WNBA playoffs 2022: Tina Charles finds the right fit with the Seattle Storm

LAS VEGAS -- Tina Charles didn't hesitate. Asked if a WNBA championship feels like a "must-have" or a really nice addition to an already Hall of Fame-worthy career, the Seattle Storm center's answer was immediate.

"I think it would be icing on the cake," she said.

Charles was sitting in a mostly quiet Michelob Ultra Arena the day before Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces. Charles turns 34 in December, but she looks ageless on the court. She was a key part of two undefeated national championship teams at UConn in 2009 and 2010, is a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the 2012 WNBA MVP. Just last season, while with the Washington Mystics, she led the WNBA in scoring at 23.4 PPG.

Of course she wants to win a WNBA title. But it's not going to make or break the way she feels about herself or her career. She said it's not why she left the Phoenix Mercury in June and then signed with Seattle. And that's the part of her story she believes the media, ESPN included, got wrong.

"To me, success was about making the decision to come here," Charles said. "It said a lot about me as a woman, more even than me as a player, in terms of what I am going to stand for. If a championship doesn't happen, it doesn't take away anything from the player I became, or what I've learned, or the experiences."

Charles came up huge in the series opener Sunday, getting a franchise playoff-record 18 rebounds, along with 13 points, as the No. 4 seed Storm beat the top-seeded Aces 76-73. Her contract divorce from Phoenix, the team she joined as a free agent in February, is two months in the rearview mirror, and she doesn't really want to re-hash it now. Her mind is focused on the Storm.

What she will say about leaving Phoenix is that it wasn't about needing to get more shots or wanting a bigger role in the offense. It wasn't about leaving to chase after a championship. Charles doesn't specify what happened in Phoenix, but says her departure was about taking care of herself and maintaining standards she thinks players need to have.

"It's a business, and if we don't hold up our end, we get cut," Charles said. "I think for future generations, I hope I've allowed them to know the importance of being in a good working environment and a good culture. The importance of a coaching staff and how they prepare, and being accountable to teammates that are around you.

"I want to thrive in the right environment at this point in my career, being 13 years in. A lot of other players maybe would have had time to settle in and see what the outcome of that was. Me being 33, I just knew what my goal was and it's also important to know what process you want to go through to attain that goal."

Charles came to the Storm with one specific thing in mind: Fill the role Seattle needed. The Storm have Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird as key players from their 2018 and 2020 championship teams. But with another player from those squads, center Mercedes Russell, sidelined most of this season with recurrent headache syndrome, rebounding was an issue. And who better than Charles, who has averaged 9.3 rebounds in her career, to help fix it?

"She's been very professional," Seattle coach Noelle Quinn said. "She came with a mindset of, 'I'm willing to do whatever you ask,' and that was a great starting block. It was an understanding on both parties: She wanted to come in and win."

Charles played her first game with the Storm on June 29, when she had four points and five rebounds in a victory over Las Vegas. Starting July 5, she scored in double figures in nine consecutive games. She finished the regular season averaging 12.6 points and 7.4 rebounds in 18 games with the Storm.

In a first-round sweep against the Mystics team that she played for last year, Charles had a combined 21 points and 12 rebounds. Then in the semifinal opener, her rebounding helped set the tone from the beginning.

"Coming into this game, the thing I knew I could control was just being on the boards, watching their tendencies," Charles said after Game 1. "I took it personal."

In Seattle, Charles is now teammates with Bird, Stewart and Gabby Williams, all UConn graduates. Bird, Charles and Stewart are also all natives of New York state, and they have been Olympic teammates, along with Loyd. All of it helped Charles' transition to Seattle.

"From Day 1 of her arriving, it was going to be about Tina getting comfortable playing our style and finding her ways to fit in," Bird said. "And us simultaneously being comfortable with the type of player who can really dominate on the low block. So over the course of time, it was only going to get better. Comfort is everything when you're talking about a team game."

Charles said if it looks as if it has been an easy, seamless transition, that's somewhat deceiving. It has taken a lot of work.

"What I've been able to do here is adapt, and I'm thankful to be able to show I can adapt," Charles said. "I take pride in being a New Yorker, and that's what we do: We adapt to our surroundings, keep moving and keep our heads up. Regardless of people's opinions or what else is thrown at you. But, yes, when I was making my decision on leaving Phoenix, I knew there was a potential landing space -- that Seattle could be a good fit."

Stewart said she has benefited from having another big body and fellow MVP inside.

"Us having played a lot of USA Basketball together, we're used to each other's games," Stewart said. "But usually, that's a week or 10 days or a little longer with the Olympics. Now we have Tina with the Storm, and are seeing how she is off the court, the amazing human she is. Her personality and competitiveness are so strong, and she's really trying to help us as a team and just being there for everybody."

Charles said her game has adapted over the years, another thing she brings to Seattle.

"I've always loved challenging myself," she said. "And most of the time when I'm doing a workout, it's not a post workout. I'm doing guard things -- just knowing how to help spread the floor, and realizing as you get older, you're not going to be as fast or quick. But I can still be as skillful and smart in trying to take advantage of the opportunities that I have.

"I've always been a confident person and player. I'm never going to say to myself that I can't do something. That's just the grind that I put in that people don't see, putting in that time to be able to come out and do in on the court."