When Gary Charles learned of George Floyd’s murder on a Minneapolis street over a year ago, his reaction reflected what many of us felt.
by Tacuma Roeback
“I was disgusted,” said Charles. He said that Floyd’s case reminded him of the 1991 incident where four police officers beat Rodney King, an infamous event captured on videotape that sparked the Los Angeles riots.
“It broke me to a certain degree, and I said, ‘Wow. When are we going to stand up? How long do we allow this to continue?'”
Floyd’s death compelled him to take action in the one area he devoted his life to — sports, especially college basketball.
With the help and input of friends and associates, Charles founded the Advancement of Blacks in Sports (ABIS) within months of Floyd’s murder.
The goal of ABIS is to push for racial equity in sports, whether through financial literacy programs for student-athletes or advocating for talented Black women and men who deserve coaching jobs.
Next weekend, ABIS will host Champions & Legends Weekend at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, June 2-4. ABIS will honor distinguished sports figures like NBA Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady, Las Vegas Aces Team President Nikki Fargas, ESPN analyst and former NFL player Ryan Clark and legendary rap artist Chuck D of Public Enemy, among other notable luminaries.
“We shouldn’t have to wait for permission to celebrate us,” Charles said, “and so one of the things I wanted to do with Advancement of Blacks in Sports is to let people know that Black excellence is for us.”
If there is one person who knows the shape, substance and look of Black excellence, it’s Charles. He has mentored some of the most notable Black athletes over the last 20 years as an influential figure in grassroots basketball. He also helped Kobe Bryant secure his first shoe deal, by the way.
Based on his life experiences and the many people he has met along the way, Charles seemed destined to create an organization like ABIS.
Speaking of his life, there are three influential figures who loom large in his journey. Their tutelage and example likely laid the foundation for Charles to pursue such an audacious and necessary endeavor.
Two Early Teachers of Black Excellence
To truly experience the nexus of Black excellence, academics and collegiate basketball, you couldn’t pick a better school than the former Cheyney State College, the first Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the nation.
Charles had the good fortune of attending Cheyney State, later named Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, because two of the most influential figures in college basketball coached the men’s and women’s teams there — C. Vivian Stringer and the late John Chaney.
Charles was a student of Coach Chaney’s.
“Coach Chaney would stop our physical education class ten minutes early and make us sit down and talk about life lessons and being a Black person,” he said.
“And I was in awe.”
His encounter with C. Vivian Stringer went quite differently. For him, it started when he played some pickup ball at a school gym one day.
“These young ladies came walking in and said, ‘We got next,'” Charles recalled. “These women came in, started to play, and won six games in a row.”
This scene astounded him at the time, but it was normal to the other guys he was playing basketball with. Those women dominated because they were members of Stringer’s basketball team.
In time, he would get to know Stringer, whom he describes as a friend and mentor.
But in Chaney and Stringer, Charles had maintained relationships with two individuals who embody the height of accomplishment.
“I was looking at Black excellence on the men’s and women’s side,” he said. “There was nothing you could tell me at that point.”
Seeing the Inequity in College Basketball
Charles also witnessed the apex of athletic excellence when he started the Long Island Panthers basketball program while working his primary job as a systems programmer on Wall Street.
The Panthers program produced dozens of NBA players, including Lamar Odom, Wally Szcerzbiak and Joakim Noah.
Because of his Panthers program, Charles met sports marketing whiz Sonny Vaccaro in 1990. Vaccaro invited him to the NCAA Final Four that year and taught him the politics of major college basketball.
“So he started explaining to me about college basketball and the way it worked, and now my eyes open,” Charles said.
He learned the downside of the sport, where young Black athletes are denied opportunities to capitalize off their talents, but the programs they play for and the people who coach them do.
“Why is it that they’re making all the money, but these players are not?'” Charles asked himself at the time. “There is something wrong with that.”
‘The NAACP of Sports’
Fast forward to the direct aftermath of the George Floyd case, when COVID was rampant, and people conducted meetings primarily over Zoom or cell phones.
Charles started consulting with his friends in college coaching about creating an organization in response to the racial inequity he witnessed and identified. He reached out to people like Dave Leitao, the former head coach of the DePaul University men’s basketball team. He also spoke to the Florida State University men’s head coach, Leonard Hamilton.
“‘Gary, you’re the only person in America that can do this. You have always been above suspicion. Everyone loves you, and everyone trusts you. You’re the one that can bring us together.'” said Charles, recalling the words Hamilton told him.
But he also wanted to get women involved, so he contacted Dawn Staley, the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball head coach.
“Dawn said, ‘I’m all in. What do you want me to do?'”
He also spoke with a woman sports agent who connected him to 30 women coaches to discuss his idea.
Fargas, a 2023 Champions & Legends honoree, came on board to help support his vision.
He formed ABIS in August 2020.
As his organization approaches its three-year anniversary, the goal is as clear as ever.
“ABIS wants to become the voice for equity in sports,” said Charles. “We want to be the NAACP of sports.”
For More Information
To learn more about Advancement of Blacks in Sports (ABIS) and to attend Champions & Legends Weekend, June 2-4 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, visit this link.
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