June 22, 2021
The rookie and the vet: Ariel Atkins and Tina Charles, two Mystics on Team USA
‘I'll be by your side every step of the way'
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On Monday, USA Basketball named its 12-player roster for next month’s Olympics, and it has tapped a player who was almost literally born into its winning tradition. Washington Mystics guard and Olympic rookie-to-be Ariel Atkins was born on July 30, 1996—one day after Team USA wrapped up pool play in the 1996 Olympic Games with a 105-64 win over South Korea and less than a week before it won the first of six straight gold medals.
“I was able to watch that gold medal game. I remember it vividly,” said Tina Charles, Atkins’ Mystics teammate who was also named to the Olympic team. “I remember my eyes being wide open, sitting down and watching that game and just thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I’m starting to love basketball and seeing women that look like me be on this big stage. I wonder if I could aspire to be there.”
Fast forward 25 years, and Charles will head to Tokyo for her third Olympics, a feat that is not lost on her. “I’m probably maybe the only one that cries every time,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t take it for granted. I just start bawling, crying, because it means a lot for me [and] it means a lot for my family and coaches and players along the way that have allowed me to be at this position in my career.”
Charles’ selection comes in the middle of the best season of her WNBA career, as the 32-year-old center is averaging a league-leading 24.5 points as well as 9.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.7 blocks per game while shooting 44.6 percent from the field. Atkins, a 24-year-old guard, is perhaps the perfect foil: She ranks eighth in the league in scoring (19.0 points per game), is ninth in 3-point shooting percentage (45.2 percent) and is also averaging 3.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks per game.
“I’m just so happy for them to have this opportunity,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault, who also coached the 2008 Olympic team, said on Monday. “… I was kind of going on the assumption all along—I mean, I didn’t think I was jumping the gun that Tina was going to make the team. She’s a past Olympian; her resume speaks for itself, and she’s obviously had a very dominant season this year. But you don’t know how many of the younger players they’re ever going to pick.”
Atkins first played with USA Basketball on the under-18 team in 2014, and Thibault had lobbied for her to be in the player pool for the senior national team a few years ago, hoping that, if nothing else, she could be a serious contender for the 2024 Olympics. But she impressed enough to speed up that timeline.
“That was one of my most emotional moments of the season, finding out this weekend that she had made the team,” Thibault said. “It’s a great testament to all the work she’s put in. … Making it this time, I think it’s just it’s an incredible thing and I’ve told her, [the Olympics were] one of the best experiences of my life in basketball, and I’m thrilled that she’ll get to go and experience it.”
For Atkins, the news was still sinking in on Monday, even though she had gotten word a few days prior that a spot on the team was hers. “I think I’m realizing, but I don’t think it’s really hit,” she said. “I’m just waiting for that moment where it’s like, ‘Yo, this is crazy.’” She said several times that she was struggling to put into words what it felt like to be an Olympian and how much the selection meant to her.
Tina Thompson, one of Atkins’ biggest mentors and a two-time Olympic gold medalist herself, was equally short on words. “[We were] on the phone just crying together—that’s what it was in a nutshell,” Atkins said.
Atkins’ family was stunned: “I didn’t hear anything but screaming from my parents. And my dad’s like, ‘Huh? What did you just say? Are you sure?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, Dad.’”
When Atkins was asked what she had proved to USA Basketball’s selection committee to earn her spot, she pointed to her versatility, her ability to score from anywhere on the court and her ability to quickly absorb and retain information. Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller, who is part of the selection committee, also mentioned Atkins’ fit with the team and defensive prowess, as she has been named to the WNBA’s All-Defensive Second Team in each of her first three seasons.
“Ariel has really played her way onto the team,” Miller said. “She’s a two-way player: she’s a terrific shooter [who] can space the floor, but she’s also one of the better defending threes. As this team has gotten a little bit older, her ability to play and defend at the big three is really important for us, as it allows Breanna Stewart to not have to play the three exclusively with the great post players that we have. … So finding a young defender for [head coach] Dawn [Staley] and her staff, a player that could also help space the floor, was important for us.”
“The general impression is that she just kind of fits with everybody,” added Thibault, who had not spoken with the selection committee but had had conversations with USA Basketball after previous training camps. “She knows how to play with different players, she doesn’t have to be a go-to player and so she knows how to play off the ball … And every once a while, the Olympic team could use some good defenders, too.”
Atkins said that her game plan for Tokyo is “not to step outside of myself, just be who I am and do the simple things.” That is exactly what the United States needs, as Atkins has consistently made her teammates better and contributed to winning cultures throughout her career, dating back to her 148-10 record in four varsity seasons at Duncanville High School in Texas.
Atkins and Charles are only eight years apart in age, but in some respects, Atkins is the next generation from Charles, as they are at very different points in their Olympic careers. Atkins has played just three games with the senior national team, all in 2020, while Charles has played 75 games and scored more than 1,000 points since debuting with the senior national team in 2009. That difference was evident in how their teammates reacted to the news on Monday morning.
“To be totally honest, being with Ariel, everyone’s very much more excited for her versus me,” Charles said with a laugh. “For me it’s just like, good job and keep it moving, which I love. I’m really happy that she gets to have this moment.”
Charles hasn’t dispensed much advice about the Olympics yet, as both players are trying to stay focused on the Mystics’ next game against Seattle. She did promise Atkins, “Just know that I’ll be by your side every step of the way, any questions that you have.” And one lesson that she plans to share with all six Olympic rookies boils down to “less is more.” Charles was the United States’ fourth-leading scorer at the 2016 Olympics with 9.6 points per game, but she said her role throughout her national team career has been to run the floor, be tough on defense, set hard screens, rebound and communicate.
Despite her status as the WNBA’s top scorer this season, Charles is more than willing to be a role player again in Tokyo. “[When] you see Diana Taurasi to the right of you, I think you know what your role is,” she quipped, referencing the soon-to-be five-time Olympian and the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer.
Much as they have this season as the Mystics’ top two players, Atkins and Charles will lean on each other when the Olympic team gathers next month for training camp and exhibition games before traveling to Japan.
“[I] think it’s going to be great,” Charles said of playing with Atkins. “I think we’re onto something really special, her and I, with what we’re able to do for this team with the handful of players on the Mystics that we don’t have right now … She’s someone that I know I’ll be very close to, to just be alongside of her, get to know her even better off the court.”
Atkins added, “It’s absolutely extra special having an opportunity to play with [Charles] … to have someone by your side that you know very well and to help teach you the ropes and things like that. We’ve been able to get to know each other a little bit better over this season, and so I’m extremely excited to be playing with her, somebody I look up to and somebody that’s been helping me become a better pro.”
Both Atkins and Charles spoke about how special and important it feels to be able to inspire the next generation, just like they were inspired by the national team growing up. Atkins, who once had some of her new teammates’ posters on her wall, said, “This isn’t just about me. It’s so, so, so much bigger than me; so much bigger than my face; so much bigger than my name …
“There are kids out there that know me, that have seen me. I’m from Duncanville, Texas, [a] small town in the Dallas area, and I just want them to know that you can do it, too. The only difference in between me and you is time and work, and I’m just blessed, man. I’m super thankful.”
For Atkins, a Black woman who has frequently fought for and spoken about social justice as a member of the Mystics, the climate of the United States right now adds another layer of significance to her being selected for the Olympics and playing under Staley, the team’s first Black female head coach.
“To be chosen to represent my country in that light, specifically with everything that’s going on right now, things that we’ve been dealing with for the past few years and things that have been brought to light, it’s a huge honor, not only [for] me to represent my country but to represent every facet of our country and everything that our country looks like,” she said.
Monday was a day full of happy tears and weighty emotions for Ariel Atkins and Tina Charles and a banner day for the Mystics organization. Soon, it will be all business in the pursuit of a seventh straight gold medal. But at least for a day, Atkins and Charles could celebrate their wildest dreams coming true—and the fact that their dynamic partnership is going international.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.