The MVP You Don’t See: A Day With Tina Charles
WNBA.com spent a day with Tina Charles, revealing that her basketball talent is matched only by her generosity.
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images
UNCASVILLE, CONNECTICUT -- It’s a little before 8:30 in the morning and reigning WNBA MVP Tina Charles, standing six feet and four inches into the New England mist, holds a leash in her hand. On the other end tugs a Bichon poodle, weighing in a few bones shy of 20 pounds, she calls Hughey.
Having just met the writer and photographer that will be spending the better part of the day with her, Charles offers only cautious smiles through her otherwise standard morning routine.
Charles admits to taking her time in opening up to anyone outside her trusted inner circle. So, to many, she comes off as guarded. It is, however, an ironic trait of hers -- her sincere concern for the well-being of complete strangers -- that makes her story so compelling.
But, before she has time to delve deeper into that aspect of her life, it’s time for her to go to practice.
The conversation bounced between Connecticut’s game two nights prior, a 19-point loss to Phoenix on June 29, and NBA free agency, but mostly of her frequent visits to New York. Charles, who calls herself a big-city girl, recently bought a condo in Queens and she says she makes the approximately two-hour ride there nearly every off day that she has.
It was also growing up in New York’s most ethnically diverse borough -- along with the public transit system that carried her to various basketball tournaments and leagues throughout the city -- that exposed her to New York’s different cultures and ways of life.
“Every time we go to New York we go to a different restaurant,” Connecticut guard Kalana Greene, the teammate that Charles spends the most time with, says. “Every time we go to New York we go to a different spot, try something different.”
Greene even told the story of attending a fundraiser for John A. Catsimatidis, a candidate for mayor of New York, in June with Charles. It was a cigar fundraiser, so Charles, ever the adventurer, tried her first cigar.
“The nature of New York grows on you,” Charles said.
While Charles lies on a training table, Connecticut Sun trainer Jeremy Norman goes to work on her legs, giving her a lengthy massage. Norman, who works with Charles every practice, says the massages can last up to 50 minutes. This one approaches that.
“I don’t play any games, normally I’m just on ESPN,” said Charles, who was reading about the reported trade her beloved New York Knicks made to acquire Andrea Bargnani for the first time.
It was then that Charles continued to talk more about her New York ties -- how her dad would take her to Knicks games and how, while in grade school, her mother, then a New York Mets season ticket holder, would often take her to Shea Stadium when she got off work. Then more about the Knicks. Her favorite player growing up, without much surprise, was center Patrick Ewing. And Charles, too, expressed disappointment, although not much surprise, in what many deemed a premature exit from the playoffs from the Knicks this season.
Charles also talks music, claiming that she listens to everything.
“I get that from my father,” said Charles, whose father is a recording producer in Brooklyn.
At the time, she was listening to J. Cole’s and Wale’s new albums. Her focus was on those “because when Jay’s new album comes out, that’s what I’ll be listening too.”
She then starts to prove the depth of her musical interests. She says her favorite band is an Irish alternative rock band called The Script -- and she is surprised when this writer is not aware of the band. (She later sings the chorus of one of their popular songs on the way home from practice and the connection is made.)
She also tells a story about an unfortunately named, yet ahead-of-its-time punk group called Death that played together in the 70s, but didn’t have their demo released until 2009, in part because of record labels’ reluctance to sign a group with that name.
Yes, Tina Charles listens to band named Death. And it’s worth a listen.
Norman says the additional work is necessitated by the brand of basketball the 6-foot-4, 198 pound center plays -- constantly using her lower body strength to, literally, move opponents. Norman also acknowledged that Charles had a demanding last game versus Phoenix, where she caused Griner to foul out, and shot 24 free throws, tying a WNBA record, and was also looking ahead to another physical matchup with 6-foot-8 Tulsa center Liz Cambage the next day.
Given that several key contributors including Kara Lawson and Renee Montgomery are missing significant time for the Sun, Charles’ health is all that more important.
“Her body is her livelihood and it’s what the Connecticut Sun count on,” said Connecticut coach Anne Donovan. “Her responsibility to take care of that is definitely paramount.”
Another important facet of taking care of your body is managing what food you eat. For Charles, breakfast is normally a “quick egg sandwich” and lunch is almost always Subway.
“Every time after practice I usually go to Subway and pick up a six-inch turkey and ham sandwich,” Charles said, although she uncharacteristically skipped the Subway trip on this day. “They’re so used to me they don’t even ask me what I want, it’s the same sandwich that I want for lunch.”
When it comes to dinner, Charles opts for some variety out of her own kitchen.
“Secretly I love to cook,” Charles said. “It’s very therapeutic, so it takes my mind off basketball and other things that are going on.”
“That’s exactly who I am to a ‘T’,” said Charles of the nickname. “I’m very simple, chill, laid back. I just want to get the W.”
This distinction, coupled with her somewhat cautious nature with the media, often causes Charles to fall into the shadow of some of the game’s other stars.
“Do I feel it? Yes. But does it bother me? No,” Charles said of the shortage of attention.
“I think I control that because of the way I play and the things I do,” Charles said. “Like I said, when I received the MVP, I wasn’t surprised, because I knew I had a great season, but just in the sense that I’m not one of those flashy players. I’m not going to be in those WNBA commercials. I’m not going to be doing all those things.
When you’re talking about Logowoman, I’m not the one doing that kind of layup, that’s not my game.”
But still, how could the owner of a Rookie of the Year Award, two All-WNBA First-Team selections, an Olympic Gold Medal and a WNBA MVP in just three professional seasons be overlooked?
In a purely basketball sense, it’s clear that Charles isn’t so much a reluctant superstar as she is indifferent about the status of being a superstar.
- Tina Charles
“Maybe because she doesn’t demand that hype,” Greene, who also played with Charles at UConn, theorized. “She doesn’t demand that attention. That’s not to say other people are attention seekers, but I don’t think she demands that much. I think it’s pretty awesome to see that, and her stats speak for herself.”
Through Connecticut’s first 11 games, Charles is averaging 18.6 points and 10.4 rebounds and has a league-leading eight double-doubles (more on the importance of those later).
When her stats aren’t doing the talking for her, Greene says that Charles can open up to those she chooses.
“If you don’t know her you might think she’s a little standoffish and just kind of to herself, but she’s real caring and she probably thinks she’s a funny person,” Greene said. “We joke around all the time. I see it because I’m with her almost every day, I don’t know if everyone else gets to see it, but she’s a clown. She’s a jokester.”
Last year, Charles won the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award in recognition of her outstanding work in the community in 2011. The highlight was her donation of $32,000 of her own money to underwrite the construction of a school in Mali, located in Western Africa. Prior to that, Charles donated a shipment of athletic shoes she purchased from Nike to Saint Jago High School in Spanish Town, St. Catherine, Jamaica, the high school three of her aunts and one of her uncles graduated from. In 2013, Charles also committed to funding five four-year full secondary-school scholarships for girls in Africa.
Tina Charles during a WNBA
Cares event in 2010.
Charles calls hers a “discerning heart.” Now, her biggest initiative is The Hopey's Heart Foundation, established to raise awareness and funds for Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA). Two main factors led to Charles starting this foundation. One was coming across the story of Wes Leonard, a high school basketball player in Michigan who died of SCA at the end of a game in March 2011. The other was the eye-opening passing of her aunt, Maureen Vaz, lovingly known as Hopey, to multiple organ failure this past March.
“I was impacted by (Leonard’s) story, I was impacted by my aunt passing away and I just wanted something to live on in her memory and in the kind of person she was,” Charles said. “I know this foundation has a lot of potential to impact and save people’s lives if they were supposed to be struggling with Sudden Cardiac Arrest.”
Charles, who already made a nearly $15,000 donation for 10 Automated External Defibrillators (AED), the machine that could have saved Leonard’s life, to the New York Department of Education and the Wes Leonard Heart Team, has pledged to donate one AED for every double-double she collects during the 2013 regular season. For perspective, Charles holds the top two single season records for double-doubles with 23 in 2011 and 22 in 2010.
An AED can be purchased for approximately $1,500, so Charles urges that every single donation -- even if it’s only $1 or $5 -- can really go a long way. Donations can be made here.
“I just believe that success isn’t measured by wealth or how many assets you have, but your ability to impact someone’s life in a positive way,” Charles said.
What sets Charles aside from many others is that when she feels a social issue needs attention, she rises to action. Greene, who watches documentaries with Charles regularly, told the story about a film called Skid Row that the two watched the night before about a neglected area in Los Angeles that has problems with drugs, crime and prostitution.
- Tina Charles
Charles, a self-proclaimed “simple person,” keeps her motives modest.
“When somebody is in need I want to be that person to be there. I want to be the one to have a lending hand,” Charles said. “If something were to happen to me tomorrow, I’ll know that I started a foundation that will live on and impact people’s lives. Basketball is just a way for me to channel and reach others.”
“I don’t like to leave the responsibilities of my foundation to just the board members,” Charles said.
It amounts to a long day for Charles. From facing consistent double teams and being the heart of the Connecticut Sun to literally protecting the hearts of others, Charles completes the rare, dual role of being one of the best women’s basketball players in the world and a philanthropist whose impact is felt across the globe.
Charles credits her family, close friends and her faith for her extreme generosity. When she talks about them, she beams. And now, hours after a cautious start to the day in a car full of strangers, she’s opened up.
“I’m just a child of God,” she said. “And I’m just trying to let my light shine.”