The Good Ward Giveth: A former Knick’s post-basketball odyssey
With many parts of the state at 35 days and counting since the mercury last failed to hit triple digits – with crops and cows succumbing in equal measure to the Biblical combination of scorching sun and wilting earth, and with no relief in sight – Texas would seem ill-suited for planting seeds.
Charlie Ward doesn’t think so.
Ward, the former Heisman Trophy winner and 10-year Knick backcourt staple, is busy preparing for another season at the helm of the Westbury Christian varsity football squad. A few months from now, he’ll be coaching his son Caleb – now in sixth grade and the oldest of Ward’s three children – on the hardwood. Between work and family (wife Tanja, daughter Hope, 8, and son Joshua, 2, round out the Ward roster), any time he allots to a writer – a blogger at that – is purposefully cast beside the good work that defines the better half of Ward’s daily clock. Which is fine by me. Anything, and any amount of time, to not write KBlogger Report Cards for a few weeks.
This fall will mark Ward’s fifth with the Wildcats (and his fourth as Head Coach), a position he took after leaving his post with the Houston Rockets, with whom he’d been an assistant since retiring from the NBA in 2004 . Despite a number of other job offers from around the league, Ward decided instead to take on the dual role of Assistant Football and Basketball Coach at Westbury, a 500 student K-12 Christian school in Houston. Surely, the opportunity to spend more time with his family, and to watch his young children grow up, were motivating factors. But the chance to lead again was anything but a distant second.
“I wanted to have a more hands-on experience,” explains Ward in his characteristically even, calm Southern drawl. “I wanted the chance to put game plans together, implement those game plans, and really mentor kids. Those are the main reasons I am where I am today. That’s my focus.”
Russell Carr, now the Athletic Director at Westbury Christian, remembers Ward’s 2007 arrival fondly. Carr had just been named Boys Varsity Basketball Coach, when he first got word that Charlie Ward — yes, that Charlie Ward — had agreed to join Westbury’s program. Needless to say, the young Carr had to do a double-take.
“I still remember when our School Head, Greg Glenn, told me about it,” recalls Carr. “He said ‘I want you to meet with Charlie Ward. He’s thinking about coaching here.’ And the whole time I’m thinking, ‘I need to be working for that guy! Not the other way around!’ But I remember meeting with Charlie and him saying ‘I just want to learn how to be a coach.’ Which is unbelievably telling as to what kind of guy he is.”
Carr continues: “Some of us would make jokes that, if I’d won the Heisman, I’d have been wearing it around my neck. But that’s what made Charlie so fun to be around — to be so accomplished and yet so humble at the same time. Especially in this day and age, when everything is so sensationalized, it was refreshing to see.”
Refreshing, sure. But it wasn’t as if Ward had somehow snuffed out his legendary competitive fire. Ward himself probably wouldn’t put it quite this way, but to a writer in want of a narrative thread, it was all too obvious: He wanted to be the quarterback again. And who could blame him? It’s what he’s always been, and always meant to be. Born the third of Charlie Sr. and Willard Ward’s seven children in Thomasville, Georgia, Charlie’s leadership – and eye-popping athleticism – was apparent early on. Of course, everyone knows of Ward’s exploits on pitch and parquet, where he doubled as flashy, electric field general and rocksteady backcourt bulwark . Few, however, know that Ward was also twice drafted as a pitcher; once in 1993 by the Milwaukee Brewers; and again by the Yankees in 1994. Even fewer know Ward made a strong showing at the ’94 Arthur Ashe Amateur Tennis Tournament. Differences in both mode and medium aside, all four had one, important thing in common: Where the ball went, was up to Charlie.
“They all go hand-in-hand when it comes to being a leader,” says Ward. “I had the ball in my hand a lot. And when you’re in that position, the choices and decisions have to be good ones in order for the team to be successful.”
* * * * *
For four years at Florida State University, Charlie Ward was the man — pure and simple. The school’s first black starting quarterback, Ward racked up 6454 yards of total offense between his junior and senior year, capping it all off with the second most lopsided Heisman Trophy victory ever in 1994 (area 51 experiment Bo Jackson’s was the widest). That same year, he reeled in both the Davey O’Brien Trophy and the Maxwell Award — the first time in history all three accolades had befallen a single player for a single season’s work.
Perhaps most relevantly, Ward had, along with Nebraska rival Tommy Frazier, helped usher in a new and exciting era of college quarterbacking. Where once stood a wholly demarcated and conservative game – runners run, and throwers throw – a new breed of player, years ahead of its time, had turned synthesis into the game’s new thesis. And the phenomenon wasn’t lost on anyone. Miami Coach Dennis Erickson once called him “the greatest college football player I’ve ever seen.” Ward’s quarterbacks at FSU, Mark Richt, managed to employ the ‘M’ word, referring to the manner in which Ward combined accuracy with catchable loft as being “like Montana,” while former Super Bowl MVP and Redskin trailblazer Doug Williams went so far as to say he doubted there were “four starting quarterbacks in the NFL better than Charlie Ward” at the time.
Given the heady context of his meteoric gridiron rise, Ward’s moonlighting as the steady, flash-less floor general of the Seminole hoops squad seemed more a way to stave off winter boredom than it did a hedging of future prospects. But that wasn’t always the case: As a freshman (when he was used primarily as a punter) and sophomore (the year he redshirted for football), Ward dedicated most of his time to the court, in the process establishing himself as a possible future pro prospect. By his Junior year however, the balancing act became a little more complicated, with Ward having ascended to become one of the most exciting and promising quarterbacks in the country. As could only be expected in the wake of a football season ending in January — like it did for most of the 90s under Bobby Bowden — Ward wouldn’t hit the hardwood until well into ACC play, playing in just 33 games combined his junior and senior years. While to outsiders the double life certainly seemed glamorous, for Ward, the transition wasn’t always an easy one.
“It took more than a couple of games to get back into sync [of basketball], especially with the conditioning,” Ward recalls. “But playing full time those first two years helped tremendously – it made it easier to jump back in than it might’ve been.”
In 1993, Ward helped lead a team co-headlined by Sam Cassell, Bob Sura and Doug Edwards to within one powerhouse Kentucky squad of reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history. A little over nine months later, he would lead Florida State to an upending of #2 Nebraska for the football National Championship. After an earlier exit from The Dance the following March, Ward, now stuck between solid draft prospects in at least two sports, had a decision to make (a third, in the form of the New York Yankees, would make itself available a few months later). Despite wildly varying predictions as to where he’d end up, conventional wisdom had it that the newly minted Heisman winner would capitalize on the accolades and declare himself NFL-eligible only.
But as he did so many times in the pocket, Ward knew the scripted play was merely a suggestion – a set of guidelines which he could either adhere to or ignore, and out of which he could always simply scramble his way upfield, towards the light and the noise and the truth. Your typical pocket passer would’ve thrown – or thrown away. Charlie Ward improvised. In a move that shocked many, Ward made it clear that, unless he was guaranteed to go in Round 1 of the NFL Draft, he’d just assume turn to profit what had always been a secondary passion, and enter the NBA Draft.
At the time, it was harder to tell which was weirder: the fact that many NFL experts didn’t have a statistically dominant Heisman winner projected gone until the third round at the earliest; or the fact that, despite modest production, most NBA scouts had Ward gone no later than the late first round, with many billing him as the third best point guard in the draft behind sophomore stud Jason Kidd and Arizona’s Khalid Reeves. But while both Kidd and Reeves offered something in the way of flash and flare – two qualities Ward himself had made his calling card on the gridiron – neither were the raison d’être of Ward’s NBA suitors. Instead, it was the 23-year-old senior’s steady, heady poise, combined with superior decision making, that would attract surprising buzz amongst NBA GMs.
He’d wind up going 26th to the Knicks, mere weeks after the Bockers had succumbed in seven grueling games to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. He would play just 16 total minutes that first year, learning the ropes from veterans Derek Harper and Greg Anthony. But with Pat Riley’s departure, and the subsequent ascendance of Jeff Van Gundy to the helm (a year of Don Nelson found Ward with only slightly less bench glue about his shorts) Ward played in 62 games in 1995. By 1996, he’d asserted himself as a regular part of the rotation, and one of the most consistent defensive stalwart on a team which lived and died by a manifest, almost savant-like adherence to the craft. Gradually, like the patience and pace with which he steered the offense, appreciation and admiration from the New York faithful buoyed Ward to the level of bona fide fan favorite.
“Good or bad, I was always going to do what I needed to do as far as little things were concerned to make the team run properly,” Ward reflects. “I played my role. I understood my role. And I think the fans appreciated that.”
He was also omnipresent in the community, dedicating hundreds of hours to countless community services initiatives and charitable organizations. On one Thanksgiving, Ward served dinner to 700 people at a soup kitchen in Harlem. He hosted basketball camps and golf outings. He delivered Christmas gifts. He helped kids learn to read. For Ward, it was all part of the job – one of the many bullet points part and parcel with running point in a city that takes the craft as seriously as seeing amongst them the face, the man above the ball.
More accurately, it was a reflection of a self-honed duty Ward had forged since his days at Florida State. While in Tallahassee, he was a Big Brother for a four year old boy. He donated time to causes ranging from muscular dystrophy to anti-drug campaigns, the United Way to epilepsy. Famously, he had taken a young Warrick Dunn under his wing after the latter’s mother – a police officer in Louisiana – was shot and killed while helping a business woman into a bank while off duty. Keeping with that ethos, Ward believes, was just as important as any clutch three made or pocket picked during his days in New York.
“When you’re putting in that time, both on and off the court, taking the time to meet people and get to know the community – that helps. And when you’re with the Knicks for a long time, and have that fan base to cheer you, that helps too.”
* * * * *
Charlie Ward’s been here before. Thirteen years ago, during the last NBA player lockout, Ward – like most Knick teammates of player rep Patrick Ewing – was more than privy to the negotiations. As such, his perspective on this summer’s equally dramatic redux is, in a word, pragmatic.
“At least they’re talking – that’s always a positive sign,” he says, before a longer-than-usual pause. “But there’s always a lot of posturing in negotiations.”
Of course, that was before August 2nd’s turn for the worst, in which the NBA filed a preemptive lawsuit against the NBPA, citing a belief that the latter had been negotiating in bad faith. Despite this, Ward believes both sides have a ways to go before the shrill pitch and timbre of ’98’s acrimony is matched (Stern and Bill Hunter, after all, haven’t yet taken to full-on shouting matches, as happened more than once back then). Unfortunately, this puts Ward in the minority of former players, many of whom – as with most of the press, blogosphere, and an increasing number of fans – have accepted the grim reality that a full 2011-12 NBA season is about as likely as Westbury’s football squad waking up tomorrow to a 60-and-cloudy practice.
“Both sides,” Ward posits, “are trying to get the fans on their side.” Just like they were back then.
Yet for all the similarities between the two lockouts, this year’s second act includes a curious – and decidedly ironic – wrinkle: In large part because of the league’s exploding status — honed despite a bevy of trials and tribulations since the last labor strife derailed the league’s already tenuous post-Jordan popularity– more and more top-flight players (Deron Williams, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant – the list goes on) have openly flirted with the option of taking their talents overseas. In the past two months, Turkey, Spain, China, Greece, Australia – even England – have all been pitched by players as stopgap solutions, if and when it becomes apparent that 2012 is lost for good. Short of saying he himself would’ve held a Europe or Asia’s ace up his sleeve, Ward recognizes the growing trend for the game-changing strategy it’s clearly become — even if it ends up being a limited one.
“Now that it’s an option, there are definitely going to be more players willing to take it,” states Ward. “The guys who are top-flight players in the NBA today, there’s definitely a chance to do some marketing overseas. But not every player’s going to be able to do that.”
As with both the NBA’s last lockout strife and this summer’s just-concluded NFL dispute, Ward doesn’t expect much in the way of progress until the threat of losing games breaches the hypothetical and punctures the probable – by most estimates, sometime in September. That would basically mirror the comedy of errors that was the previous lockout, when the two sides came within 24 hours of canceling the season entirely. (Many fans will recall the process with something akin to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as it seemed every few weeks David Stern – lockout beard in full bloom – would plod under camera just long enough to declare another block of 90 or 100 games lost for good, like so many appendages.) While he fears the potential fallout amongst fans – at a time when the league is more popular than perhaps it’s ever been – Ward doesn’t anticipate a repeat of both sides bringing it down to the wire.
“I can’t see them losing an entire season,” he exclaims. “But it’s definitely put a hiccup in the whole recovery process with the fans. It’s hard for the average fan to understand why the two sides can’t get together on the issues, especially when there’s so much money with both parties.”
Whenever it gets resolved, for Ward, the next C.B.A. won’t owe its almost certain tenuousness to either side suddenly finding their better, reasoning nature. Rather, the ink will only dry when a higher power casts certain demons aside.
“If anything gets done, it’s by the grace of God,” says Ward, his voice picking up just an octave. “There’s a lot of pride on the line on both sides, so at some point both sides have to say ‘this is what we want, and this is what we’re willing to give up.’ Right now, no one’s willing to give up anything that means something to them.”
Pride. It’s something — in its most baleful manifestations, anyway — Ward hoped he could leave behind when he fled the NBA’s grinding slog and searing spotlight for the purer pastures of Westbury Christian in the summer of 2007. Here, home at night with his growing family, no longer did he count in his company a contentious lot of millionaires and billionaires. Here, Ward needn’t fight nor fret his way up the always-competitive professional coaching ladder. Here, at a small Christian school in East Texas, where God and football leave whatever would be a third passion squarely in the swirling summer dust, Ward found himself astride a rung high enough from which to preach his football gospel — though not so high so as to forsake the eyes above — and low enough for his new found disciples to hear. Loud and clear.
Not because he was Charlie Ward, the Heisman winner and former Knick, mind you. With the exception of a handful of juniors and seniors, few of the players knew much of Ward’s career. The little they did know, they more than likely heard from their parents, who, as Russell Carr recalls, “were the ones who were really star-struck.”
“It was a topic of conversation for a little while. But because Charlie’s so unassuming, it just became normal.”
Indeed, it was that very humbleness Carr remembers seeing thrown in high relief before the two’s first varsity basketball game together. As is customary, the referee approached the two coaches for a pregame handshake.
“We’re at the game, and the ref comes up to introduce himself to Charlie and me,” says Carr. “And Charlie says ‘Hi, I’m Charlie Ward.’ At that point, the ref looks at him and says, ‘The Charlie Ward?’ And Charlie looks at him and says, ‘I don’t know. I’m just Charlie Ward.’”
“That’s Charlie. He’s just such a normal guy.”
* * * * *
When I finally get a hold of Ward for the second part of the interview, he tells me he’s in the middle of – what else – drawing up play cards. I ask him how the team has managed to deal with the summer heat – a relentless, near record-breaking stretch that’s caused legitimate water shortages in many parts of the state. Which turns out to be probably the dumbest question of the lot. “Well, we just practice in the mornings,” he says, sans even the most rudimentary ribbing.
Right. Of course.
Since assuming Westbury’s wayward helm, Ward has managed to transform a team that was 0-10 his first year as an assistant into a respectable, .500 program. And while he has yet to tally a winning season, he seems confident in his current group’s ability to turn the tide. Given the measured manner in which he fields any inquiry, it’s impossible not to take his answer to the question “How good will you be this year?” as anything less than a hint of promising things to come.
“We have a chance to be pretty good,” he says, mere weeks before he’ll lead his plastic-padded soldiers into battle for their season opener on August 26th. “We’re starting to get some football players in the program – guys who can really make a difference. We got guys and coaches that are committed to making the team better. So we’re definitely headed in the right direction.”
Asked whether coaching at Westbury was a stepping stone towards getting back into the professional coaching ranks, Ward responds in a way akin to how he played point in the World’s Greatest: cautious, steady, tactful.
“It’s a building block for whatever God has in store for me,” he says, assuredly. “I’m not saying what I won’t do. But at this time in my life, as far my family’s concerned, enjoying the opportunity to watch my kids grow up – being home more – I’m enjoying the time I have now.”
When it comes to his current charges, it’s clear that, today at least, Ward prefers the present company to whatever would await him back in The Show.
“They’re a lot easier to talk with,” Ward says. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to coach some good kids – kids that are tough, who respect you for who you are.”
Respect a former Heisman trophy winner, 10-year NBA point guard, and budding pro coach who chose to leave the brighter lights and fruitful fields of kings for a calling at once more hallowed and humble? You don’t say.
“Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. But It’s all about planting seeds, allowing God to water them, and watching them grow.”
Beyond his work for KnickerBlogger, Jim is a contributor to the New York Times Off the Dribble NBA blog, ESPN.com, and The Classical. He is currently working on a biography of Robert Silverman, titled "Clownin' and Astoundin.'" Follow him on Twitter @JPCavan.