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Ken Charles: A real student-athlete

January 10, 2022 Andy Furman
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Ken Charles had his priorities in order.

From Day 1.

That was the day the Brooklyn Prep grad met his new coach at Fordham University – Richard (Digger) Phelps.

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“I was late for that very first meeting,” he told the Eagle. “I remember I was in the library getting my books.”

And the reaction from the rookie coach?

“All Digger said was, ‘never be late for meeting.’”

Fifty-plus years have passed for Charles – and Phelps – and Fordham University has yet to honor that 1971-72 basketball team that took the city by storm.

“It was,” said Charles, “the most incredible experience, ever.”

Coming off a 10-15 season, those Rams started the season a perfect 3-0. 

“We went to Florida, won twice, then it was the Kodak Classic, and we won that, too. We came back home a perfect 8-0,” he said.

And Charles was shocked – people couldn’t get into Rose Hill Gymnasium. “The lines were unreal. We would get around 300 a game. Now you couldn’t get in the place.”

He said it stayed that way all season.

Why not?

Those Rams reeled off 26 wins in 29 tries – sold out Madison Square Garden – the first-ever such sellout in the new Garden – when they hosted 14th ranked Notre Dame and No. 2 Marquette.

They beat Notre Dame, 94-88 and lost to Marquette in overtime, 85-80.

Charles averaged 15.3 points-per-game on that 26-3 team – and the two-time captain set the school record for most points in a season with 679 in 1972-73 – a record that still stands today.

He also tied Charlie Yelverton’s record for points in-a-game with 46 against St. Peter’s as a junior in 1972.

But Fordham really needs to thank Mike Murray for delivering Charles to their Bronx campus.

“I had offers to Columbia and Marquette as a high school senior,” Charles said. “Mike Murray was my coach at Brooklyn Prep and he asked me, ‘who wants you the most?’, I said, Fordham.”

Case closed.

Growing up Bedford-Stuyvesant could have led Charles in another direction.

“I didn’t have that option,” he said, “my dad always saw to that. I wasn’t much of a park guy. It wasn’t in my M.O.”

Academics was.

Charles was enrolled in a high achievement summer program between seventh and eighth grades. He chose to attend Brooklyn Prep.

“I played in summer leagues after my senior year in high school. I remember playing against guys like Mel Davis, World B. Free, “Fly” Williams and George Bruns.

“I even served as a summer coach,” he said.

Yet Ken Charles never strayed – in fact he doesn’t like much change.

You want proof?

“I live in the same house in Bed-Stuy today – the same one I grew up in,” he said.

The only change Ken Charles sees today, is the basketball being played on various levels.

“Actually,” he said, “high school ball is perhaps the closest to when I played. But some of these kids are battling video games, and, of course over-bearing parents at their games.”

He also says there’s no sense of history with the kids.

“I saw a kid playing, and he was wearing a Minneapolis Lakers shirt with the name ‘Baylor’ on the back. I said to him, ‘Do you know who Baylor was?’

The kid came back with this: “You mean this was a real player?”

Of course, the Baylor was Elgin Baylor, a Hall of Famer, who played for the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers. 

He says the college game is quite interesting. “The talent is different. When Michael (Jordan) played at North Carolina he averaged 17 a-game, that was super. Not today.

“But,” he added, “the guys who stay four years, I believe, come out ahead of those who leave early for the pros.”

Charles would know.

He was an NBA draft pick – 38th overall – in 1973, Round 3 – buy the now-defunct Buffalo Braves. He played three seasons in Buffalo, and two more with the Atlanta Hawks.

“The NBA,” he laughed, “is a different game today. When we grew up, the first question we always asked, ‘Do we have a big man?’

“Now, it’s all about jump shooting and the three-point shot. I sometimes find it hard to watch now. It’s all about entertainment.”

Ken Charles certainly knew about entertainment.

Over his collegiate career he averaged 20-points-per game, second-best at the time in Fordham history – and he graduated as the school’s second all-time leading scorer with 1,697 career points, behind only all-time leading scorer Ed Conlin. His number 44 jersey has been retired by Fordham and in 1980 he was inducted in the school’s Hall of Fame. 

Again, Charles didn’t stray far from home – even after his professional basketball career.

He was head coach of the Brooklyn Kings of the United States Basketball League (USBL) from 2000 to 2007. He won the USBL Coach of the Year Award in 2005. Those games were played at Medgar-Evers College and later at LIU.

Today, Brooklynite Ken Charles is a Senior Advisor at the New York City HRA (Human Resources Administration).

He still keeps a close eye on basketball. In fact, he was pleased to learn that his former coach – Digger Phelps – was just recently nominated for the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“He should be in,” Charles said without hesitation, “with a Fordham jacket.”

“I wouldn’t trade Brooklyn Prep and Fordham for anything in the world,” he said, “the Jesuits brainwashed me, and I was brainwashed by the best.”

Andy Furman is a Fox Sports Radio national talk show host. Previously, he was a scholastic sports columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle. He may be reached at: [email protected] Twitter: @AndyFurmanFSR

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