvement has been a career-high 37 percent shooting on three-pointers while attempting 92 shots from behind the arc in 17 games. She attempted a career-high 95 three-pointers over 33 games in 2018, and she tried just 17 three-pointers in her first six seasons combined.

“Being able to add that outside shot and being so consistent with it makes it nearly impossible to guard her now,” Mystics teammate Elena Delle Donne said, “because her post moves have always been impossible to guard. She has had post moves that nobody else in this league can do. So now that she’s got an outside shot to open her up, it’s like, what are you even supposed to do with her? I mean, people throw triple teams at her, and it doesn’t even matter. She’s like being a superhuman at this point.”

Sue Bird laughed about the faux arguments the two used to have about Charles’s position. Bird insisted she was a classic center, but Charles wanted to be labeled a power forward. Bird pointed to the years when Charles was a rebounding monster, finishing first or second in the league in six of her first seven seasons, and a nightmare for the defense in the post. She was named league MVP in 2012, when she shot 50.2 percent from inside the arc and attempted just five three-pointers. Charles is shooting 50.2 percent on two-pointers this season and already has made a career-high 34 threes.

Charles has always had a variety of post moves, including a hook with both hands, and she has extended from there. She has mastered a one-legged fadeaway that conjures memories of former NBA star Dirk Nowitzki, and she can put the ball on the floor to drive to the basket. Now Charles can jab step from the perimeter to create space because defenders must respect her ability to drive. But she also can pull up with a jumper or give a ball fake that must be honored beyond the arc.

“Countermoves on countermoves and countermoves,” Bird said. “She’s kind of made the transition from being this traditional post player to really expanding her game. And I think what you’re seeing this year is [not] just incredible play but really consistent play. She’s always been consistent, but now she’s consistent in this expanded version of herself. She had a change of scenery this year, and I think it really helped her. It just kind of reinvigorated her. And I think that’s why you’re seeing all of it kind of come together.”

U.S. women’s basketball has a bunch of new faces trying to meet a ridiculously high standard

A reunion with Mystics Coach Mike Thibault, who worked with Charles for three seasons in Connecticut, along with a rash of injuries to what seemed to be a stacked roster has led to the ridiculous numbers and a shot at a second MVP award. Washington (8-10) has stayed afloat by riding Charles, who easily went back into alpha-dog mode.

“She’s been very willing to do what’s necessary and take on a lot and has responded well to that,” said Minnesota Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve, who has been an assistant with the national team since 2014. “And her team needs her. I’m sure she would probably welcome having some additions after the break to share the load. But, you know, Tina’s a pro. Tina’s the one that, ‘Hey, what do you need from me?’ Evolution is what you expect to happen with great players. They’re never satisfied.”

Reeve could just as easily have been describing the Olympics. Charles finds herself in a different position as a veteran coming off the bench without a huge responsibility. Stewart, Brittney Griner and A’ja Wilson are the top three frontcourt players, ahead of Charles and Fowles. Charles can carry an offensive load with the second team when needed, take advantage of mismatches against smaller defenders or simply dominate the boards and play defense.

Sign up for our Tokyo Olympics newsletter to get a daily viewing guide and highlights from the Games

“Tina’s a pro’s pro,” Team USA Coach Dawn Staley said. “She knows what she’s doing. … She’s got it all. In these Olympic Games, wherever she plays for us, we want her to make an impact. We want her to be dominating. We want her to be the player that we throw that ball to and she makes a play — whether that’s for herself or someone else, because she’s capable of doing it all.”

Playing in the Olympics is a special honor that Charles remains grateful for, but this year she’s more focused on her teammates. She wants to see Taurasi and Bird get their fifth gold medals. She’s also enjoying being able to help Mystics teammate Ariel Atkins experience her first Games. This is the scenario she expected in Washington — being surrounded by a deep and talented roster, with a championship being the sole goal.

“At the end of the day, that’s all that matters,” Charles said. “It doesn’t matter how I feel or anyone [else] feels.”