Her Story: Connecticut's Tina Charles
The WNBA is dedicated to raising funds and awareness of breast cancer during the week of August 3rd to August 10th. Throughout the week, players around the league will share stories of how the disease has affected them and those closest to them in a feature known as "Her Story."
In many ways, we think of professional athlete’s as nearly invincible – and rightfully so. Often times, we draw strength and joy from them. They inspire us and give us hope. They offer an emotional release that, even for just a moment, helps alleviate the struggles we face in our daily lives. Because of this, we often forget the obvious – they are human beings just like us. And as with anyone, the roller coaster of life can undoubtedly have its low points.
Perhaps there is no better example of a perceived indestructible athlete than Tina Charles of the Connecticut Sun. She has played at the highest of levels for over 5 years while missing just a handful of games during her legendary run at UConn and not a single game yet in the WNBA. A double-double machine, Charles has taken the WNBA by storm over the past few months and solidified herself as one of (if not the) best centers in the game. Her lust for life and ability to put a smile on the faces of everyone around her make her one of the most likeable figures in all of basketball.
But off the court, Charles has been faced with the task of dealing with the unfortunate realities of cancer for the vast majority of her life. Sadly, it’s become commonplace to know someone who has been (or is) afflicted with the disease – and Charles knows this all too well.
“I’ve had a lot of experiences with breast cancer,” Charles says. “In my family, my aunt, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother all had bouts.”
Charles first became aware of the intensity of breast cancer at an early age. As a child, Charles would observe her aunt as she went through some hard times, seeing her go back and forth to the doctor for treatment constantly. Although she didn’t fully understand what was going on, she still picked up on how serious the diagnosis was.
“I was really young when she went through it,” said Charles. “And she went through it all – chemotherapy, radiation, everything. I didn’t know much about the details of it since I was so young but I definitely got the sense of how extreme it was.”
Fast-forward over a decade later. Charles is in the midst of her freshman year at UConn and is already making a profound impact on the team. She averaged 12.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game that season while leading UConn to a 32-4 record. Much of the success she achieved so quickly was her unique combination of immense maturity and mental toughness. Of course, her immeasurable skills as a basketball player certainly helped as well.
However, it was during this time that that her grandmother would be diagnosed with breast cancer. Charles wouldn’t find out until months later.
“I didn’t find out until the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college,” Charles remembers. “I have a close bond with my grandma and my family didn’t want to tell me because they cared so much about me having the opportunity to play basketball in college. Being in school, they didn’t want to me to worry about it and have it on my mind. It definitely hits home every time I think about it.”
Bad news never has good timing. You’ve all heard the phrase, “you can’t change the cards you’re dealt, just how you play them.” And, yes, it might sound tired or cliché but it’s absolutely true. In times of such hardship there is a conscious choice one can make; either approach it with pessimism or attack it head on with a positive attitude and rise above it.
Through it all, Charles utilized (and still does) a strong family support system to help cope during difficult times. Their faith was unwavering and they remain true to that today. There are times when everything humanly possible is done to make a situation better and the rest is simply out of one’s control.
“I was raised in a home of faith,” Charles reflects. “So, we prayed a lot and still do. I was also raised in a female dominant home and we definitely always have it in the back of our minds. Today, thankfully, everybody is healthy and doing well and we are so thankful for that. I’ve learned, no matter what, not to take life for granted.”
It’s not surprising then, that Charles is happy to do whatever she can to help out in the fight against breast cancer – like so many other players in the WNBA. This distinctive effort to support research and increase attentiveness to breast health has been a movement that all WNBA players can relate to.
“Whenever we have a chance to raise awareness we do,” Charles said with conviction. “Our family participates in cancer walks and we try to do as much as we can as professional basketball players. We want to show that we’re not going to let it defeat us. Whether it’s wearing a pink jersey, making appearances, anything – we want to help.”
Many have fought the fight. Many are still fighting it. The most important thing Charles has learned is to appreciate life for all it has to offer and to remain positive in the face of adversity.
“It’s easier said than done,” she says. “I tell people to keep God first, don’t lose faith, don’t let it get you down, and don’t let it defeat you.”
“No matter what,” Charles adds.
Ben York is currently a writer for SLAM Magazine and has covered both the NBA and WNBA for over four years.
You can follow him on Twitter @bjyork