From Marshall To The Big Leagues: NBA Executive Courtney M. Charles Discusses Winning An NBA Title And The Career That Almost Never Was
Courtney M. Charles has led a fascinating life thus far in his professional career.
At only 43 years old, Charles has quickly ascended the ranks of the Toronto Raptors NBA franchise, going from wide-eyed intern in 2006 to a major executive within the championship-winning organization in a whirlwind couple of years.
“It is amazing then looking back,” Charles recalls, “just how close that success came to never materializing.”
Fresh off earning his master’s degree in Science (Health and Physical Education) from Marshall University in 2005, Charles returned to his hometown of Toronto, Ontario, in early 2006 and began his journey with the Raptors organization as an intern. Excited to be with a professional team at the precipice of his burgeoning career, Charles was immediately met with the reality of life within the world of professional sports.
“As a young person coming in and wanting to learn as much as I could, I couldn’t wait to get started” Charles said. “Not long after, the late (Raptors GM) Rob Babcock asked us all into a meeting and as soon as we are all there, he told us that he was relieved of his duties earlier that day.
“(Wayne) Embry, who was our senior consultant at the time, took over. Within the next two months, we hired Bryan Colangelo as our new President and General Manager. So here I am, within the first four months of being a part of sports, and you get this wakeup call realizing that the security of this job is not necessarily promised to anyone. It is going to be judged on results and it could be short lived.
“To be here talking about where I am today in the capacity of a promotion within this organization is truly a blessing.”
From those alarming first few weeks on the job, wondering if he would survive a rapidly shifting sports landscape, to where he is today, Charles has learned exactly what it takes to make an NBA franchise successful.
Not long after that harrowing start to his career, Charles would go on to become the Coordinator of Basketball Operations. Eventually, he would work his way up to Director of Basketball Operations and Player Development where he focused on player on-boarding, financial planning, team marketing, community initiatives and sponsorships.
In that role, Charles helped guide the Raptors to their first NBA championship and the first professional basketball title for the country of Canada when the organization won the NBA Finals over the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the summer of 2019.
Leading up to that championship run, Charles worked directly with Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri and the rest of the Raptors staff in bringing in NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, alongside an already exceptional roster, played an integral role in helping guide the team to a championship almost a year after the acquisition.
“As rocky as it was in the beginning for me, the fun part is eventually you get to a place where you end up with a leader like Masai Ujiri who came back as our President and GM. I worked with him when he was our Director of Global Scouting and to have him return and lay the foundation, to set the expectations of what this organization is going to do, was great. He said we will win and if we win, eventually we will get to the promise land and we will win it again,” Charles said. “He was very much a visionary. He took a lot of risks when it came to accountability and finding the right people and putting them in place. He had to make a lot of tough changes and, at some point, you get to the point where you truly start believing, you start seeing it, and eventually you do it.”
Following the NBA title run in 2019, Charles vividly recalls the celebration immediately afterward and the parade through the streets of Toronto – a bittersweet moment for the native of the city after so much hard work to get the Canadian people to buy into the sport of basketball.
“I can honestly say I was never one to think that I would be part of a materialistic celebration. I wasn’t too worried about hugging and seeing a trophy. When you go through a season where it is not guaranteed you will win, and being from Canada where you have some disadvantages with people not believing you are going to win, when you do win a championship, it is such an amazing feeling,” Charles said. “It is interesting because I always wondered why the celebrations (in sports) are all very similar. There never seems to be much difference in reactions. But then you go through it and no one truly knows what it is that you go through to get there. You want to embrace those moments and enjoy your teammates and enjoy the conclusion of the battle that you just succeeded in.
“As a Canadian, this was huge. We started in 1995 where a lot of people didn’t think basketball would be successful in a country that was dominated by hockey. And for us to be at a point where, not only have we won, but we have won over the country, that is something. The parade was unbelievable. The amount of people that came out and the amount of hours they stayed around just to get a glimpse of the championship team, that to me is truly special.”
Earlier this year, Charles continued up the ladder within the organization when he was promoted to Vice President of Basketball and Franchise Operations for Raptors 905, the NBA G League affiliate of the Toronto Raptors. He will oversee business operations, basketball affairs and long-term strategic planning for the organization.
“Our 905 team has been a key part of the development of our players,” Charles said. “Within my last role, developing our guys on and off the court were my main responsibilities. To get our players to maximize their time in the NBA. And if they maximize that, then we are probably doing pretty good ourselves.
“With Masai being the leader that he is and the succession plan that he has built, for me, the next level was to run an organization. I will be working directly with our leadership team on exactly what we need to do to continue to win championships and grow the game within Canada.”
Charles is especially excited about the future of his new team in a growing developmental league that has blossomed over the past decade. Formerly known as the D-League, the league started with eight teams in 2001 before growing to 15 teams in the early 2000s. Today, nearly every NBA franchise has a developmental team to help foster growth of its young players and nearly a quarter of all NBA players have spent some time in the NBA G League.
Raptors 905, located just outside of Toronto in Mississauga, Ontario, began play in the 2015-16 season. The name “905” refers to the local area code of the suburban Greater Toronto Area.
“The growth of the game globally has been rapid and it has been at a high level the amount of talent that comes through the league. So the NBA found a way to encourage our owners to adopt a G League team within their business model so that they could develop players,” Charles said. “It is much less risk for the players as well because the amount of money the NBA guarantees from a minimum salary standpoint is very significant. And if you get it wrong a few times it will cost you a few million. To run a G League team and have this new ground for players to develop, ends up being very economical.
“It is also economical to cities that are looking to add more sports and entertainment to their profile. It also adds more opportunities for people to be coaches, referees and executives. We’ve got 28 teams now and the amount of talent that gets to stay within North America instead of traveling globally has been significant.
“It has been great and there is still more room to grow. There is always a challenge to get more fans out, especially Canadians. We’ve got a high number of Canadians playing in the NBA, but let’s continue to grow this game. For me, it is just a great opportunity to see sports and see basketball continue to grow.”
Today, Charles credits a lot of what he applies in leading a professional sports franchise to the things he learned while in Huntington earning his master’s degree.
Charles was recruited to Marshall as a track and field coach after excelling as an NCAA All-American athlete while earning his undergraduate degree at Lewis University.
“I was recruited to Marshall by Francis Sealy, another coach who was Canadian who saw me run when I was at Lewis University and I had discussions about wanting to coach after I was done,” Charles said. “Marshall only had a girls’ team at the time, and she wanted to have some male athletes to help motivate and give the young ladies an opportunity to dream big and help with recruiting. Hats off to her for reaching out to a young man and giving him this opportunity to further my education while getting a start in coaching.
“Marshall was really interesting to me. For me, the thing that I love about sports is that it brings people together. It was great to see a town like Huntington come together for football, especially with its history, knowing that you had about 16,000 going to school in a town like Huntington and you had 35,000 people coming out to games.
“For me, it was impressive to see the impact of what sports can do. Since I returned to Canada, I have been educating and showing people what can happen if they dream big. Marshall was able to show me how a sport like football can impact a town and bring people together for one common cause.”
Additionally, the degree programs offered at Marshall helped impact his fast track through the Raptors organization.
“Marshall was one of the few schools that offered a sports degree that was not just for physical education, but for the business side of sports,” Charles said. “Now that is something that many more universities are sharing, but that is because people now have that interest in going into the sports business world.”
While the start to his new position has been a challenge in the midst of the pandemic, Charles is excited for what the future holds both for Raptors 905 and the main Toronto Raptors organization.
Of course, professional basketball is only part of his current gig. In addition to training young players for life in the NBA, he has his own young athletes at home that he is getting ready for a world of opportunity as well.
“I remember sitting in class and someone saying, ‘it will be 15 years down the road, and you will look back and wonder how you got here.’ I am there,” Charles said. “For me, I am in the mentoring market. I do a lot of community work and a lot of work with youth through sports. I love helping people maximize the opportunities that they have in front of them and enjoy life and become better people.
“Now I have two boys that are young and growing and almost catching me in height. That is my next fulltime job, putting everything I have into them and get them to be even better than I am.”