‘Bigger than basketball,’ is a phrase you hear often within the NBA and specifically within the Toronto Raptors marketing. For Courtney M. Charles, Vice President, Basketball and Franchise Operations of Raptors 905, the saying signifies dreaming.
Since accepting the new position with Toronto’s G League, Charles has dedicated himself to player education, development, and redefining the league’s significance in Toronto.
When Charles was 16, he worked at McDonalds. An experience he says has—in an ironic way—helped him manage player interaction and development.
“I had the opportunity to work for an organization that is very successful and saw a lot of consumers, but people didn’t necessarily speak highly of it,” says Charles.
Despite the criticism he experienced, Charles says he learned some of the most valuable lessons in his career.
“As a young person, people start assuming who you are based solely on the notion of where you work. That’s when I started realizing how youth get deterred from their goals, because as soon as I started working at McDonald’s, everybody had comments. Comments about the clothes that I had to wear, comments about how I had to serve people. Then you know what? Within a couple of months, people were asking me if I could get them hired.”
The Raptors 905 has had a hand in developing some of the best players in the league today. Toronto favourites Siakam, VanVleet and Powell have all worked within the G League before becoming playoff playmakers. Most recently, Chris Boucher has taken his 905 experience to the NBA and is making headlines because of it.
Charles has always known that Toronto’s G League can be influential for player development. When 905 players achieve goals both within and outside of the game, he says the experience is more than rewarding.
You’ve long been dedicated to youth and player development. Where does that commitment stem from?
For me, it was really realizing that our job is to go help youth understand that they’ve got to put in the work. You’re only going to get out what you put in, so you can’t worry about the perception of others and how they might see things and how they might judge you. I feel like that’s where youth get deterred a lot from sticking to their passions and to their dreams, because it may not be the “cool” thing.
A lot of players in the league are struggling and have been having a hard time [with the current social climate] recently. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, they’re demanding more than just verbal support. What do you think of this and the conversations that need to be had in order to encourage young players?
For the NBA specifically, the business has grown globally at a fairly quick rate. Right now we have the opportunity for minorities and people of color to be successful in a business world, as a result of the game of basketball. If you go to a basketball game, the racial and ethnic groups that are there are incredibly diverse. There’s a passion for the game from all cultures, it’s not dominated by one race. For me, our players see that. Our players know that.
Now [the players] realize they have more of a voice because they have more of an impact. There’s a lot of TV networks, team owners, and so on that if players don’t play, then a lot of people are not going to reap the benefit of the game itself.
It puts the pressure on us [the league] to stand up and to realize that the time is now. We can’t passively think it’s going to be okay for when our children grow up. At some point we have to get real and say, when does it get better? There’s a lot of work to be done and the time is now. We need to realize the impact we can have.
During your time working for the league, has there been an experience with a player or colleague that you feel has impacted your work ethic?
Masai [Ujiri] is a perfect example of a leader. On top of that, he’s the perfect example of a person of colour leading not just people of colour, but women and others. He is a person who has given us the passion and the drive, but he’s also educated us on how we can do better for our community, for our team, and eventually for our country.
How does the Raptors 905 League plan to navigate that need for support, diversity, and education in the League?
I’m taking this opportunity to remind people that the G League is now where the Raptors were in 1995. People don’t truly understand their impact. People don’t really know the growth and potential there. They don’t truly see how it’ll influence youth in schools and the community to follow their passion. It instills that working hard and developing your skills, regardless if you’re a basketball player, a coach, or a news editor, is the key to achieving.
There are so many avenues that the G League ends up being a development centre for. We need to do a better job of teaching people in general, but when speaking about people of colour, it’s our job to connect them to resources and help them develop into great people. Not just for the players, but for people like myself and for coaches, it gives us the chance to grow and to learn.
During COVID-19 and in relation to social justice issues, player mental wellness has been a large topic of conversation. How is the league helping athletes manage that?
One of the things that I think is just as important is understanding the mental wellness of our young people. We talk about development, but how do we shape the mind? We understand how we shape the body. We understand how to break down reading and learning, but how do we mentally understand where we are? Especially when preparing us for things that are unknown? For example, during COVID-19, where you can have a lot of things going for you, but if you’re not mentally in a good place, it’s hard to truly get out of it on your own.
We’re emotional and distraught about some things, but we still have to educate ourselves on what these things are to truly understand where this emotion and passion come from. Why are we so hurt? Players have to understand that the emotions and some of the feelings that you go through are normal and we work with them so they understand there’s resources available.
What do you believe the role of the G League is in player development?
We’ve taught them and continue to talk about emotions and feelings. For example, we challenge them to think about how to handle a situation better than the way it was handled on the court when a ref or player did something that they didn’t like. These are all things that if they are able to do a better job at, they will be perceived in a higher light.
Let’s look at someone like Michael Jordan, where the success he’s had on the court has truly grown the game to levels that players are still trying to achieve. They’re still trying to achieve championships at the level that he won. They’re still trying to sell shoes at the amount that he sold. Our job is to challenge them to not just make it to the league. I think sometimes people are happy just to say, “I made it.” But, how long can you be in the league? How many times can you make it to an All-Star game? What are your goals that you’ve set to really leave a legacy and eventually leave wealth for your kids? I think those are two points that I would love to just share the importance of. Understanding that when you educate yourself, you’re able to educate others. If you can leave a legacy and you can leave wealth, then you’ve really contributed to the universe.