Tina Charles tries to avoid a Patrick Ewing ending — Hear from Tina — Must-click women’s basketball links
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, June 29, 2022
Happy Basketball Wednesday! “I’ll retire when I stop getting double and triple-teamed,” the newest member of the Seattle Storm, Tina Charles, said with a mischievous smile.
She’d been asked whether she planned to retire if she won a title this season in Seattle, after she’d made it clear that forcing her way out of Phoenix, and to Sue Bird’s farewell tour with the Storm, came down to a calculation: the Mercury weren’t winning a title this year, and Seattle just might — especially with Charles.
“I have a small window,” Charles said. “And there’s a way that I’ve wanted to play with the time I have left playing, the way I want to be coached.”
It’s easy to look at Tina Charles and her title-less WNBA career and judge it as somehow less than it is. I also find it incredibly simplistic and wrong.
I came to covering Tina Charles after growing up rooting for Patrick Ewing. And if you rooted for Patrick Ewing’s Knicks — as I know Tina did, too — you became intimately familiar with the ways in which fate had denied him that NBA title. A fingertip of Hakeem Olajuwon, grazing a John Starks game-winning shot. Reggie Miller heroics, somehow unstoppable in Madison Square Garden. Finger rolls, inexplicably missed. Michael Jordan, again and again and again. And off the court, the portrait of a Fine Arts grad from Georgetown transformed into an angry malcontent.
Ewing didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he never even tried to take control of the narrative, not until it was too late, well after his best years. Tina, an accomplished filmmaker, did this once — asking out of Connecticut, essentially ending Mike Thibault’s tenure there and leading to a proper restoration: the New York product, back home to win a title.
The New York Liberty with Tina Charles at her best were assumed to be eventual title winners in precisely the way the Ewing Knicks were. What it would have meant to the Liberty is hard to overstate. It might well have been enough to change the entire trajectory of the franchise. Does Jim Dolan really jettison that team after it wins a WNBA title? (I mean, maybe, who the hell knows what Jim Dolan is ever thinking.)
It didn’t happen. The best Liberty team I saw with Tina lost to the WNBA’s best-ever player, Tamika Catchings, coming into The Garden and lifting her Fever well beyond what should have been their capacity in 2015. The next year, the Liberty got to experience life as a three seed in the now-defunct WNBA playoff format — Taurasi scores 30, New York is one-and-done. Tina went 19-9-5 assists. didn’t matter. Same thing in 2017, behind nine threes from Kristi Toliver. Nine! Tina held Elena Delle Donne to a draw. Didn’t matter.
The Liberty were better than all three of those teams, I believe, but lost all three of those critical games on their home floor. Players who Tina Charles didn’t guard did them in. Charles was only as good as she could be, fed the ball. And defenses keyed on her, without enough talent around her to force them not to. I don’t know if she had Ewing flashbacks, but I sure did.
That won’t be the case in Seattle, but it also wasn’t supposed to be the case in DC, where her old coach from Connecticut took her back in. Things didn’t end well there, and she never got to play much alongside Elena Delle Donne. She then headed to Phoenix to play a supporting four next to Brittney Griner, coming off the best postseason of her life, and while there are far worse aspects of the Griner situation, that we aren’t getting to see the Griner of the 2021 postseason dominate during the 2022 season is a basketball-specific sadness within the larger tragedy.
Charles spoke of knowing the impact on her Phoenix teammates, but needing to do what was best for her. It’s impossible not to wonder how the way the Liberty, the place she went home to lead to glory, forced her to play home games in the Westchester County Center impacted her belief that she had to look out for herself, first and foremost. I think about that all the time — she went home to play in front of her father, and then the team moved to a high school gym.
There are plenty who think she could have handled her exit from New York better. They said the same of Ewing, two decades earlier. That she hasn’t always been keen on making friends where she goes is not a license to ignore her greatness.
It’s complicated, right? What do you see when you look at this list of the top 25 players in WNBA history in win shares? Tina is one of only two, if I am reading it right, without a title — Becky Hammon is the other, aiming to fix that as a coach as we speak. Ewing is 39th in NBA history, with almost everyone ahead of him boasting a championship as well. I guess there are some who believe this is a fate of their own making in each case. I sure don’t.
If it feels more frantic, this effort by Charles to avoid the fate of Ewing, the star she grew up rooting for, well, it is hard to blame her. She knows firsthand how basketball fans view stars who don’t get that trophy.
“When people stop respecting me, that’s when I’ll know it’s time to go. But until that day? I’ll be out there,” Charles said. She paused, then added, laughing: “That was the New York in me that just came out.”
The New York in her wants to win a title. I happen to think her legacy should be secure, but she cannot guarantee the way Ewing has found his way back into the New York pantheon — two decades of almost comical failures by the franchise since he left. (The Liberty, it seems, are on the cusp of real success.)
But no matter: Tina Charles knows what it will mean to win a title, and what it will mean if she doesn’t.
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