Most successful athletes grow up with the active support of at least one parent, if not two. A mom or dad to drive them to practices, support them at tournaments, and motivate them to improve, especially when things get tough. Tiger had his dad Earl. Steph had Dell. Serena and Venus had King Richard.
Charles Echols had no one, at least not in the typical sense.
And because of that, the story of his athletic success is anything but ordinary. He had little parental support, no AAU teams, not even a backyard hoop. The truth is, in light of such challenging conditions, you should not be reading a story about an individual who became one of the most successful freshman athletes in the USCAA this past year. But that’s just who Charles is. He takes what he has, listens to whoever will lend a hand, accepts mentorship from wherever he can find it, and makes a way.
Charles grew up on the West Side of Chicago, and has 14 siblings. From the beginning, things were never easy. Charles will tell you that he did not have a traditional childhood. He couldn’t enjoy the outside world, carefree with his friends. Instead, he had to pay attention to his environment, making sure to protect himself and his family.
“I really had to be grown at a young age,” Charles says, recounting a particularly vivid childhood memory. While in kindergarten, his mother told Charles and two of his siblings to go ask their father if they could stay with him. She said to go knock on his door. If he answered, she told them to come back and tell her. If not, she would be there waiting. Charles walked into the apartment building, stood on the cold basement floor, and knocked. He put his ear to the door, waiting for a response. There was none. No one came to the door.
“We went back out and I looked down the street and my mama was gone. She was gone. We stayed in that hallway for the whole night. I was just a kid. I barely even understood what was going on.”
From this point on, Charles says his “balancing was off.” He loved basketball, but he did not have the time or energy to focus on it. Understandably, he was more worried about his next meal, next bed, or where his mom was. It’s a lot to think about for a young kid, and didn’t leave much room for time on the court.
But one day, at 8 years old, Charles crossed the street to go shoot hoops at the park by himself, dressed in his bright yellow Kobe jersey and headband. He says he began chucking shots up at the rim. Having never learned how to shoot, Charles went with his only viable option. He hurled the ball as hard as he possibly could toward the net.
“But then this old head walked up to me,” Charles said. “He was like, ‘Man, you gotta use your knees and shoot with your legs.’ Ever since then, my shot just feels like water. And that's the first person that really taught me how to shoot.”
This experience sparked one of Charles’ greatest strengths. He respects anyone who has something to say to him, and he always listens. It won’t always be perfect. He may not understand right away, but he will listen, no matter who it is. That willingness to learn is impressive for anyone, especially a 20-year-old.
“They could be some homeless man on the street because you never know what he knows or what he knew.”
Learning to Listen
As a young teenager, the instability Charles faced in his earlier years continued. Life in the West and South Sides of Chicago can be dangerous. Although he swears he only got “grazed” in the leg, Charles was shot on two separate occasions before his 15th birthday. Both times, amazingly, his mom patched him up without ever setting foot in a hospital.
“It all happened in the blink of an eye. I was at a park playing basketball, and suddenly all I heard were shots coming, ‘Bang, bang, bang,’ smacking the rim, hitting the gates.”
Those sounds are unmistakable for Charles. From a young age, he’s been taught exactly what to do when he hears gunshots. Charles ran, kept his head low, and hurdled over the gate. But when he looked down, he could see his pants were already ripped. He knew he had been shot in the leg. Even when Charles was just shooting hoops at the local park with his friends, there was never a shortage of chaos in his life. Basketball wasn’t some blissful escape from the noise. The escape did not exist.
Eventually, Charles started to get bigger and coaches began taking him to the basketball court. He lacked discipline, he says. He couldn’t stay on teams, stay in games, or stay in school. Instead, he took to a life on the streets, providing for himself and his siblings in any way he could. In his mind, there was no time for basketball.
“It was just what I had to do. I’m in the streets selling this and selling that. I’m doing it for my family.”
And then, disaster struck. During his junior year of high school, Charles’ mother passed away. He was devastated. Soon afterward his grief turned to desperation when Charles’ older sister, Mary, kicked him out of the house.
"I don't want to make her seem like a bad person. She just had to do what was best for her little family," Charles clarified.
That said, he was homeless. Sleeping under bridges, and worse, in homeless shelters. “I had to sleep with my little sister, Summer, holding her tight under my arm,” Charles said.
“So that nobody would come and touch her.” This brutal reality led to many sleepless nights for Charles. “I would rather sleep outside than in a homeless shelter, to be honest.”
School was not easy for Charles, either. “I was the kid that if you had a bad day and you wanted to talk about somebody, you could talk about me, cause I'm always gonna come to school with the worst shoes, and the worst clothes, you know?”
The bullying made Charles tough but also led to more trouble. He says he was constantly getting into fights, releasing all of his built-up anger. It seemed as if nobody would take him in, as he bounced around to four or five different high schools before finally landing at Austin College & Career Academy. While there, things started to change.
“My senior year at Austin, I locked in. I told myself, ‘It’s time to wake up.’”
Charles led the Tigers to a 25-5 record, taking them deep into the state tournament. He credits part of his turnaround to his assistant coach, Coach Mike. Coach Mike shared a similar upbringing, growing up in Chicago, and Charles could easily relate to him. Coach Mike reached out, and Charles accepted the helping hand.
“He (Coach Mike) told me that there’s more to life than just Chicago. My late night drives with him, that’s what made me look at things differently.”
You might think this is the turning point. You would be wrong. It was not just smooth sailing from here. Coach Mike wanted Charles to be in school, but he was out doing “other things.” When Charles was shot a third time, this time in the foot, the relationship between him and Coach Mike ruptured.
Although they no longer keep in touch, Charles says “there are a lot of things he told me that I think about daily.” In the past, he was not ready to follow all of Coach Mike’s advice, but he still soaked up as much knowledge as he could to take with him for the future.
The Road to Albany
In the summer of 2021, after being shot for the third time during a downtown shootout, Charles was certain his playing days were over. “That was probably the most I've ever been down since my mama passed away,” Charles said. “I quit. I quit everything at that moment. I'm done with basketball, everything.”
Just as Charles was ready to tap out, he once again got up off of the mat. An invite opened up at the Kenny Anderson showcase, a free showcase dedicated to providing a path to the college level for young adults with few opportunities. With his foot not even close to being fully healed, Charles took his opportunity and ran – or limped, to be more accurate – with it.
During the showcase, Charles was in constant pain because the wound in his foot was still wide open at the bottom. Being the tough young man he is, Charles refused to tell anyone that his foot was still bleeding. He wanted it that bad—Curt Schilling style. Teddy Roosevelt was shot in the chest and delivered a famous speech. Bob Marley was shot and played a concert. Like them, Charles would not let physical discomfort derail his path.
However, not a single coach took an interest in Charles. Instead, the coordinator of the showcase, Ian Cunningham, advocated for Charles and promised to get him an offer somewhere.
According to Cunningham, “A lot of coaches were turned off by him. He had an attitude on the court…But they didn’t know what he had been through. I knew they were missing out.”
Cunningham got to work, sending film of Charles to the head coach of Bryant & Stratton Albany, Michael Shewmaker. Shewmaker was intrigued, and they continued to talk. Cunningham explained Charles’ story, telling Shewmaker, “You are getting a D2 kid. He will be a star at your level.”
Shewmaker was hooked, and he took the chance. At midnight, the phone rang. It was Coach Shewmaker, calling to give Charles an offer to play college basketball.
“I was literally still on my crutches on the phone with him, but I didn't tell him that,” Charles said. Charles just pushed through it, and found a way.
Coach Shewmaker remembered his first impression of Charles saying, “He had an infectious personality. I was amazed at his ability to keep going and keep chasing his dream.”
According to Coach Shewmaker, Charles is the type of teammate who sets the tone during practices. “He is a super competitive guy, and he goes at everyone put in front of him. He is an absolute monster on the offensive end, and he has a God-given vision that allows him to set up his teammates.” This high praise earned him the starting point guard spot when the 2021-22 season kicked off for the Bobcats.
Charles would tell you it did not start as he had hoped. “I probably had more turnovers than points in my first game.” Well, not quite. He scored 9 points and gave the ball away 5 times. However, to Charles’ surprise, his teammates were only supportive. Even the older guards who could be playing in his place rallied to his side.
“They weren’t waiting for their chance,” Charles said. “They just told me, ‘Bro, this is one game, you're gonna have a better game. You just had to get it out of the way.’”
Charles came out the very next game and dropped 17 points and 6 assists, leading his team to an 83-75 win over Elmira College. He heard his teammates, and went on to prove their encouraging words right.
This special team atmosphere is what allowed Charles to endure the rough patches and develop into the player he is now. Rising sophomore guard Dan King described just how tight-knit this group is. “The team as a whole is a brotherhood. We pick each other up, and there is never a man left behind.”
Charles is starting to learn how to use his team’s brotherhood to grow his own confidence, on and off the court. Growing up, Charles did not enjoy playing organized basketball in front of the zebras (refs). “In practice, you would think ‘I’m the man.’ In the park, you would think, ‘I’m the man.’ In the game? Farts.”
But after listening to how highly his teammates spoke of him, Charles began to trust in himself. “Now I step on the court knowing I’m the best player,” Charles said. Before games, Charles listens to Chicago drill music to hype him up, preparing him, as he puts it, to play like a lion. “Lions are vicious. They don't care. I feel like when people see me on the court, they just know. ‘Oh yeah, that's him, he's the lion.’” And to think this guy used to be scared of zebras.
As a freshman, Charles solidified his place at the top of the food chain, pacing his team with 16.7 points a game. Charles also made good use of his length, snagging 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals a game. Oh, and watch out if you see #0 in blue steamrolling towards the rim because he might get you.
“I might not poster you every time, but if you jump and I'm feeling it, it will happen to you. I got sneaky bounce.”
Despite not having a home gym, not practicing for days on end, and the frigid AC coming on randomly during games, BSC Albany found a way to “win anyway,” as Coach Shewmaker coined it. “Just win anyway.” It is a motto Charles has lived his entire life. And the team he led did just that, making an improbable run to the Final Four of the 2022 USCAA National Tournament with primarily freshmen.
In the classroom, Charles credits his assistant coach, Coach Derek Martin, for helping him come into his own as a student, not just a player. “I truly don't like school at all. But Coach Derek told me that it isn’t that you can't do the work, it is that you choose not to do it. It all clicked for me. Like, I can do this if I really want to.”
Looking forward to next season, Charles is already putting in the work. With his injuries almost healed, he is focused on taking his team as far as they can go, including doing a little bit of recruiting himself. He believes with the right players, the Bobcats can win it all next season.
One of those players, incoming freshman Dearras Avery, spoke about why he chose to commit to BSC Albany.
“Charles and I would talk all night about how he felt I could get the team over the hump. After hearing his story, and getting to know him as a person, I knew I had found a home for the upcoming season.” Charles is now finding ways to become a mentor himself, paving the way for others like Avery to follow.
Charles's life has been filled with constant noise. Through that, he’s been able to block it out and seek mentorship from others. Lacking a traditional role model in his life, Charles knows how to learn from everyone. He has not stopped, either. He is humble enough to know he still has much more to learn.
Charles gave a recent example of when he took advice from an elderly woman passing by while he was shooting free throws in the local park this summer. “This lady walked past and she told me, ‘You gotta put some rhythm into it. You are not bending your knees.’” She was right. Charles was recovering from a knee sprain, and was working to get his shot back. So, he listened, and the shots started to go in.
“That stuff just makes me more open minded. It makes me listen more,” Charles said.
Funny enough, when asked about something he will never forget, Charles did not mention anything about all of the advice he has received from his mentors. Nor did he say a word about basketball. Instead, he highlighted his girlfriend, Imani, saying that he will never forget the first time he met her.
“I was on Facetime with this girl who I rarely talk to. I asked her who she was with, and she turned her camera to the side. That’s when I saw my girlfriend. I’ll never forget. I was like, ‘Wait, hold on, who is that?’ And we hit it off ever since,” Charles said. After dating for 3 years now, I’ll bet you he listens to her, too.
Today, Charles is confident enough to listen to his own voice in order to accomplish his goals. He is taking business classes at BSC Albany, with the intent of opening a Youth Community Center in his hometown neighborhood in Chicago. After all the instability, violence, and trauma he’s experienced, he wants to create a stable place for others back home. A place that he never had.
By taking in all the advice from coaches, teachers, and strangers on the street, Charles is able to go out and be a mentor for children and youth like him. “That’s the stuff that sticks with me. That’s why I wake up in the morning. There’s more to life than just basketball.” He would know.
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