September 17, 2021 

For Liberty icon Tina Charles, a homecoming but not a victory

Point Tina wasn't enough to lift DC into the playoffs

NEW YORK — The scene looked the way many people — Tina Charles, the New York Liberty, their fans — had envisioned it for years. At center court of a proper arena at Barclays Center, a huge Liberty logo beneath her feet as she lightly bounced on them, the last few seconds before a game with playoff implications about to begin. For a woman who holds so many franchise records, the obvious most valuable player in the history of the original franchise, it all made sense.

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Except in this case, Charles was wearing the Rise jersey of the Washington Mystics. And she stood not as the primary reason to believe in the Liberty, as she had for so long, but the biggest obstacle between New York and its desire to cap this season of progress with a postseason appearance.

But while Charles hasn’t shied away from vocally expressing her displeasure with how things ended in New York — “They fired me on my day off” has become a legendary WNBA quote — in typical Charles fashion, she set the narrative her own way, determined to come in peace on Friday night.

“That’s what it seems like, but like I said, I have no ill will, there’s no malice, I’m very happy for this organization,” Charles told me, when I insisted I wasn’t trying to create conflict, just trying to determine whether any existed. “And what they’ve been able to do, the season they’ve been able to have, and what they’ve been able to do for the community.”

Truly, if any lingering war exists between Charles and her former team, it wasn’t readily apparent in the leadup to the game — Charles, a blue band wrapped around her knees, stretched and prepared her 32-year-old body, more effort required than in the Madison Square Garden days of her 20s, when she’d simply shoot and shoot and shoot from the perimeter, intent upon expanding her range. (She has, of course.)

The work was part of her desire to “come in poised”, methodical — turnarounds over conditioning coach Sefu Bernard, about 12 feet out, first on the right block, then the left. Some two-on-one with Bernard and Eric Thibault, who did precisely what he always has pregame, even with his father positive for COVID-19 and the unhappy reason for something, a head coaching opportunity, Eric has worked for his entire life.

“I think there’s probably plenty of motivation outside of that,” Thibault said, standing courtside prior to the game. “She’s gonna want to play well. For obvious reasons.” Still, there were cheers, but muted ones. Charles was a Liberty icon, but she also asked out of town.

It’s not that Charles didn’t play well, but the near-universal expectation that she’d impose her will on the game was replaced by a more deferential Tina. The MVP candidate who came into the game averaging 24.3 points per game and 9.6 rebounds instead responded to early double teams by finding her teammates — “trusting my guys” was how she put it prior to the game — and gave DC some early points, Charles getting the assists instead.

“The game plan was to not let Tina beat us,” Liberty coach Walt Hopkins put it simply after the game. “To make the rest of the team beat us. And so we sent our double teams from different locations.”

This, too, has always been part of her game — double-digit assist percentages every year since 2014, as high as 23.4 percent in 2016, a point guard’s level of distribution. The passing was as familiar as her greeting her father, Rawiston, on the sideline and resplendent, with a lean-in hug prior to the game’s start. Still, it was a season-high in assists for Charles by the third quarter, and she finished with 7.

The versatile big who was looking for her own shot? That was Natasha Howard. And the results were an 18-point Liberty lead at the break, and Charles held to just four points. As the halftime buzzer sounded, Charles was quick to the locker room, down the tunnel ahead of her teammates.

Charles did not force her way into the offense in the second half, either, though she did find herself as a Point Tina, dishing assists not just out of doubles, but even on the end of a spin cycle with Howard, a bullet pass to Erica McCall by the hoop. Natasha Cloud, who knows something about distributing the ball, said it was the result of Charles trusting her teammates more. A 24-point lead was cut to 10 by late in the third quarter, Charles methodically finding her way into the soft openings presented by New York at both ends.

Charles did not sit to begin the fourth, a typical rest time for stars, and ultimately played just under 38 minutes, commanding the game, but in less of a flashy, score-first way, and more like Alyssa Thomas, the point forward the Liberty once traded to the Sun to acquire Charles.

But the Liberty had answers all night, Howard posting a 24 and 10 in an echo of Charles’ season averages. When Sabrina Ionescu sank another shot late in the shot clock to put the Liberty up, 91-80, with 18.9 seconds left, Charles stalked off the court for a 20-second timeout, hands on hips, understanding that it will take a win Sunday to get back to the playoffs. A Liberty team long built around Tina Charles has a distinct identity, and Charles herself is increasingly a cohesive part of her new team to the south.

“Tina commands so much attention,” Mystics acting head coach Eric Thibault said following the game. “We have to turn that into an advantage when she gets doubled and I think for a while, it felt a little bit like a disadvantage when a double came — like teams could take her out of the game.”

Still, Tina Charles and the Mystics are in control of their own playoff destiny. Win on Sunday against the Lynx, and DC, for all its injuries and illnesses this season, will be back in the postseason once more.

Tina Charles, too, can still write this story the way she wants. And with each passing day, it is clearly DC, and not Barclays Center, that is now her basketball home.

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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