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New York Liberty: Tina Charles is a WNBA All-Star on and off the court

As Tina Charles partakes in her sixth All-Star Game,the New York Liberty’s MVP has made an impact on and off the court.

Tina Charles is currently stationed in Minnesota for the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game. However, she literally might have bigger fish to fry, based on her Instagram post earlier this week.

The All-Star break marks a reprieve from a WNBA season full of non-stop excitement. This season, the league’s 22nd in existence, has seen stars (and ratings) rise, buzzer beaten, and records broken. Women’s basketball players are becoming household names, and not just the ones from Connecticut.

Charles has been one of the league’s most recognizable faces for awhile, so it makes the inexplicable downfall of the New York Liberty all the more brutal to witness. Armed with more or less the same team that finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference over the past three seasons, the Liberty have stumbled to a 7-18 mark this year, destined for their first losing record since 2014.

It isn’t for lack of trying, of course. Seven of the losses have come by single digits, including two buzzer beaters, and the team has dealt with numerous injuries over the year, recently losing starters Shavonte Zellous and Epiphanny Prince to long-term ailments.

The on-court heartbreak, combined with rumors of a potential team sale, has overshadowed a historic trek for Charles. She has yet to play her 300th game, but has already placed herself 16th on the all-time WNBA scoring list. In the midst of her sixth year in blue and black, she’s already become one of two players in the Liberty’s history to tally 3,000 points in a New York uniform. She’s 212 points away from passing Vickie Johnson for the all-time mark.

First-year head coach Katie Smith, who retired as the league’s all-time leading scorer, knows a thing or two about stars in trying situations. When Smith joined the expansion Minnesota Lynx in 1999, she carried the team through a series of losing seasons before a 2005 trade sent her to Detroit, where she achieved further glory and a pair of championships. In the midst of this brutal season, Smith praised the job Charles has done in terms of her effort and keeping the team together.

“At the end of the day, you can’t always control your team, your outcome. You go out there and do your job as well as you possibly do it, you take the W or L with it,” Smith said after a recent loss against Dallas earlier this month. “It’s always about personally doing the best job you can. It doesn’t always end up going your way. But you can lay your head down at night and know you did a good job, then get back up tomorrow and try to do better.”

In a season where New York basketball has been defined by unfortunate unpredictability and everything that could possibly go wrong for the Liberty has indeed come to pass, Charles’ has remained a welcome constant. Her sixth All-Star appearance has been fueled by 20.2 points (one of six players averaging over 20) and 7.2 rebounds per game, good for fifth and tenth in the league respectively.

“Obviously when you play against Tina, you have to give her a lot of attention and focus. She’s just a great player. If you try to guard her one-on-one it’s going to be a long night,” fellow Connecticut alum Dianna Taurasi said of Charles’ play after a June meeting. “We (make) a consistent effort every time she touches the ball to bring bodies and a lot of hands; that’s what you have to do against her. She’s a great player.”

On Saturday, Charles will suit up for Team Parker, as the league emulates its brothers in the NBA through a “fantasy draft” format. Charles was chosen by Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker, one of two vote leaders in All-Star fan polling, as they take on a team commandeered by Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

Taken first overall by the Connecticut Sun back in 2010, Charles separated herself from the endless list of Storrs-based basketball legends with an infectious personality and a unique way to make a difference in the community. For a college internship, Charles would work with inmates at Bergin Correctional Institution, a 10-minute drive from the basketball cathedral of Gampel Pavilion, to help inmates prepare for life after release.

“They are just everyday people, people you would see anywhere you go. They are just people who have made mistakes,” Charles told Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News back in 2010. “Everybody makes mistakes, you have to learn from them and change.”

Prison staff originally worried that Charles’ status as a local and national celebrity would be a distraction. Charles, a psychology major at UConn, abated these concerns quickly.

“She is very humble and very genuine,” prison internship supervisor Calma Frett told Ackert. “She listens and participates, and the inmates treat her like they would any other staff member.”

Charles was drafted by the local Sun, their Mohegan Sun Arena home 45 minutes away from Storrs. After four relatively successful seasons, Charles went home via a trade.

A Jamaica, Queens native, Charles began her basketball journey at Christ the King Regional High School, whose basketball alumnae also include Sue Bird and Chamique Holdsclaw. Hence, her 2014 trade to the Liberty, which netted Connecticut several draft picks, one of whom became 2017 All-Star Alyssa Thomas, made perfect sense. Charles’ local roots have been documented in a commercial showcased all season during WNBA games.

Under Charles’ guidance, the Liberty tallied the best record in the Eastern Conference over the past three seasons, establishing herself as one of the top all-around players in the team’s illustrious history. Despite the team’s tough luck this season, Charles has continued to contribute to her local community through an organization that remains undefeated: Hopey’s Heart Foundation.

The foundation was formed in honor of Charles’ late aunt Maureen Vaz. Nicknamed “Hopey”, Vaz was a staple in the Jamaica community, working as an insurance salesman and secretary and volunteering as a greeter at the Cooper City Church of God. Tragically, Hopey passed away in 2013 of multiple organ failure, but Charles ensured her memory lived on.

Prior to Hopey’s passing, Charles donated over $14,000 to the Wes Leonard Heart Team, an organization dedicated to purchasing and placing Automated External Defibrillators in public places across Michigan. Leonard, a student-athlete at Fennville High School in Fennville, Michigan, who died of an enlarged heart, could’ve been saved if an AED was on the premises.

“She has always been generous. She has always been selfless with everything, and if you don’t know her, you wouldn’t know that about her,” says Kalana Greene, Charles’ former teammate with both the Huskies and Sun, on HHF’s official website. “The thing I love about her is it is not about just writing a check and saying, ‘I did this, it’s a tax write off.’ For her, to see it happen, to be excited about it, to see it come together and be done, it brings tears to her eyes. She is really passionate about it. She really wants people to have opportunities that she has never had or opportunities that she has had.”

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On July 11, Charles’ efforts off the court were recognized via the 2018 Mannie Jackson Award, an honor bestowed by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Known as “Basketball’s Human Spirit Award”, Charles was recognized alongside NBA veterans J.J. Barea and Boris Diaw.

“It just came from being a Christian, honestly, being a Christian and just my faith, being a servant unto others, treating those how I would like to be treated,” Charles told  Brian Heyman of Newsday. “It’s very important to me to donate my life to others.”

With rumors of a sale swirling through Liberty circles, the constant of Charles, her play on the court and off, is a dependable reminder of what New York City hoops can be.

True to form, Charles chalked up her contributions as a team effort. The Liberty have earned several accolades from the WNBA Cares program for their efforts in the community. These efforts were highlighted on July 13-15, when the team hosted its first annual Unity Weekend.

“The New York Liberty have been in the forefront as far as social justice awareness when it comes to police brutality or African American oppression. They’ve been in the forefront,” Charles said after the weekend. They know that when we’re playing in the games or the way the season is, you just get so caught up playing basketball versus what’s going on outside of the arena. So, they do a good job bringing us to reality and keeping us humble and making us aware that we have a platform and a voice.”

For more information on Hopey’s Heart Foundation, visit their website.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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