NEW YORK — Out of tragedy came clarity. Tina Charles had always searched for problems to solve, for people to serve. In high school, she fed the homeless with her mother, Angella Murry, and their Queens, N.Y., church on Thanksgivings. In college, she interned at Bergin Correctional Institution, earning credits helping inmates prepare to transition back to society. And when she started collecting paychecks from the Connecticut Sun, which selected her with the No. 1 pick in the 2010 WNBA draft, she really started to splurge, spreading her money and impact from the Caribbean to Africa.
A Gatorade National Player of the Year in high school, a Wooden and Naismith winner at UConn and the 2012 WNBA MVP, Charles has been recognized at every level as the very best. Since returning home in New York in 2014, to play for the Liberty, Charles has commanded the WNBA’s max salary—about $110,000 a year. And each season, she’s given half of it to charity.
As the Liberty begin the playoffs Friday night as the No. 1 overall seed, Charles is seeking the only trophy missing from her mantle, a WNBA title. But even in the pressure-packed environment, she’ll still spend spare moments—on the phone during bus rides after games or on her laptop late at night in her hotel room—working on what she calls her foundation, Hopey’s Heart, which she believes is her life’s purpose. The organization’s goal is to give 100 AEDs—easy-to-use devices that can save victims of sudden cardiac arrest—to nonprofits throughout the country. It was born out of the loss of one life, Charles’s aunt Maureen “Hopey” Vaz, in the hopes to protect thousands more.
Charles’s parents instilled in her lessons of community and service from a young age. Her father, Rawlston Charles, was born in Tobago and has built a Caribbean community in Brooklyn through his record shop, Charlie’s Calypso City. Her mother, Angella Murry, was born in Jamaica and brought Tina there for holidays and summer vacations beginning at age 3. By 10, Tina noticed that many of her friends there lacked shoes. She vowed to help them one day if she could. As a high schooler, she was so attuned to the sensitivities of others that she banned her mother from ever using the word “ugly.”
After leading Christ the King (N.Y.) to 57 straight wins as a junior and senior, she committed to powerhouse UConn, where she proceeded to win two undefeated national championships with fellow superstar Maya Moore in 2009 and 2010. In fall 2010, she was named the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year.
A month later, she went to the Czech Republic to compete in the FIBA World Cup for Women. USA Basketball lets players bring one guest, and Charles chose to take Hopey. For a short stint from second to fourth grade, Charles and Murry lived near Hopey in Florida, and it was Hopey who had helped introduce Charles to sports, starting with baseball.
Murry, who is one of six, says that Hopey was the sibling everyone called first when they had a problem and needed advice or had a secret and needed to share it with a non-judgmental ear. During the trip in the Czech Republic, Charles began to connect with Hopey more as a friend and a peer. They shared meals and long conversations. Charles watched how Hopey would read her daily devotional every morning and would kneel at her bedside nightly to pray.
In 2011 and 2012, Charles began making donations in droves. She gave 5,000 pairs of sneakers to a high school in Jamaica from which two of her aunts and an uncle had graduated. She met with the founder of OmniPeace, a humanitarian fashion brand, who was working to build schools in Africa. Charles gave $32,000 to cover the full cost of construction for a school in the Western African country Mali. And after the shocking death of Wes Leonard, the Michigan basketball player who collapsed from heart failure in 2011, she gave $14,775 to the newly formed Wes Leonard Heart Foundation and the New York Department of Education to place AEDs in schools. "I was just shocked when I heard about it," she said of Leonard's death. "It could have easily been me or one of my teammates." She felt a pull toward Leonard’s story, but it wasn’t until a couple years later that she would realize how much it would impact her future.
Hopey’s health began to decline in 2012. She needed chemotherapy for breast cancer and dialysis for failing kidneys. But Charles says she never heard her aunt complain, and Hopey never missed a chance to call her niece, even if she was in the hospital. On March 9, 2013, Murry called Charles, who was playing in Poland during the WNBA’s off-season, to tell her that Hopey had died of multiple organ failure. Continents apart, they cried together on the phone.
“The thing that struck me—we all lose people in this life, but when she passed away, her house was still there,” Charles says. “Her money. Her jewelry. Her clothes. Everything material was still there, but what really remained with me was her spirit.”
Before Hopey’s death, Charles picked where to donate her time and money almost at random—from segments she saw on E:60 or stories she read online. But as she heard people at the funeral talk over and over again about Hopey’s big heart, she made the connection: Hopey’s legacy should be saving hearts. She was reminded of Wes’s story again, and in April, she launched The Hopey’s Heart Foundation. She wanted to prevent as many tragedies involving young athletes as she could.
Charles didn’t know much about AEDs or nonprofits when she started, but she wanted to be involved in every step of the process. She applied the same focus, energy and obsession that had brought her to the pinnacle of basketball to her foundation. She called manufacturers and negotiated prices (AEDs cost between $1,000 and $1,200), she hired lawyers and helped fill out paperwork to register as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The WNBA offered an early lift: The Sun gave her $1,000 to start, and players with their own charities like Tamika Catchings (Catch the Stars) and Swin Cash (Cash for Kids), now her teammate in New York, were quick to offer advice. “She had really found her passion,” Cash says, “and that’s important, because your passion keeps you going even when most of your work goes unnoticed. Anybody can write a check, but with Tina you see the passion, and you see the results.”
Now they’ll sit next to each other on bus rides, as Charles reviews applications for AEDs and Swin fields phone calls for her community efforts. Charles reads every application the organization receives and even often calls recipients personally to notify them they’ll be receiving an AED. She decided on a gut instinct to donate half her WNBA salary. Although she makes much more money in Europe, she still doesn’t approach $1 million a year playing basketball, and each year she has far exceeded the $50,000 she plans to give away. Her accountant reminds her about retirement, but she doesn’t care. She concerns her coach sometimes, too, but he also appreciates how good her interests outside of the game are.
“She’s very passionate—overly so at times,” says Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer. “She is always going to fundraisers and functions. As a coach you sometimes worry about players wearing themselves to thin, but you have to let that go—especially when you see the kind of work that she is doing.”
There’s no sign that Charles’s play is suffering. Her numbers are down slightly from a season ago, but that’s mostly because she’s on a much better team and isn’t asked to do as much as she was a year ago. She finished third in the MVP voting this season, and more importantly, the Liberty are heavy favorites to win their first title in team history. And Hopey’s Heart is making major gains as well. The organization has donated 136 AEDs and helped facilitate an overhaul in FIBA Euroleague Women. None of the 16 teams’ home gyms had AEDs before this season, and now they all will.
Her only frustrations now are that the foundation isn’t growing fast enough. And although she has a profound sense of certainty about her mission, she still gets distracted sometimes too. In January 2014, she read about the Jamaican bobsled team needing $80,000 to get to the Winter Olympics in Russia. She called her mother and told her she wanted to help her country and cover the cost. Murry emphatically asked her to reconsider. And Charles did. (The team would later raise the funds to get to Sochi ... and finish last.) In that moment, she reminded herself of what she’s working for, in the same way she does when she’s frustrated or when she feels like she’s focusing too much on basketball or money. She reminded herself of Hopey’s heart, the one that long ago stop beating and yet continues to pump out love and life.