In 2019 I had a chance to talk with former New York Knicks point guard, 1999 NBA Finalist, Heisman Trophy winner, member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and 2-time ACC Player of the Year – Charlie Ward.
College career and NBA draft
In 1993 you received the Heisman Trophy. Did you feel it was the beginning of your path to the NFL?
No, the career does not start until you have a job. So, when I received the Heisman Trophy that was just the end of my college football career. I knew that after I played my last football game, that I would not be playing college football again because I was senior, and I moved on to basketball. But I never saw that as the beginning of my NFL career because to have a career, you have got to have a job and at that time I did not have one. I was pursuing the opportunity, but it was not anything that I had attain.
What helped you play effectively in both basketball and football?
I competed and I had great teammates who helped me to be the type of player that I was capable of being in both sports. I played my role – as far as people look up to you as the leader, playing quarterback. The same thing in the basketball. Both roles were similar, and I did the best that I could to help my teams be successful by doing what the coach asked me to do and what my teammates were expecting me to do.
Knicks drafted you with 26th pick, and in your first season you played in just 10 games. Have you ever had a regret about choosing NBA instead of NFL?
No, because if I was in the NFL I probably would not play much as well. It was a great lesson for me as a rookie. I had to learn how to work, how to get in better shape. And I also had to learn the NBA game, lifestyle. I worked hard during my rookie year to get better and it payed off the second year. Of course, I had to be patient again, but once I got my opportunity to play, I wanted to take advantage of it, and I was grateful that coach saw me as a player that he could trust in the lineup and I was grateful for the opportunity to play.
Playing for the Knicks
How do you recall fighting for the point guard spot in the starting lineup with Chris Childs?
Well, I did not start up starting. Chris started up starting. There is always a competition and you are going to compete to make each other better. We knew that we were two-headed monster, neither one of us were superstars but we played well together. We wanted to combine our numbers to equal one person and so we were able to that, regardless of who started or who came off the bench – the goal was to be productive. And I think that is what helped us to be the best team that we could possibly be because it was not about who was starting and who was coming off the bench, it was about being productive at this position and helping our team be successful.
How do you remember playing with players like Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, and Larry Johnson?
Those are great players, they all did something different, they all were efficient. To be able to have three weapons like that from offensive point but more importantly those guys competed at the defensive end and they were great teammates as well, so it is always a great benefit when you have great players that are willing to be team players and that was great to have the opportunity to play with those guys.
A large group of players had trouble finding the form when the lockout ended. How much did it affect you?
We tried to work as much as we could, we played a lot, worked out on our own, worked out together during that time. But we just acquired some new players, so it was beneficial for us to learn one another, but of course once the season started it took us some time to get together and sometimes, we were playing three games in three nights – it was just tough, tough for the body.
We tried to catch our breath, catch our groove the last six games, we won the last few games to make it into the playoffs as the eighth seed. We were able to upset Miami, the number one seed at that time. Over the course of that shortened season it took us some time to get together as a team and learn to play with one another. Once we got together, we were able to make a run all the way to the NBA Finals
In 1999, the Knicks became the only 8th seed to reach the NBA Finals. Do you think that anyone will be able to repeat it?
It will be tough because back then it was five games, in a five-game series anything can really happen. Those two extra games turned them into seven-game series, but we have done it in a five-game series. More upsets between eighth and first seeds happened in five-game series and I do not think it will happen again. You never know, it may happen, but it will be very tough.
Heat vs Knicks
How do you recall the long-term rivalry between the Knicks and the Miami Heat?
Well, it was always intense, because the two coaches worked together and basically, we were running the same systems. When it is all said and done it was going to come down to who is going to make tough plays, tough shots. We had a few quarrels during that times as well, that caused suspensions and that played a big part in the series as well. We were basically two equal teams that had the same personnel, just different names, same mindset, same plays.
When you have that, it is going to come down to individuals making plays from offensive point and defensively and that is what it came down to. They were always competitive, regardless of what the score was. I remember us being up 20 and them coming back and vice-versa. We all played great defense.
How did your co-work with coach Jeff Van Gundy look like?
Coach Van Gundy was the lifesaver for me. He was the guy that coached me for over nine years out of my eleven. I am very grateful for him. He took me under his wing during my rookie year to help me develop my game from a skill development level. We spent a lot of time together and he was the one who implemented me into the lineup, once he became the head coach.
When he left, I was out. A year and a half later he gave me the opportunity to come to Houston where he was. I will always have a spot in my heart for coach Van Gundy because he took me under his wing and helped me through my career in the NBA.
Leaving New York
In 2004 you were traded to the Suns. What did you feel when you found out that you were leaving New York?
I was not shocked because I knew that being traded was always on the table. Getting older and having contract that was expiring, that is normally what happens when you get thrown into a deal, and that was what happened. I was grateful for the opportunity to be in New York for nine and a half years, which is unheard of for a guy who is not a superstar.
That is something that I always cherish and appreciate, but after I got traded, I only played year and a half later, it was more so six more months – when you combine half of a season in San Antonio and in Houston. That ended my career, but I was grateful that I was able to spend eleven years in.
A few days after the trade, you signed a contract with your former rival, San Antonio Spurs. How did you feel in Gregg Popovich’s coaching system?
They won the ring the year before and year after me, but it just was not for me to be there when it happened. And I also did not get a chance to play as much as I liked to, but that was something that I had to go through as a veteran. But I enjoyed the experience, it was great. That was good for me; as a coach now, I have been able to implement some things that Coach Pop taught me when I played – coaching everyone the same, whether you are the best player or the last on the bench. That is something that I implemented into my coaching style.
In 2017, your biography was published. How does it feel to be able to see your entire career in the form of a book?
It is something that I wanted to do for four-five years and God just kept closing the door on it until Joe Finkle came and asked if he could do a book, my biography. He did a great job capturing who I am and what I am about, all the things that I had to go through to get the success that I earned. That is something I always wanted to do and when I go and speak, people always ask me about my story and now I have a book to be able to share my entire story with them. I was grateful when I had an opportunity to have a book written about me.