Epiphanny Prince and Tina Charles were sitting in the cafeteria at the New York Liberty’s training facility earlier this month, discussing how exactly they had gotten from the streets of New York’s outer boroughs, surviving an arrest, an assassination, and missed layups, to suddenly find themselves as the two best basketball players on their hometown’s most successful basketball team. (Sorry, Knicks.) Consider just one of the obstacles: Six years ago, when she was 21, Prince spent a year playing in Russia, which had its challenges both pedestrian — “I’m a very picky eater” — and exotic. One night, she and several teammates were planning to attend a Beyoncé concert in Moscow, as a gift from the team’s owner. But when the players went to get the tickets, they found out the owner, a former KGB spy turned businessman, had been shot ten times while sitting in the back of his car at a stoplight. Prince had just seen Taken, and moved in with a teammate. “I was thinking, Are they gonna get the players next?” she says.
They didn’t, and she and Charles — childhood friends turned high school rivals turned professional teammates — reunited in New York this year. In their first season together, the Liberty have recorded the WNBA’s best record, and have a shot at winning the first championship in team history. It might be the most surprising sports story of the year, if only anyone were paying attention. Earlier this year, the franchise was widely pilloried for hiring Isiah Thomas, the former Knicks executive who had once been the subject of a sexual-harassment suit brought by a female employee, as team president. But Thomas has remained almost entirely behind the scenes, and engineered the trade that brought Prince to New York.
If the Thomas news is the only thing you’ve heard about the WNBA this year, you aren’t alone: The league registered its lowest-ever attendance this season, games are absent from SportsCenter, and the only league news that leaked into the popular consciousness this year has been the domestic-violence charges against star center Brittney Griner. The lack of attention has made the league’s economic position perilous, which is how Prince found herself in Russia. The WNBA’s maximum salary is $107,000; abroad, players can make seven figures, so most every top American player spends the offseason toiling in Turkey, Russia, China, and elsewhere. This year, Diana Taurasi, a nine-time WNBA All-Star, made waves by choosing to skip the WNBA season entirely, so she would be fresh for her Russian team. Less prominent players are wise to keep all options open: Erica Wheeler, the Liberty’s backup point guard, has a LinkedIn page that mentions her sales-associate position at True Religion jeans last year.
Life in the WNBA is less glamorous than many of players experienced at top college programs, where players are treated like royalty, and even less than it is in, say, Moscow. “We’ll be riding around town, and I’ll say, ‘I wonder which picture of Piph the team is going to put up on a billboard this week,’” one of Prince’s Russian teammates said recently. That’s far (both literally and spiritually) from Prince’s upbringing in Brooklyn, where she grew up in Fort Greene’s Ingersoll Houses. In 2004, when she was 16, a 13-year-old girl alleged that Prince and two friends jumped her outside a grocery store. Prince’s friends pled guilty, but she went to trial, where one witness said Prince had simply stood nearby laughing while the incident occurred. The judge ultimately sentenced her to 15 days of community service, cleaning jail cells.
By that point, Prince was already a star — “Should we look aside because she has a future in the WNBA?” the prosecutor asked — and Charles was becoming one. Neither can remember exactly when they met, but both are sure it was sometime in middle school, somewhere in New York City, and that it definitely happened on a basketball court. “Everybody knew Epiphanny Prince,” Charles said. Charles was still growing into a body that today stands 6’4”, however, and Prince said that, at the time, Charles “still had to learn how to make a layup.”
Both girls were 7 and 8, respectively, when the WNBA launched, but while Charles went to nearly every Liberty game she could, Prince had little interest. “I wanted to be in the NBA,” she said, a dream she maintained until high school, when she played for Murry Bergtraum, a public school at the Manhattan-side base of the Brooklyn Bridge. By then, Charles had figured out how to make a layup, starring for Christ the King, a Catholic school, and their high-school careers seemed to consist largely of attempts at one-upping each other. Prince won the city player of the year award when they were sophomores, but two years later, Charles was named the national player of the year. During their senior season, Charles hit a buzzer-beater to beat Prince in a game at the Garden; two weeks later, Prince set a national record by scoring 113 points in a single game.
With the Knicks still in a moment of rebuilding, Prince and Charles are now the closest thing the city has to a pairing like Shaq and Kobe. On the court, Charles is a dominant post player, while Prince is a high-scoring, 5’9” guard. Off it, Charles is the team’s public face, while Prince prefers to brood. “You’ll notice that I’m the more outgoing one,” Charles said in the cafeteria, wearing bright-yellow nail polish and turquoise basketball shoes. “I consider Epiphanny one of my best friends, to the point that we don’t need to talk every day.” Prince sat mostly silent while Charles answered questions, speaking up unprompted only to complain that the chicken she had gotten was less juicy than Charles’s. Prince wears her hair tied into a tight braid that makes her look as if she had a pair of stubby bullhorns, which fits her style of play — you don’t want to get between Epiphanny Prince and the basket.
“You gotta ask her a direct question,” Charles said. “All the general ones, I’m gonna have to be the one to answer.”
Okay. Epiphanny, what was Tina like growing up?
“Come on!” Charles yelled at her friend. “Say something.”
Prince now lives on Long Island — Charles has a home in Queens, and another near the practice facility — where she has a 400-pair shoe collection worth six figures. (Her Russian salary is just shy of a million dollars.) She goes back to the same Brooklyn hair salon where she has gotten her hair done since high school, but would rather keep the location private, like she would most of what she has to say. On and off the court, she’d rather defer to her former rival. Last week, after leading the team with 25 points in a rout of the Connecticut Sun, someone asked Prince how she expressed her leadership to the team with such a reserved personality. “I tell Tina,” she said. “And Tina tells everyone else.”