Charles in Charge: Basketball Star Returns to NYC

Jonathan Zeller

"We can't dunk."

Tina Charles begins below the rim when explaining the women's game. But the 2012 Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) Most Valuable Player doesn't see this as a negative. The native New Yorker, who joined the New York Liberty in 2014, thinks it's a helpful way to start understanding the nuances of her league. (Britney Griner is a notable exception to the no-dunking rule).

"We're not going to jump out of the gym," she says, "so we have to develop skill in everything we do." As a result, the members of the Liberty focus on playing team basketball and operating within the parameters of coach Bill Laimbeer's offense. Charles does her damage around the basket not by tearing down the rim, but with deft footwork and a light touch on hook shots, jumpers and layins—though she's definitely physical when jostling for a rebound.

On a recent Friday evening, the 9,632 fans at Madison Square Garden watching the Liberty battle the Los Angeles Sparks—a closed upper deck let rooters clog the lower bowl, lending the proceedings an intimate feel—certainly appreciated the game on its own considerable merits.

As Charles took the court—lights dimmed, disco ball spinning in an oversize basketball hoop at center court and mock Statue of Liberty torch spitting fire—they roared their approval. They shouted for every layup, crisp pass and three-pointer by the hosts, even as the Sparks' stifling fourth-quarter defense put the game out of reach. Most of the seats closest to the court were occupied not by the celebrities one might find at a Knicks game, but by families with kids—including some daughters wearing Tina Charles jerseys.

Charles was once a lot like those fans.

The 24-year-old, 6'4" center was part of the first generation of American girls who grew up with a professional women's league to watch; the WNBA played its first games when Charles was 8 years old. She frequently went to Madison Square Garden with her mother, a Liberty season-ticket holder. Charles' dad took her to see the Knicks too—but, she says, "The WNBA allowed me to have a dream."

The native of Jamaica, Queens, chased her goal of playing professionally by honing her skills on public courts all over the city. Charles ticks them off: "PS 127 in Queens. Rucker. West 4th. Gaucho's Gym and Riverbank State Park. Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx." She starred for high school basketball powerhouse Christ the King, where she amassed a slew of national player of the year honors.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

Charles left the five boroughs for the University of Connecticut, where she won two national titles and the John R. Wooden Award as the nation's top college player—making her a natural first choice for the Connecticut Sun in the 2010 WNBA Draft. Not too long after, she won a gold medal in London with the 2012 United States Olympic team and earned more hardware as the WNBA's top player.

Charles enjoyed playing in front of the same fans that supported her in college—if any place has a women's basketball tradition, it is the Constitution State—but she found herself longing to return home. Shortly before the 2014 season, Charles let the Sun know that she'd prefer to play in New York, and they granted her wish with a draft-day trade to the team she cheered as a kid. While the move didn't garner the same reaction as LeBron James' recent repatriation to Cleveland, the Liberty's acquisition of a local hero to play alongside fellow All-Star Cappie Pondexter was huge news in the WNBA.

While icing down her knees after the game—a typically strong individual performance during which she poured in 20 points and pulled down eight rebounds—Charles talks about how even the commute in New York City feels different.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

In Connecticut she'd hop in her car for a quiet drive to the arena. Here it's an eventful subway ride on the E line from her apartment in Forest Hills, Queens, to 34th Street in Manhattan. "People recognize me," Charles says, "and say, 'Hey, what's going on?'" While she was gone, she missed that sense of camaraderie, and "how loud it is—just the little things."

She chose Forest Hills for its diversity, the "different backgrounds, different nationalities and different cultures," she says. Nearly half of Queens' residents are foreign-born, and Charles' neighborhood is teeming with restaurants serving food from around the world. She likes to hang out in Harlem and dig into chicken and pancakes (that's right—pancakes, not waffles) on the Upper West Side at southern-fried beer-and-brunch spot Jacob's Pickles. On weekends she goes to Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg and visits the Brooklyn Flea—more for the people watching and food than for the shopping itself.

Despite an uneven start to the season—they won just one road game during the first half—the Liberty find themselves only a half game off the pace for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference coming out of the All-Star break. Charles hopes the roster will gel and give her a chance at a WNBA championship—the first basketball crown for a Madison Square Garden tenant since Willis Reed's Knicks won the NBA Finals back in 1973.

"It would be right up there with the Olympic gold medal," Charles says of winning it all in her hometown. "It's the only thing I'm missing."

Maddy, the Liberty's mascot. Photo: Julienne Schaer