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Tina Charles Is a W.N.B.A. Superstar Hiding in Plain Sight

Even if Tina Charles never plays another basketball game, she’s bound to be a Hall of Famer. That’s according to UConn’s Geno Auriemma, her already-inducted former coach — but it doesn’t take winning 11 national championships to see that her enshrinement is inevitable.

Some of her numerous accolades, though, already have a public place of honor. At Charlie’s Records on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, a banner that’s several feet tall bears a photo of Charles shooting in her Connecticut Sun uniform. It hangs above racks of calypso, soca and dancehall records, and next to several signs printed with Charles’s No. 31 and “MVP.” A large adjacent banner reads “Bud Light Salutes Tina Charles, 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist.” Smaller photos and news clippings complete the tribute.

About a half-hour walk away is Barclays Center, where the New York native might have continued chasing a W.N.B.A. championship, one of the few awards missing from what must be straining shelves of trophies. The accomplishment would certainly be recognized prominently at Charlie’s Records, her father Rawlston Charles’s decades-old Bedford-Stuyvesant record shop.

In spite of Tina Charles’s many rings and medals, her lack of deep postseason runs in the world’s best women’s basketball league has made her an all-time talent who’s inexplicably hiding in plain sight.

“I think that eats at her,” Washington Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said. “I think she wants to re-establish that, ‘Look, I’m one of the top players and I can help a team win a championship.’ That was her big goal when she went to New York, and it didn’t work.”

Charles, who leveraged her franchise player status to get back to her hometown from the Connecticut Sun in 2014, was traded by the Liberty to the Washington Mystics earlier this year when the team hit a hard reset, liquidating almost all of its veteran talent.

Instead of winning a title at Madison Square Garden for the team she grew up watching, Charles had been relegated to playing at the 5,000-seat Westchester County Center after James L. Dolan put the Liberty up for sale in late 2017. Joe Tsai, who owns the N.B.A.’s Nets, purchased the Liberty, giving them a new home at Barclays. Along with a new general manager, chief executive and head coach, the Liberty now have a young, development-oriented roster framed around their 2020 No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu.

“I was very thankful to play for the hometown team. Not a lot of people get that opportunity,” Charles, 31, said in an interview. “That’s where I’m leaving it.”

The Liberty declined to comment on the trade, instead sharing a statement from their chief executive, Keia Clarke: “While she is no longer part of the team, her name will forever be synonymous with New York basketball.”

Charles was traded to the reigning W.N.B.A. champion Mystics, which also meant reuniting with Thibault — who coached Charles after the Sun picked her first over all in the 2010 draft. Thibault helped her win awards like the rookie of the year (2010) and most valuable player (2012).

“He was the first person to believe in me,” Charles said of Thibault. “When you’re consistent as a coach, you know how to get the best out of your players regardless of who’s on your roster.”

What the Mystics also have is an established group of top-tier players, something that has eluded Charles for much of her professional career.

The Mystics have struggled to a 5-13 record in the W.N.B.A. bubble in Bradenton, Fla. without key starters like reigning M.V.P. Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud. Charles is not with the team after receiving a medical exemption this season because she has extrinsic asthma and is at high risk of having complications from Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. Thibault said that although Charles is on a one-year deal, she has verbally committed to returning to the Mystics next year.

The 6-foot-4 center has the fifth most rebounds and the 11th-most points in W.N.B.A. history — both because of her exceptional ability and because she’s more or less had to shoulder that much of the load to keep her teams afloat.

“She’s always been the one, not one of,” said Bill Laimbeer, who coached the Liberty during four of the six seasons Charles played for the team and now coaches the Las Vegas Aces. “She’s been put in these situations where she has to be the standard-bearer without other Olympians around her; she was carrying us so heavily, she just ran out of gas.”

Being the one is familiar for Charles. In New York’s always-competitive amateur basketball scene she was center stage, playing at the Garden with her Amateur Athletic Union team during Liberty halftimes and then again as the star player of the No. 1-ranked Christ the King team in 2006 (naturally, she hit the game-winner). As the best high school player in the country, she went to UConn, the best women’s basketball program in the country. There, she became the best college player in the country, leading that team to two more titles.

“The expectations are so high for a kid like that, that I don’t know that there’s any way you could have said she exceeded expectations,” Auriemma said. “That would be impossible.”

Charles has at least met, if not surpassed, those sky-high expectations at every level on the court, without necessarily getting much attention for doing so. Whether that’s because of her lack of W.N.B.A. titles or her generally understated demeanor, Charles is unbothered by so often being in the background.

“It doesn’t make me feel any type of way,” Charles said. “If your team isn’t successful, you’re not going to get individual success. I know it has nothing to do with my skill or anything I’ve been able to put out on the court.”

Since 2013, Charles has donated her W.N.B.A. salary to her Hopey’s Heart Foundation, which supplies automated external defibrillators to schools and recreational centers. This year, she’s shifting that donation to organizations that support the Black Lives Matter movement, Black-owned businesses and Covid-19 relief. Her contributions will be in $846 increments, in recognition of the eight minutes and 46 seconds that have come to symbolize how long the police in Minneapolis pressed a knee into the neck of George Floyd, killing him. Charles attended a memorial service for Floyd in Brooklyn’s Cadman Square Plaza.

“It’s gotten overlooked that us W.N.B.A. players were the ones who were really on the front lines, who were always very vocal,” Charles said. She and her Liberty teammates were initially fined for wearing T-shirts that bore the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in 2016; even after being warned by the league about violating uniform policies, she wore her warm-up shirt inside out in protest.

“We didn’t really have the support of the W.N.B.A. when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling’s lives were lost,” she said. “It was totally different. So it’s definitely very beautiful to see them support this cause just as they support breast cancer awareness, Pride, any other cause — you know? It’s really important.”

The league later rescinded the fines amid public outcry.

“Tina can be shy, can be quiet, but she’s always understood her responsibility,” said Swin Cash, the four-time All-Star who played and protested alongside Charles on the Liberty in 2016. “It meant so much to her to let people know, ‘As a franchise player, you guys are going to see me. I want to lead in that regard.’”

With her championship aspirations on hold for now, Charles is working on both her game and drawing attention to the achievements of those around her via her production company, Thirty-One Enterprises, which has partnered with Kevin Durant’s “The Boardroom” to share the stories of her fellow W.N.B.A. players. She also reciprocated her father’s in-store homage by directing a documentary about him and his impact on the New York music scene. The film, called “Charlie’s Records,” was released last year.

“In basketball, for me it’s winning a championship,” Charles said. “That’s the ultimate goal for me. But at the end of the day, championship or not, it’s just about how I was able to leave a lasting impact on someone that I came across. I’m thankful, regardless of how my story ends basketball-wise.”

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