May 30, 2024 

Tina Charles 2.0: Inside the journey of faith that sparked her WNBA return

Charles: 'I was just in a state of gratitude'

Dale McNeil, the Atlanta Dream’s player development coach, jogged to the sideline of the court inside Gateway Center Arena to secure a rebound moments after the team concluded its afternoon gameday shootaround on May 21. Standing at the top of the key, Dream big Tina Charles fired away a succession of mid-range jumpers to complete her individual work.

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The former MVP was at peace with herself. After Atlanta’s two-game west coast road trip to begin the season, she was stoked to embrace fans and their infectious energy for the Dream’s home opener against the Dallas Wings. “Her work ethic is everything,” Dream forward Cheyenne Parker-Tyus told The Next. “To be a sponge of her knowledge and wisdom is everything to me.”

However, Charles — who signed a one-year unprotected deal with the Dream in February — couldn’t have fathomed playing in Atlanta a year ago. The eight-time All-Star went unsigned ahead of the last season, resulting in Charles not playing in the league.

Although Charles was no stranger to sitting out from the Wreceiving a medical exemption to refrain from playing in the 2020 season due to COVID-19 — that wasn’t the plan for the longstanding center. As the Dream (3-2) prepare to face the two-time WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces (4-1) on Friday at the GAC, Charles’ latest WNBA opportunity didn’t materialize solely from her competitive nature or her brilliance as one of the elite scorers and rebounders in league history.

It transpired after months of personal solitude at home in Brooklyn, “living out her faith” in God and trusting him to “open the door,” Charles added.

“He gets the glory for getting me back to the league,” Charles told The Next. “I wanted to be in a place with people who knew me personally and would hold me accountable to the highest standard and Atlanta was the perfect fit.”

After averaging career highs in points (23.4) per game and three-point field goal percentage (36.5) in the 2021 campaign, Charles’ WNBA stint in 2022 included a disastrous 16-game tenure with the Mercury. Although Phoenix featured a wealth of talent, things spiraled out of control. After Mercury star Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained in Russia and turmoil within the franchise spewed on the court, Phoenix and Charles parted ways in a contract divorce in June of that season.

Charles remained on the western front of the league, striking a deal with the Seattle Storm for the final 18 games and averaging 7.4 rebounds and career-low 12.6 points per game. But after 2022, basketball became silent for Charles. “I thought I was retired… but God had a plan,” she said.

Tina Charles pictured in a game on July 30, 2022 against the Washington Mystics (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra, The Next)
Dream add former WNBA MVP and 6’4 center Tina Charles in free agency (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra/The Next)

Instead of competing against her peers and pursuing a WNBA title, Charles began fulfilling the first piece of her God-given mission. The 6’4 center, who initially accepted Christ into her life in 2009 and was baptized in 2016, focused her energy in praying and attending worship at Epiphany Church Brooklyn. The multiethnic church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of the city helped Charles build a “next level type of endurance” to remain positive in a difficult time.

Still, in her range of emotion from being away from the game she loved, merely attending service wasn’t enough. Charles enrolled in classes at New York School of the Bible, a program to help strengthen her knowledge of the scripture and boost her confidence to deliver the ministry to others. “That’s when I started living my faith out loud,” Charles said. She focused a key portion of her time exploring the old testament, learning about some of the biblical figures like Abraham, Daniel, Isaac, Jacob, Job, Joseph and Joshua, all of whom persevered through challenges. 

As she studied the scripture while facing her own tribulation of returning to the WNBA, it presented her with a “peace that surpassed all understanding,” she said. Charles also credited her mother, Angela Murry, for being a catalyst in staying committed to her goal. 

“Every day, she kept reminding me that God wasn’t done with me yet,” Charles said. 

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After growing closer to God during the months where Charles typically would have been competing in the WNBA, she was ready to restore her love for the game. During the 2023 offseason, she played internationally in China. The 35-year-old played for Hebei in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association, averaging 23 points on 48% shooting on two pointers, clipping 33.6% from beyond the arc while grabbing 12.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game in 37 games. 

Ironically, in China, Charles and Parker Tyus — who was playing for Zhejiang — battled against each other in the first of two matchups in November. Although Zhejiang scored victories against Hebei in both contests, the 2023 WNBA All-Star was in awe of Charles’ performance in the first game. “She gave me a 42 piece,” Parker-Tyus laughed.

During the Nov. 1 clash, at one point Parker-Tyus stood inside one of the marked lane spaces and looked on as Charles padded her 40-point performance with free throws. However, in that moment, the 2023 WNBA All-Star unknowingly provided a glimpse of a future proposition for the three-time Olympic gold medalist. “I was like, ‘you need to come play in Atlanta’ but I was just joking around,” she added.

Three months later, what started as a joke became a divine manifestation. In leaning into God’s destiny for her life, Charles earned a favorable opportunity to play for the Dream, a team that earned its first postseason appearance in five years last season and a franchise infused with young talent starring Rhyne Howard. It also afforded Parker-Tyus the opportunity to shift back to her natural position of power forward from center with Charles’ arrival.

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But in Charles’ return to her piece of paradise, playing for Atlanta felt different than any other franchise she’s played for since entering the league in 2010. Dream coach Tanisha Wright and Charles were teammates for three seasons in New York while Padover — who started his WNBA career with the Liberty in 2012 — climbed the ladder to become the franchise’s vice president of basketball operations during their tenure. 

“Those two [Wright and Padover] are like family,” Charles said. Tanisha is a big sister to me. I feel like we have more in common personally than in basketball which made Atlanta feel like home.”

Wright concurred: “There is a mutual respect between Tina and I. … In all candor, I look forward to now telling her what to do instead of vice versa.”

Wright is a “players’ coach”, and it’s the biggest reason why Charles feels Atlanta has allowed her to “be herself” versus making an adjustment in returning to the league. She described Wright’s coaching philosophy as one rooted in how the former guard conducted herself during her playing days: “Relatable, consistent, intentional and one who will certainly hold you accountable.” 

Tina Charles speaks with her teammates during a game between the Atlanta Dream and Washington Mystics on May 29, 2024. (Domenic Allegra photo)

Those traits will help Charles aid a franchise seeking to take the next step toward winning its first WNBA title as well as cultivate a solid veteran presence for young stars like Howard and forwards like Parker-Tyus and Naz Hillmon, who has carved out a role as one of the team’s high energy players and one who is active in rebounding and generating turnovers. 

“She’s a true pro and a super competitor who is going to bet on herself no matter what, even in a half court shot competition with Rhyne Howard,” Hillmon said with a laugh. “Her competitive spirit really raises us to a different level. She doesn’t want to lose at anything and she’s not going to take possessions off.”

In year 12, Charles — who is now playing for her sixth WNBA franchise — is still chasing the dream of capturing her first championship. She has never made a Finals appearance and has played in only two conference finals series in her decorated career, the first in 2012 with the Sun and the latter in 2015 with the Liberty.

Charles doesn’t carry the same level of pressure to win a title at 35 like she did nearly a decade ago. However, the ultimate goal of winning a championship hasn’t changed. “If I felt like I didn’t have the skills to still compete at a high level, I wouldn’t be here,” Charles said. “I wouldn’t put Atlanta through that.”

Charles doesn’t shy away from the fact that her level of play on the court requires additional maintenance. But if the two-time WNBA scoring champion’s added physical preservation generates iconic performances like the one she posted in Atlanta’s 92-81 season-opening victory on the road against Los Angeles, it’s worth it and all part of God’s unwavering glory over her life.

In her Dream debut, Charles registered a double-double with 21 points and 14 rebounds. But she wasn’t focused on the classic statline. “I was just in a state of gratitude to be back playing in the WNBA,” she said. However, Charles’ teammates and Wright insisted on praising her performance inside the visitor’s locker room at Walter Pyramid in Los Angeles. 

An emotional Charles sat in her chair with her left hand covering her mouth. As she rubbed her face to fight back happy tears, Wright shared a simple yet powerful message to Charles regarding those who forgot about the future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer’s capability on the court: “… They’re going to remember who the f— you are.”

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Things haven’t been picture perfect for Atlanta in its first five games of the season. The Dream lost to the Lynx (4-2) at home on Sunday, stemming from a breakdown in defensive rotations and ball screen defense. The franchise seeks to become a top four team in the league this season. To do that, adjustments must be made and Charles’ leadership and guidance will reside at the forefront of the team’s mission. 

On Wednesday, Atlanta bounced back with a 73-67 victory on the road against the Washington Mystics. Although it wasn’t the “prettiest” win according to Wright, it still gave the Dream another win while Charles notched another career milestone, notching her 31st career game with 15 points and 15 rebounds, the most in league history.

Charles never imagined her life unfolding this way. Instead of seeking to control every aspect of her life, she has allowed her faith in God to guide her path in an evolving WNBA landscape featuring an elite rookie class, higher television viewership and new stars emerging as the faces of the league.

“I’m choosing to be present where I am,” Charles said. “When I was in solitude, I relied on God to create the image for my life. When I felt I couldn’t stand anymore, he gave me the endurance to keep going. It feels good to be renewed. I call it Tina 2.0.”

Written by Wilton Jackson

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