Charlie Ward leaves NBA spotlight to coach Christian high school
Russell Carr remembers first seeing Charlie Ward on TV in 1993. The images are still fresh of Ward tormenting defenses with his powerfully accurate arm and jackrabbit running skills as he completed a season for the ages.
Carr also remembers watching the post-college Ward cross over to the NBA, where he enjoyed a long career as a point guard on many playoff teams.
But never in his wildest dreams did Carr think he’d one day share a high school coaching bench with the former superstar.
“Charlie is a few years older than me, so I can remember in high school and college talking about him,” said Carr, the new head coach at Westbury Christian School in Houston. “I never thought I was going to work with him.”
When Westbury Christian hired Ward in June, it seemed like a coup for the small private institution (525 students pre-kindergarten through 12th grade). After quarterbacking Florida State to its first national title in 1993 by throwing for 3,032 yards and 27 touchdowns, Ward won the Heisman Trophy in then-record fashion with a 1,622-vote margin over runner-up Heath Shuler of Tennessee.
Spurned in the NFL draft, he was selected in the first round of the 1994 NBA draft by the New York Knicks (he also played four years of college basketball), where he spent 9½ of his 11 years in the league.
After averaging 6.3 points and four rebounds a game for his career and helping New York to six straight playoff appearances between 1996 and 2001, injuries forced Ward to retire in 2005. He immediately became an assistant coach with the Houston Rockets, where he spent the final season of his playing career.
But after two seasons, he walked away. The steep demands of NBA life had become too burdensome on his time at home with his wife, Tonja, and his two children. And with his heart set on becoming a Division I college coach one day, he wanted to experience basketball at a grassroots level.
It was perfect timing for Westbury Christian’s executive administrator Greg Glenn, who was introduced to Ward by a mutual friend, Rockets director of scouting Gersson Rosas, a former Westbury Christian assistant coach, during a Houston-Utah Jazz playoff game last spring. Within about a month, Ward left the Rockets and joined the Westbury Christian staff.
Again, to recap: Former Heisman Trophy winner and NBA star takes assistant coaching role at a small private school. How did that happen?
“It’s been a God thing,” Glenn said. “I didn’t even know Charlie Ward personally. I give God all the due on that.”
Ward, who now works fulltime as the school’s admissions/development administrator, also coached quarterbacks on Westbury’s football team in the fall. The Wildcats, who went through three quarterbacks and only had two seniors on the roster, suffered a 0-10 season. Still, first-year coach Brian Linhart said Ward was a very positive influence.
“It’s a work in progress,” Linhart said of the team, “but Lord knows what it would’ve been without Charlie.”
Ward, 36, was raised in a churchgoing family in Thomasville, Ga., a small town near the Florida border. He accepted Christ at age 10, and “the journey began from there,” he said.
Stardom seemed a distant possibility in high school, where a knee injury sidelined him from sports for two years. After scoring low on the SAT, he spent a year at community college before enrolling at Florida State. There, he said he fell prey to pornography and sexual immorality. But God intervened.
“It really came to a head when I met two [Christian] brothers who challenged me with Scripture and challenged my salvation,” Ward said. “When they did that, it really brought out my private life. I didn’t want anything to bring down my image. It was all centered on pride. Once I got that out in the open, I had accountability.”
Ward continued to mature through a Bible study while playing in New York, where he openly shared his flaws and his faith with teammates and the community in an effort to “try to show people who Christ is.”
To those who know him, it’s no surprise that he is working in relative obscurity now. He checked his ego at the door a long time ago.
“He doesn’t use past accomplishments to do anything other than shine a good light on the things of the Lord,” Glenn said. “If he can do that, he will. He’s not trying to ride [his own] coattails. When I think of Charlie, there’s a lot more substance there than with other people of similar [athletic] backgrounds. They might be more sizzle, but he’s a substance guy.”
No longer does Ward miss birthday parties, weddings or his kids’ sporting events. Lengthy NBA road trips and multimillionaire egos are a thing of the past. Tonja is now free to pursue a career, and Charlie gets to learn all about the intricacies of coaching with the Wildcats (10-13 through Jan. 8). Life is good.
“When I look back over my life to where I am today, the Lord definitely had his hand on me because everything has happened for a reason,” Ward said. “It’s just a blessing that I had those different experiences over my career. It shaped my thought process and made me the type of husband and father I am today.”