Ron Charles: Ultimate Role Player
Feb. 28, 2009
February is Black History Month, and nowhere in major-college athletics is that history richer than at Michigan State University. From Gideon Smith, the first African-America football player at Michigan Agricultural College in 1913, to Steve Smith, an All-America basketball star whose contributions have an impact each day, it would take many months to tell the full story. In a series of profiles, longtime Lansing-area writer and broadcaster Jack Ebling will present some of the best of all-time in 2009.
Nothing ever seemed to bother him - not a 90-degree shift in temperatures, being 2,000 miles from his home in the Virgin Islands, losing his spot in the starting lineup or being undervalued in Spartan basketball history.
They called him "Bobo" for his luck with the ladies. But another name fit Ron Charles better. Assistant coach Don Monson called him "No Sweat," because he never showed much urgency in practice. In fact, he was the ultimate role player, a guy who'd always roll with the punches.
"Ron could do a lot of things but never seemed to be working very hard," Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote said. "Finally, Don said, `The athletic department is going to save money on you, Ron! You never have to shower after practice. You never sweat.'"
Not as much as Heathcote did when he walked down the hallway in Jenison Field House. But then, he didn't spend much of his life in St. Croix, the way Charles did after a move from New York as a pre-teen.
It was that seven-year stay in the sunny Caribbean that led to his opportunity in East Lansing, a win-win situation for a player and program that share the label "1979 NCAA Champions."
Heathcote was an assistant on the USA Pan American Games team when he spotted Charles in 1975. But he was coaching in Missoula, Mont., at that point. The sales pitch improved significantly the following spring when he left for MSU.
"I almost went to St. John's," Charles said. "They wanted me real bad. But my father didn't want me to go back to New York. That was one of the big reasons I wound up at Michigan State. My first impression was that I was back in the cold. I really liked the Virgin Islands. And my freshman year, it snowed Nov. 1. By the end of the term, it was so cold it brought tears to my eyes."
If Charles remembered what it was like to live in 0-degree weather instead of 90-degree heat, he forgot that numbing chill when it was time to pack. Or maybe he didn't have anything appropriate for his suitcase.
"I was 17 years old," Charles said. "Being so far from the Virgin Islands and my family was hard. I didn't have a winter coat. I didn't even have a long-sleeved shirt. T-shirts, shorts and sandals were all we wore."
With Bob Chapman and Gregory Kelser returning and Charles and Terry Donnelly among the freshmen, Heathcote's first team went 12-15, including two wins by forfeit. But there was always hope for the future with Earvin Johnson and Jay Vincent in their senior seasons at Lansing Everett and Eastern, respectively.
"We knew all about them," Charles said. "Earvin used to play with us. And we'd always watch him and Jay. My freshman year, they sold out Jenison - for a high school game! We were getting just over 5,000 fans. And they doubled that. But I thought if we could get those two, we'd be a real good team."
The Spartans' other advantage was their head coach. Even with a horrid record, Heathcote's team won five of its last seven games and lost in overtime at top-ranked Michigan.
"Coach Heathcote was a great coach," Charles said. "He gave us an edge in every game. On the court, he was really hard on his players, hollering and screaming all the time. But off the floor he was great. He was another father to me."
Charles' sophomore season saw MSU rule the Big Ten and finish 25-5, a hint of what was to come. Yet, nothing came easy for the Spartans in January 1979. They were 4-4 in the Big Ten and in serious jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament after an 83-65 humiliation at Northwestern.
"After we got blown out in that game, we came back and had a meeting," Charles said. "Some changes probably needed to be made. It was just too bad they involved me. I was playing pretty well at the time. But we needed another ballhandler in the lineup. They were doubling Earvin and putting a lot of pressure on Terry. When they changed the starting lineup, that changed the complexion of the team."
Heathcote appreciated Charles' acceptance of a move that gave Mike Brkovich more playing time and put a versatile big man on the bench more often.
"Ron was very disappointed about it," Heathcote said. "But he wasn't the type of player who'd openly complain. We tried to explain to him, `Hey, you're a better player than `Brk'. But for the good of the team, Mike needs to start.' We told him he'd play just as many minutes. Well, he didn't. And he was disappointed about that, but not devastated."
Part of the reason for that was the support of his teammates, especially Kelser, his closest friend, and Johnson.
"He idolized Gregory and Earvin," Heathcote said. "If they said, `This is best for the team,' he accepted that a lot better than if I'd said that."
Whatever was said was validated a wild, overtime win over 8-0 Ohio State on Feb. 1. And by the time MSU returned from Salt Lake City, it was 26-6 and one of the best teams in college basketball history.
"We had the lead against OSU when Earvin went down," Charles remembered of the loudest night in Jenison history. "I saw him holding his ankle, saw the pain on his face and said, `Oh, boy! We're in trouble.' The Buckeyes came back. Then, we heard this incredible roar. Earvin was coming back from the locker room. That place was sooooo loud! I'll never forget that feeling."
He has never forgotten the feeling six and seven weeks later, when the Spartans dominated top-seeded Notre Dame, then beat top-ranked Indiana State to win the school's first NCAA basketball title.
With Vincent nursing a foot injury, it was time for Charles to return to the lineup and play more minutes. More importantly, it was time to make a definitive statement.
"We watched Notre Dame a lot that season," Charles said. "I think we saw those guys on TV almost every week. They got so much publicity. They were a good team. But we really wanted a chance to play them. When we did, we took care of business.
"The championship game had even more buildup. You had two of the best players in NCAA history in Earvin and Larry Bird. The whole country was captivated by that matchup. It was two big guys handling the ball and getting everybody else involved. No one had seen that before."
No one had seen the real Charles, either, though he had set an MSU record as a junior with .665 shooting accuracy from the field.
His senior year was outstanding, though the team regressed to 12-15 with Johnson and Kelser in the NBA. While Vincent led the Big Ten in scoring, Charles paced the team in rebounds with 8.9 per game - .2 more than Kelser had averaged as a senior en route to the school's career record.
But it was Charles' offense that was the biggest surprise. He erased his own mark with .676 precision from the floor. Thirty years later, no one has approached that season accuracy or his .639 career mark.
In a 59-58 win over Michigan in Crisler Arena, Charles set a single-game record with 12-for-12 shooting, one basket better than his 11-for-12 work that season against Central Michigan.
"We lost our last games, but I was drafted by Chicago," he said. "I didn't make the team, so I went to Europe and played in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. It wasn't the NBA. But I really enjoyed it."
Charles has made the best of his situation in every environment. If he wasn't the brightest star on the continent, he was content to do the best he could, just as he did with the Spartans.
"I was just happy to be part of it all," Charles said. "We had two great players in Greg and Earvin. Jay was pretty good, too, come to think of it. What we needed were role players. Coach Heathcote told me to rebound, block shots and play defense. And that's what I did - whatever would help the team."
Charles returned to the U.S. in 1989 and settled in Atlanta, roughly halfway between St. Croix and East Lansing. He began a career with the federal prison system. And nearly 20 years later, no one has heard a peep of discontent.
"If I hadn't come to Michigan State, a lot of things would've been different," Charles said. "I wouldn't have been a national champion. That's one thing. I was a decent player in high school and had a lot of opportunities. I'm sure I would've had a chance to shoot the ball more. But I wouldn't have all these great friends I have now."
That timeless bond was obvious when the '79 players and coaches came back for the win over Wisconsin, the last school to beat them.
"Everyone is pretty much the same," Charles said. "We're all cracking jokes. No one has really changed. And no one is stand-off-ish. It's like riding a bike. You never forget. If someone falls off, they get back on and start pedaling again."
Charles has been pedaling Spartan glory at every opportunity. He has made it a point to follow the team as closely as any former player. And when MSU has advanced to the Final Four or played in a Sweet 16 near Atlanta, a 6-foot-8 superfan has been there, staying in the background but never far away.
"I'm such a Spartan," Charles said with a smile. "I love to follow the football team. Of course, I watch all the basketball I can. And I even watch hockey. Whatever they're doing, I want them to win."
"Mr. Unassuming" may not be finished contributing just yet. His son, Ronald Charles Jr., is a lot like his dad - but with bigger feet and more growth potential at Marion East in suburban Chicago.
"I have two kids," Charles said with considerable pride. "One is already 6-8 at age 16. And he wears a size-16 shoe! He can't wear mine any more. I'm only a 15."
No. 15 in the program - in his program, now and forever - left big shoes for all MSU role players to fill.