How Tina Charles' high standards for herself make everyone around her better

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Tina Charles still hears the statement in her head.

You're the worst rebounder in the world.

Most former UConn players will say the well-intentioned barbs delivered by coach Geno Auriemma continue to motivate them, even many years after they've left Storrs.

But Charles sometimes thinks she really is the world's worst on the boards. Never mind that on July 14 she became the Liberty's all-time rebounding leader after just 3 seasons with the franchise. She is now at 1,113 in 119 regular-season games for New York, and has 2,523 in 249 games overall in her WNBA career, which started with the Connecticut Sun.

But record or not, Charles never lets herself off the hook. She is well aware of every time she misses a box out, or lets a potential rebound get away from her. In her mind, that's not meeting the basic requirements of her job.

"From the time I entered the WNBA, I wanted it to be my staple," Charles said. "Knowing my guards can leak out because they're trusting me to get [the defensive] rebound, getting [offensive rebounds] to keep a possession going.

"It is about technique and about effort. I take pride in it. It's something I can control when other things aren't going well."

There aren't too many times, though, when Charles' game isn't working. Now in her eighth WNBA season and coming off her fifth All-Star Game appearance, Charles is averaging 20.5 points and 9.9 rebounds for the 10-9 Liberty, who face league-leading Minnesota on Tuesday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET). She was named the Eastern Conference player of the week on Monday, her third such honor this season and 24th in her career.

Charles has averaged a career double-double (18.0 PPG, 10.1 RPG) and has two Olympic and two world championship gold medals. She was the 2012 WNBA MVP, and led the league in scoring last season (21.5 PPG).

Of course, there is one thing still left on her to-do list: win a WNBA title. She wants it for the Liberty, for her hometown of New York, for her teammates.

"Tina is one of the strongest-minded players I've been around," said Phoenix's Diana Taurasi, who has played with Charles on the U.S. national team. "Sometimes it comes down to the right pieces and the right team. But there's no way a player like Tina is not going to win a championship, because she's that determined and driven to do it."

But as much as winning is her motivator, Charles also cares about what she is passing on to everyone around her.

"I can't overstate how proud I am of Tina -- just who she's become as a person as well as on the court," said Minnesota's Maya Moore, who played with Charles at UConn and with the national team. "She's done both -- grow as a person and still be an MVP candidate every year.

"She's grown as a leader in being the voice, saying, 'This is what we value, this is how we can be successful every day.' Stepping into that role of being a leader who wants to empower others. I think her teammates respect not just what she says, but what she does. It's hard to do every day at a high level on a big stage at New York."

Yet as Charles and Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer have said, she knew this was the deal. Charles has had that kind of weight on her shoulders ever since Connecticut drafted her No. 1 overall in 2010. The Sun traded Lindsay Whalen to the Lynx for the chance to select Charles and build the franchise around her.

While there, Charles had a strong relationship with then-Sun coach Mike Thibault. They talked about not just basketball, but politics, music, social issues and Charles' deep commitment to philanthropy.

When Thibault was let go by the Sun after the 2012 season, Charles was upset. She played one more year with the Sun, and then pushed for the trade that sent her to New York. She and Laimbeer have clicked, too. Yet Thibault and Charles still have a connection, even though he is now coach at Washington.

"We're really close. It's hard coaching against her," Thibault said. "My first experience at the pro level with an athlete who had that kind of depth was Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. I saw some of Kareem in her; she has this thirst for other things in life.

"She and I had a long talk after her rookie year about being more aware of the people around her and her surroundings. When you're in college, things are done for you; you can take that for granted. Now people do things for you, but it's a different relationship. And she notices that. She's thoughtful about other people."

Charles channels all of this into her leadership with the Liberty, which is as important this season as it has ever been. With Swin Cash retiring after last season and Tanisha Wright resting this year, Charles is the primary voice more than ever for the Liberty.

There are other veterans, such as fellow center Kia Vaughn and guards Epiphanny Prince and Shavonte Zellous, but Charles is the player everyone looks to. Consider what fellow Liberty All-Star Sugar Rodgers said about moving to a reserve role the past two games -- both New York victories -- with Bria Hartley starting instead at guard.

"I've come off the bench to bring energy and scoring and whatever we need," Rodgers said. "Tina thought it was a good idea, and that I was mature enough for that role.

"Not everybody can do it. But she thought it was something I could achieve, and it's working. I'm willing to stick with it and keep going forward."

In other words, Charles' belief in Rodgers in that role meant a great deal to the fifth-year player.

"You have to enter someone's life in order to be a leader for them," Charles said. "I've been able to have a good working relationship with every person in this locker room, so they can trust me, they can tell me when they don't feel as confident.

"They allow me to hold them accountable, and I ask to be held accountable, too. I'm someone who wants to be coached, who wants constructive criticism."

The Liberty have had their ups and downs; they were 4-6 in the 10 games prior to the All-Star Game, although the last two were confidence-building wins against Washington and Connecticut. Wright's absence and the season-ending injury to Brittany Boyd both have taken a toll on the Liberty's perimeter game, and continuing to effectively address that is likely their biggest challenge in making a playoff push.

But Charles sees that as her responsibility, too: helping everybody be at their best, because they're all important.

"I think some teams are able to find their identity early in the season; for others, it takes longer," Charles said. "The more we're able to see what each of us is able to do, the more we can depend on each other. Even if it's someone who's not getting a lot of minutes, you never know what could happen with injuries or something. So you need everybody focused.

"I'm still growing, too, and I know sometimes I'm going to make mistakes. But we have one common goal, and I know they trust me to help us get there."