Let’s take it back to ‘06. Before she became a WNBA legend, Tina Charles was dominating as a senior at Christ the King Regional HS in Queens. The New York City native averaged 26.5 points and 14.8 rebounds per game that season and was a consensus National Player of the Year. When she found out that she had also earned McDonald’s All American status, the opportunity to represent New York, and to do so alongside NYC native and current New York Liberty guard Epiphanny Prince, it was an honor that meant everything to her.
“To be named a McDonald’s All American meant everything, it was very exciting,” Charles tells SLAM. “It was like the top of the top coming out of high school, but, again, what meant more was a really good friend of mine, Epiphanny Prince, joining me along the way. Just growing up in New York, the battles that we had, just what it meant for us, our dream to come true to continue our aspirations in becoming a pro, and that was one of the hurdles for us—to be a McDonald’s All American.
Charles showed out—she dropped 12 points and had 9 rebounds and a block in the McDonald’s All American Game—but it’s not her stat line, or even the outcome of the game that stands out to her now, 17 years later. What Charles does remember is the ever-lasting friendships she built with certified bucket-getters like Prince, Jayne Appel and Kalli McLaren, relationships that are still going strong today. “I think those individuals, just who they are and where we’re at in our friendship today, that’s just what sticks out to me.”
Those relationships are one of the many things that make the McDonald’s All American week so special. Not only do the top high school players from around the country get to play on a national stage, but they also get to spend time together and get to know each other. For Charles, it was her first time visiting San Diego with her family, and she distinctly remembers a trip she and the other Burger girls and boys took to SeaWorld.
“My favorite moment from off the court from that week, I think I remember we went to SeaWorld. There's many things people say about SeaWorld and the animals there, but we went to SeaWorld and I remember Greg Oden had smiled alongside the seal, and it’s like their smiles were the same. I’m sure there's a photo out there that shows this, and everyone just started laughing and we were able to be there for the show. I think that's one of the funny moments.”
The 2006 McDonald’s All American class went on to do big things in their respective careers: Charles won two NCAA national championships at UConn before embarking on a successful career in the W that includes winning Rookie of the Year in 2010, MVP in 2012 and making eight WNBA All-Star appearances. Monica Wright is currently an assistant General Manager for the Phoenix Suns and Abi Olajuwon serves as an assistant coach on the Connecticut Sun. Meanwhile on the men’s side, Oden won Big Ten Freshman of the Year at Ohio State and was selected first overall in the 2007 NBA Draft. Then there’s Kevin Durant, now a two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP, and Jon Scheyer, currently the men’s basketball head coach at Duke.
While a lot has changed since her days in high school—specifically in the NIL era—Charles’ advice to this year’s McDonald’s All American class, as well as the future generation, is to prioritize their work ethic and their character. That’s how one builds a lasting legacy, something Charles has continued to do throughout her 13 (and counting) years playing in the W.
“I would have to say to put the work in. Right now it’s all about brand [and] followers, but you just have to put the work in. It’s more so the game that you bring, not your name. Always bring your game, not your name. And I’m a big advocate in accountability [and] putting work in and everything else will always come and follow…Always make sure it's not what you say, but how you say things, how you carry yourself on and off the court, and just keep putting in the work.”