Courtney Charles is in the middle of his 15th year with the Toronto Raptors organization, but this year will feel a bit different.
Charles was promoted to Vice President of Basketball & Franchise Operations for the Raptors 905 back in July of 2020 and as he gets ready for his first G League season in his new role, he can't help but think about the lives he'll be impacting.
Charles, a Black man, has risen through the ranks of the Raptors, from intern to now a Vice President. In the process he's joined the few Black front office executives around the league.
Charles came to the Raptors as an overqualified intern - with a master's degree - and remembers some thinking he was too old for the internship program. He wondered if that was a glass ceiling already presenting itself in his journey, if he was already facing some of the racial barriers that he had often heard about in the corporate world.
"I remember people thinking I was an old intern, because I had done my masters, and I didn't know if that was their way of making it seem like I'm not your typical young non-minority person applying for something," Charles told NBA.com. "And that was kind of where the first barrier was to let people realize I'm just here to learn, I'm just here to get better.
"And I just want a fair chance."
Charles remembers his internship class well. He remembers those who have come and gone, and those who have remained with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, including Jeff Deline who has risen from the same internship class as Charles to become Chief Revenue Officer for MLSE.
Had Charles started off working with any other organization other than the Raptors, watching the rise of some non-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) colleagues may have changed his perspective on the sporting corporate world, but when he walked through the organization's doors for the first time he was surrounded by enough diversity to keep him going.
Toronto's General Manager at the time, the late Rob Babcock, had done a pretty good job of hiring a front office and team that had some minorities in impactful positions, none bigger than Wayne Embry who was brought on as a senior advisor. Embry, a pioneer, became the first Black general manager in NBA history when he was hired by the Milwaukee Bucks on March 6, 1972. An Ohio native, he was later the GM of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1986, winning two Executive of the Year awards (1992, 1998) during his time at the helm. He would join the Raptors in 2004.
When Babcock was let go by the team in 2006, Embry was named interim GM as the team looked to hire Babcock's replacement. Charles remembers having the opportunity to see Embry in the big chair and working with him closely during that time.
"Mr. Embry has been instrumental from the day I was an intern," Charles said. "Because unfortunately when Rob Babcock, rest in peace, got fired, Mr. Embry took over as interim president and general manager, and I was able to work with him directly.
"And this was an example of a person of colour, who had an opportunity to take charge. He had had this experience from previous years and from previous teams. And, you know, I didn't necessarily look at it as an accomplishment in the moment, but it was an accomplishment that I look back at now. He's definitely the standard that there could be a Black person running this organization.
"He was very influential in teaching us how we wanted to start shaping the organization for whoever could be the new person that was taking over.
"And it made it a very easy transition, because Bryan (Colangelo) was able to have somebody like Mr. Embry with experience, who was very transparent and wanted to set him up for success.
"And that was, that was great to see."
Charles speaks highly of the impact Embry had on himself and other minorities in basketball. Charles himself hopes to be a voice for diversity, not only within the organization but all of sports. He says winning the 2019 NBA title put a spotlight on the Raptors that allowed people to see how truly diverse their front office had become.
At the head of that drive for diversity is and was current Raptors' President Masai Ujiri. Ujiri had a vision of what a front-office should look like and he implemented it piece by piece. While the Raptors organization had laid a bit of a foundation of diversity down prior to Ujiri's arrival in 2008, Ujiri kicked it into high gear once he took over the team's operations in 2013. He was intentional with his decisions, hiring minorities and women throughout the organization.
Charles believes Ujiri's vision is what makes the Raptors a great representation of what Canada is both on and off the court and what led the team to a championship. He sees the team as the gold standard in the country and hopes that other teams follow through with their promises for chance.
"When you win a championship, you look around and you look at the effect it had on everybody," Charles said. "And you look around and you look at who was there to contribute, and we had a diverse team.
"We had women in power, we had people of colour in power.
"And then you just look at who came out to celebrate with us at our championship parade. You might have had people there that weren't 100 percent fans but they wanted to be part of success and that should be the example of what diversity does for you.
"It brings people together, it brings success. It allows people to live and to dream. It allows people to realize that they're not alone.
"So for me, I don't think there's one or two points, it's endless. When you bring people together to fight for the same cause regardless of their skin colour or gender and you treat people as humans.
"Equality, diversity, inclusion, those are all things that lead to success."
Charles always knew he wanted to be in a position to help others, and a byproduct of his hard work has put him in a position to be a role model for many Black Canadians looking for inspiration. From intern to Vice President, Basketball & Franchise Operations, it's quite the story, one that Charles doesn't feel is anywhere close to being over.
The NBA's players are primarily Black, but front offices and coaching staffs aren't reflective of that. Charles is one of the few who have made it to a position of power and influence within an organization. He hopes to be a role model for many who might not be able to play the game at a high level but want to be involved in the game. He believes diversity at every level will continue to grow the game, something he is now a part of doing.
Charles walked through the door that was open for him and many others in NBA front offices by Wayne Embry, and he hopes to keep those same doors open for the many he hopes will walk through those doors behind him.
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