WNBA star Tina Charles has made it to the top of her profession through hard work, the right support systems and an unselfishness that is extraordinary and rare in today’s “me” society. In addition to being a basketball kingpin and one of the faces of women’s pro hoops, Charles is as giving and dedicated to humanitarian work as she is to getting her 20 points and 10 rebounds every night for the Connecticut Sun. Her brainchild Hopey's Heart Foundation and partnerships with Heartsmart AED distributors and Safe Kids Worldwide are examples of her commitment to charity and helping kids.
With March Madness underway, The Shadow League kicked it with the WNBA’s 2012 MVP, who also won two National Championships in college at powerhouse UConn. The former Big East powerhouse is now playing in the American Athletic Conference but they're still chewing gravy. The Huskies just completed another undefeated season and are favorites to win their ninth National C'hip this month.
Charles spoke UConn, King Auriemma and pro buckets with TSL. She also shared her NCAA memories and promoted her noble efforts to help kids all over the world and carry on the memory of her deceased aunt.
TSL: How do you feel around NCAA Tourney time especially with UConn being a favorite to win it all as usual?
Tina Charles: Yeah I’m really happy for them. They just won their first American Athletic Conference Championship so the tradition is continuing even though they aren’t in the Big East anymore.
TSL: Has the Conference shift affected alumni?
Yeah it has. I just think it’s a major blow to the history of the Big East. I mean you go way back even on the men’s side…you had Dikembe Mutumbo and Patrick Ewing earlier. The Big East was major, so you had a lot of the best guys who wanted to play in that conference. Even on the women’s side with UConn. We had tough rivalries and battles with Rutgers and then Notre Dame when they came up. That was attractive to young girls playing ball. The schools were very visible as well and on TV. There were certain reasons why you attended these schools and the No. 1 reason was usually the conference they are in and that particular conference is no more, so it’s definitely different.
TSL: You won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2009 and 2010, going undefeated both seasons. What’s your fondest memory of the tournament?
Charles: It was probably when I first turned the corner as a player during that first National Championship. Coach (Geno) Auriemma, he did a great job with me. You saw his teachings at work with Brianna Stewart last season, when they won the championship. The entire season she didn’t have the greatest numbers, but you could tell she was dedicated and you could tell she was going to get that “it” factor. And that usually happens for one of our players during the NCAA Tournament. It happened for me my junior year. Everything just clicks and your game elevates. It’s a great atmosphere and a clean slate on everything. What you accomplished during the season doesn’t matter statistically. Now it’s a whole new season when the NCAA Tournament happens.
TSL: Can anyone stop UConn? Notre Dame is also undefeated and Muffet McGraw has had Geno’s number in the past.
Charles: We haven’t played ND this season because of the conference switch, but I don’t think UConn can be stopped with the will power they all have mentally. I know personally with Coach Auriemma, that even if any game is a close game we are straight because in practice he’s already put us in those situations many times. Sometimes he’ll fix the score and put us in a 10-5 deficit and have us play against the practice players and we can't leave the court until we beat them. He puts us in game situations that you usually don’t see as viewers or experience as a team, but opportunities happen in the NCAA Tournament…strange occurrences and I think they will be ready for anything.
TSL: What did Geno mean to your career? It’s a known fact that he really had to put a battery in your back to get you to reach your full potential.
Charles: Coach Auriemma was someone who believed in me other than my family and close friends. He elevated my game. Where I saw myself and where I had one expectation level, he just took it to another level. There's times when I didn’t understand exactly what was wrong because what I was doing, you know, as a freshman and sophomore was good. I think it would have been acceptable to a lot of coaches. But when you have a coach that really believes in your potential, he wants to see it everyday. When you show Geno that you can get 20-10 in your first game, then he wants to see that every time. He wants to make sure that you know why you did that. It’s because you play hard, you are working and practicing on your game. He doesn’t just teach a player the game of basketball. He also incorporates your everyday life and when you leave school. He’s just an overall great guy.
TSL: You have been a No. 1 overall draft pick and WNBA Rookie of The Year in 2010 and MVP in 2012. Has your pro career been everything you dreamed it would be?
Charles: Personally, yes. Pride in your game comes with the way you individually play, but as far as team, I’m still looking for that first WNBA Championship and that’s what I was built upon, so until that happens I’ll never be satisfied.
TSL: You’ve played on US National teams and National Championship squads. What’s your shining moment as a player?
Charles: I’ll say The Olympic Team because you have to understand that from all of the countries in that Olympic pool we have the least training time. We’re the only team that meets for like two days and that’s our training camp. We play in various leagues year-round. Other teams are able to have a real camp and play together for months. We have the WNBA in the summer and we’re not able to practice as a unit. So it’s something special for a talented group of players to come together, check their egos at the door and understand that your role changes when you come to an all-star team and expectation changes. My role wasn’t to get 20 and 10. It was just to rebound and play great defense and finish around the basket anytime I had an opportunity. And for us to collectively come together and be able to do that. It was really special.
Charles: It was started in memory of my aunt Maureen “Hopey” Vaz, who died on March 9, 2013. Our mission is improving sports safety and raising awareness of Sudden Cardiac Arrest throughout the country by providing life-saving Automated External Defibrillators (AED) to schools, youth groups, athletic teams, recreation centers and community events. My aunt Maureen was a great women in faith and in Christ. Her biggest thing was just being a blessing onto others. She was a breast cancer survivor and she just passed away from multiple organ failure and during that entire time she never questioned her suffering or anything. If anything, she still wanted to help out and make an impact. She knew that throughout your life you roles will change but your purpose is going to remain. One of her main things was, ‘It’s not about the duration of your life but the donation of it.’ That’s exactly the type of person she was and I definitely want to exemplify the kind of person she was as I grow into my own.
TSL: Who taught you that nasty game?
Charles: I grew up in East Elmhurst by LaGuardia Airport and there’s a basketball hoop and parks almost everywhere in that area. I was just that only girl playing with the guys and I was always an active child, and when I grew up I was a big fan of The New York Knicks and I grew up trying to imitate Patrick Ewing backing down centers and all of that. Being around guys, just playing and having fun…that’s where it all came from. Like I never HAD it. I always had to work. I always had to develop skill. I always had to stay an hour after practice or come an hour before practice to really develop skill. Some players just have it. For example, I’ve been playing with Epiphanny Prince my entire life, since we were like 10 or 11 and she was always known to have that naturally wicked crossover and little things in her game that made her stand out. I mean she scored 113 points in one game. Me, I always had to work.
TSL: Best Jump shot in the WNBA?
Charles: Shoot. That’s something to think about (laughter). That’s really something to think about…I can’t even call it right now. I’ll say Diana Turasi, but I won’t say she has the best stroke. You have players on your team that specifically are there for shooting and that’s usually like that sixth or seventh man. I’ll say also Maya Moore she can knock it down.
TSL: Best crossover?
Charles: I’ll say Piph. Epiphanny Prince and Seimone Augustus, it’s a tie.
TSL: Best Post Game?
Charles: As far as post games go I’ll say Crystal Langhorne. She has a lot of great footwork and she may not be as tall as a Brittney Griner but for her size she has great footwork and moves around the cup.
TSL: Best Ups in the Game?
Charles: Glory Johnson plays for Tulsa. Before the All-Star game she was just dunking off the “vert” and those are things you guys don’t see in the game.
TSL: Toughest Player?
Charles: That’s Diana Turasi she is a really tough player. I don’t equate toughness with fighting so I don’t know if she can beat every player in a fight, but every player in the league has to think like, 'man I’m going against Turasi tonight. I know it’s going to be a battle.' She’s very physical if you come through the lane or something you will get challenged.
TSL: You built a school in Mali, Africa. Explain.
Charles: I was on-line and Jennifer Aniston the actress had a T-shirt on with a peace sign on it. It was a peace sign but it was made to look like the continent of Africa. I looked it up and it was from an organization called Omnipeace, who believes that by 2025 they will be able to end poverty with clothing apparel. So I looked into it further and discovered that they also build schools across Africa. So I always told myself that if I ever got into a good financial situation that is something I would want to do. So I looked up Mary Fanaro, the CEO and founder of Omnipeace. She put me in touch with another organization called buildOn, out of Bridgeport Connecticut. They take inner-city kids from places like New York and bring them over to help build schools throughout Africa. To build a school in Africa costs $32,000. I have it, and I was able to supply it to the kids in Africa, and just try to do my part to help end poverty and help them have a brighter future. So it basically went from there and the school was built in 2011.
Charles’ school accommodates up to 150 children in Ganale, a village in the Sikasso region of Mali. So far, buildOn has constructed 178 schools in Mali. Before Tina funded the school, students were learning in two temporary mud huts, with very little light and no ventilation. The new school is built to last 100 years which means it will provide education for generations of children, parents and grandparents.
TSL: Hopey’s Heart Foundation teamed with Safe Kids Worldwide on March 8th to host the Safe Kids Sports Safety Clinic. Speak about that.
Charles: The event was on March 8 at Charles W. Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, Florida. More than 300 local youth athletes, coaches and parents were in attendance to learn about concussions, overuse injuries, the importance of AEDs (Automated External Defibrillators), CPR, pre-participation exams and being prepared with first aid. It was a great event, the day before the one year anniversary of my Aunt Maureen’s passing. We had a good amount of kids able to come out. We set up different stations for the kids. Safe Kids Worldwide, which promotes preventable injuries, gave a lot of information on the importance of a car seat and looking both ways before you cross the street. Things like that.
AED Distributor HeartSmart donated 20 AEDS and Safe Kids donated 27 AEDS to go to Hopey’s Heart Foundation and help Charles' organization reach its goal of 100 recipients.
Charles: Support like that is what we need to maintain a safe sports environment for kids.