Since TJ Walker’s departure, Charles Smith has stepped up his game. For a man known to his fans as ‘The Prince’, it is perhaps fitting that Charles Smith has recently succeeded to second in line on the Newcastle Eagles playing staff.
Since the abdication of the legendary TJ Walker, the forward from Philadelphia has become a crucial part of player-coach Fabulous Flournoy’s inner circle and with good reason. Smith seems inextricably linked to the North-East dynasty.
Three times already the 32-year-old has left Newcastle Arena for pastures new but every time he has come back to a place he says ‘feels like home’. Smith has contributed to every one of the six BBL trophies Newcastle have lifted and will be aiming for a seventh in today’s British Basketball League Cup final against Milton Keynes Lions.
Smith’s first spell with the Eagles began in 1999 but his role has evolved since. Flournoy’s rein has been characterised by a rigid defensive system and a ferocious work ethic. Smith admits some find it hard to adjust, but enjoys his role teaching the Eagles way.
‘When I first came over I was young, I just wanted to play,’ he recalls. ‘Now each time people come in we work with them, tell them what’s expected. If they can accept that, that’s half the battle. Even off the court it’s difficult here because people don’t realise how much work we do in the community. This is really the only club I’ve been in where I’ve had community work but I’m used to it now.’
‘When a new player comes they have to know what they expect here. Most people are okay with it because they think, ‘I’m going to a winning team, I might be able to handle that!’ but some can’t. We’re more of a family than a team but you’re going to have to work on and off the court. If you can handle that and pick up our defensive system that’s probably the key.’
‘Plus, Fab being a player-coach is different. You might see something but he might see something else because he’s playing. Also there’s his manner. He’s a loud person in general, he comes across quite strong sometimes and a lotta people might think, ‘Hey, why you coming down on me?’ when he’s not actually. You have to listen to the words more than the tone.’
Walker’s departure, to become Chester Jets player-coach, has improved Smith’s performance, it seems. He picked up December’s player of the month award for, among other things, his starring role in the semi-final.
‘As soon as he left a lot of people were like, ‘Who they gonna get now, how will they replace him? You guys aren’t gonna be the same team,’ he says. ‘But even when he was here we had great games without him. Having the same guys here made it easier. Bringing in a fresh group of guys and having to start all over again would have been kinda difficult.’
‘When a player like that leaves you go up another notch. There’s more responsibility, more pressure on you. I knew I had to step up more, try to get other guys to come back or come in, try to explain stuff.’
As well as playing in his homeland, Smith has also starred in the Austrian, Portuguese and Spanish leagues, as well as a brief spell with BBL rivals the Scottish Rocks. But he keeps coming back.
‘It’s not that you don’t want to leave because you always want to try new things and new challenges but it’s kinda like home because I’ve been around the guys so long,’ he explains. ‘I’m comfortable here. They treat you so well here, everyone’s friendly.’
‘Me and Paul (Blake, managing director) go back to ‘99 when I first came over. We can talk and get things worked out better between ourselves rather than trying to go through agents.’
‘Newcastle is a knowledgeable city when it comes to basketball. It wasn’t when I first came but it’s grown a lot. It helps when you win silverware. If you’re winning, people come out to see you. I meet people even this year who say, ‘Hey, this is my first game and I loved it, I’ll come back again’’.
‘The weather’s a little tricky right now but Newcastle’s a friendly city – for myself anyway, some people might not think that. It’d be better if the football team weren’t doing so bad! But it’s a nice city, I like it here, if I wasn’t I probably wouldn’t still be here.’
‘I’ve been here a long time and have personal relationships with a lot of the fans. They always give me a warm reception, even when I didn’t play here and came back to visit. It was still like I was back home at the Arena. They’re great fans, loyal fans. As you are supporting the club, they support you. You can’t fault them for that.’