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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Ken Charles

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Ken Charles was good when the Braves were good, while the team was bad when he wasn’t around. That probably wasn’t a coincidence, and makes him an underrated part of team history. What’s more, he has had an active, interesting life.

It doesn’t take long for something interesting to pop up on the life of Kenneth M. Charles. He was born on July 10, 1951, in Port of Spain in the nation of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. Ken is among only a handful of NBA players to come from that country; two others are Kris Joseph and Carl Herrera.

Early in his life, Charles and his family came to New York City – Brooklyn, to be exact. He landed at Brooklyn Preparatory High School. No other pro basketball players came out of that Jesuit school, which closed in 1972. However, it did have a very famous graduate in football – Penn State coach Joe Paterno. Charles was good enough in high school to rank as an all-city in New York, averaging more than 27 points per game.

After graduating in 1969, Charles decided not to go far to attend college. He enrolled at Fordham University, where Ed Conlin was the coach and P.J. Carlesimo, a future coach of Seton Hall, was on the roster. However, the Rams only went 10-15 in 1969-70, and the athletic department made the change. The new coach was a man named Richard Phelps, but everyone called him “Digger” – a nickname from his father, a mortician. During that freshman season, Charles averaged 27.8 points per game to rank 12th in the nation among newcomers.

The coaching switch worked out well. The Rams went on to one of the great years in the school’s basketball history with a 26-3 record. They had sellouts in Madison Square Garden for games with Notre Dame and Marquette. The game with the Fighting Irish was a particularly memorable event for Charles: “I remember on the way to the Notre Dame game we were listening to Howard Cosell interviewing (Notre Dame coach) Johnny Dee and Cosell was saying 'Come on, Johnny, all of New York knows you're going to win, you know you're going to win.' Johnny Dee said, 'I'm not sure we're going to win, Fordham's a tough team.' And we're sitting in the car going 'OK, yeah." The Rams took a 94-88 decision before 19,500.

Fordham qualified for the 1971 NCAA tournament, beating Furman in the first round but then losing to Villanova. The team was ranked No. 9 in the final Associated Press poll, despite not having a starter taller than 6-foot-6. The big star of that team was Charlie Yelverton, who averaged a double-double. The man known around campus as “K.C.” stepped right into the lineup at guard, and he was second on the team in scoring at 15.4 points per game.

“What made that team was the camaraderie. It was incredible. Just incredible,” Charles said later. Phelps reflected to the Chicago Tribune, “Those kids were just magic, and they touched everyone with that charisma. It was one of those seasons I`ll never forget.”

It must have felt too good to be true at Fordham, and in a sense it was. The Rams only qualified for the Big Dance once in the next 50 years. Phelps left right after that season to take the head coaching job with Notre Dame, breaking his four-year contract in the process. Ironically, a loss to Fordham played a role in Notre Dame’s firing of Dee that made room for Phelps. Yelverton left to graduate.

Hal Wissel took over as head coach at Fordham, and he handed the keys to the offense to Charles. Ken averaged more than 21 points per game –including a 35-point game against Georgetown - as the Rams went 18-9. They played in the NIT, losing to Jacksonville. Charles was even better the next season as a senior, averaging 24.3 points per game. He scored 46 points in a game against South Carolina in Madison Square Garden with his father watching him from the stands for the first time. But Fordham stumbled to a 12-16 record. Fordham did not have another winning season until 1980-81.

Charles had a great career at Fordham, finishing with 1,697 points in 84 games. No wonder the Rams retired his uniform number in 2019. Like so many of the best players in that era, Charles had a choice in his landing spot in the pros. He could sign with the Buffalo Braves, who had taken him in the third round of the 1973 NBA Draft. The alternative was to join the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association. The 6-3 guard picked the Braves, a team that had never won more than 22 games in a season and thus had plenty of opportunities for players – particularly at guard. One of those roster spots was ticketed for the Braves’ first-round draft choice, Ernie DiGregorio. Charles received a two-year contract worth $110,000; the first year was guaranteed.

"It's pretty good money,” Charles said at the time. "I want to go to law school and it will help. I love it. I’m feeling great. The team is young and we’ll give a good account of ourselves.” Wissel added, "He went to rookie camp without a contract and that was taking a chance. He knew what he wanted and he got it.”

Buffalo went through a few backup guards that season, as Matt Guokas, Dave Wohl and Lee Winfield were part of the roster at certain points. But Charles stayed with the Braves for the entire season. He averaged about 4 points per game in 12 minutes. The team improved and reached the playoffs for the first time.

Then Charles’ situation improved for all the wrong reasons. DiGregorio suffered a major knee injury early in the 1974-75 season, and that opened up some playing time. Charles, Winfield and newcomer Bob Weiss helped fill the gap. Kenny played in 79 games, averaging 21.4 minutes. Buffalo couldn’t run as much as it did under DiGregorio (its scoring dropped four points per game), but Charles proved to be a helpful defensive player (and the team’s points allowed dropped by about six points per game). Buffalo again qualified for the playoffs, but again lost in the first round.

Charles’ playing time continued to rise in 1975-76. He went up to 27.7 minutes per game, and his scoring average reached double digits (10.1) for the first time as a Brave. Randy Smith did most of the work at one guard, but Charles, DiGregorio and Weiss were in the mix too.

During that season, owner Paul Snyder revealed that he had received an offer from a Miami group for the franchise. The news drew this reaction from Charles: “If we keep the guys together, I guess we can play anywhere. It would bother me to move, but you know … sun and fun. … If we don’t have the fans that we have here, it’s going to be tough. The fans have supported us pretty well.” The deal fell through. Meanwhile, Buffalo won a playoff series for the first (and last time) that spring, but then fell to the Boston Celtics in six games.

The Braves were about to take a dive at that point in their history, but Charles couldn’t be blamed for it. He was traded on June 16, 1976, to the Hawks with Dick Gibbs and cash for Tom Van Arsdale. The deal proved to be a bad one for Buffalo, as Van Arsdale decided he wanted to play his last NBA season with his twin brother Dick. The Braves sent Tom to Phoenix for a second-round draft pick and cash.

By some standards, Charles had the best year of his career for Atlanta in 1976-77. He averaged a career-high in points per game (11.1) and minutes per game (30.3). Charles also led all NBA guards in blocked shots that season. But the Hawks only won 30 games, as they didn’t play like the sum of some talented parts. Atlanta was a little better the next season (41-41), but Charles didn’t see all of it. The Hawks waived him on December 8, 1977. It was an odd move considering that Ken was averaging 24 minutes per game, but Atlanta did have some young guards in Eddie Johnson, Armond Hill and Charlie Criss.

“When Ted Turner took over the Atlanta Hawks, he wanted to cut salaries,” Charles told The Advocate a few years later. “I along with Truck Robinson and Ron Behagen were among those Turner sought to cut salaries on. I went to arbitration to get my money and after that I didn't feel like playing. The whole episode turned me off. My ability was not in question: As a matter of fact I almost played at Buffalo, and was asked to come out: But I decided it was time to go on. Pro sports is short term. The average player plays for 3.8 years.”

Charles played 322 games over five seasons, with a scoring average of 8.5. His wide range of interests still needed feeding, so he went to work. Charles headed back to college and earned a law degree at Fordham, a path recommended to him by general manager Eddie Donovan of the Braves. Kenny also spent some time as a stockbroker. That combination of skills proved handy when he became part of “New York Entertainment and Sports Advisors.” (ESA).

African Americans definitely were a small minority in the 1980s in the field of agents. “There is clearly a psychology at work among players that if your agent isn’t white, you aren’t going to get big dollars,” Charles told “Black Enterprise” magazine. “They just feel blacks don’t have the contacts or clout to deliver. That’s not true. But it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

Ken also did some NBA analysis for ESPN. He served as a head coach and general manager for the Brooklyn Kings in the United States Basketball League from 1999 to 2007, and was coach of the year there in 2005. The USBL was a developmental league that lasted from 1987 to 2008. In 2011, Charles was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame.

At the age of 68, Charles was still quite busy. He worked for the New York City Department of Social Services, where he served as a special advisor for Intergovernmental and Legislative Affairs in the Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services.

(Follow Budd on @WDX2BB)

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