Inside Travis Charles’ office, it doesn’t take long to see where the vice president of basketball operations for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings is from.
If the flag on the wall doesn’t give it away, the Blue Jays cap on the locker probably should.
“I’m shouting from the mountaintops that I’m Canadian,” said Charles. “You walk into my office, the first thing you see is the Canadian flag. You can’t see it.”
If that wasn’t enough, Charles makes sure to tell anyone who bothers to listen that he’s from Scarborough. It’s the place he calls home and where a fire was planted to make him the WNBA executive he is today.
Because the job requires time all year long, Charles has been away from home so long that he still refers to Scotiabank Arena as the Air Canada Center, and to him, the Rogers Center will forever be known as the SkyDome. Charles is already preparing for the next Wings season, set to begin in May, hoping to make the playoffs for the third year in a row and expand on last season’s third-place finish in the Western Conference.
The Dallas executive grew up in different parts of Scarborough, dividing time between his parents’ homes on Victoria Park Avenue and Lawrence Avenue East, and Nelson Street and Shepherd Avenue East. He can remember playing for Scarborough Road Runners as a kid. He now makes critical decisions and provides front office advice for the WNBA.
But before Charles’ rise to executive positions, his decision to play basketball mostly left him out of a job for years. Without knowing a single soul in the industry, he left Canada because the chances of finding basketball work in the country were like finding a needle in a haystack.
After years on the move, from junior college to working under a sports agency, he moved to Atlanta in 2009 with hopes of getting into coaching. Charles worked at a local community center while finding the time to attend any NBA basketball game, college and high school, to connect with as many people as possible. Known for its rich basketball history and dozens of NCAA teams based there, Atlanta is where Charles wanted to be, getting his foot in the door. Within three years, he had applied for more than 500 basketball jobs, but was seldom heard of. The lack of a stable income in a city he barely knew, and the rejection and heartbreak that came with it, took its toll.
I was away from my family, I was away from my friends. I didn’t have any money. My career didn’t seem to have any legs at the time. “I didn’t know where to go next,” said Charles. “People who don’t exercise don’t understand. (They’ll say) Go get a regular job. Maybe I could do that, but would it make me happy?”
Philadelphia 76ers front office manager Prosper Karangua doesn’t remember how Charles got his number but somehow he did, seeking advice. At the time, Karangwa was a scout with the Orlando Magic. Charles called after finding his email address on the Internet.
“I combed through all the directories of the NBA personnel, and I’ll start with the ticket person. His email will be posted to the ticket person and you’ll take the format of the ticket person. The scout person, general manager, equipment manager—whoever it is—will have the same email address as the ticket person.”
“It took me a while to figure that out, but trial and error,” laughed Charles.
Rarely did anyone respond to Charles and his requests, but Karangua was a fellow Canadian and represented Canada at the 2002 FIBA World Cup and the 2003 Americas. He was eager to help another Canadian and encouraged Charles not to give up, and to apply for a job with the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA – a job he was looking forward to. , but he was reluctant to pursue it for fear of another rejection.
“I remember telling him the hardest thing to do in this business is get in. Once you get in, it creates your own path and opportunity,” Karangwa said. “My advice to him was: If you really want this, if this is something you want to do, don’t give up. Keep moving forward.”
The two built a strong bond and Charles ended up as an apprentice with the dream. He remembers being in Toronto when he got the news—one of the last times he was in town—before training began. He wasn’t paid at the time, but he didn’t care.
“I said to myself when you get your chance, balls to the wall,” Charles said. “I was willing to do anything to make it happen.”
For a year, he worked 85 to 90 hours a week and barely left the arena, sleeping on a practice table and using towels as a blanket. To this day, almost no one knows he was doing it. Most days, Charles would finish work at 2am and would have to be back at 6am, so it made sense for him to sleep in the yard instead of dealing with Atlanta traffic.
The yard also had everything he needed, from unlimited snacks and food to cable TV. His night was basketball, a shower, and four hours of sleep to be his first and last night on the job.
“Growing up where I grew up in Scarborough, it was just about whatever you wanted to be competitive,” said Charles. “From Victoria Park, my boys and I rode our bikes to the SkyDome just to see who could do it first, for no reason. This is before cell phones. Parents are going crazy. It was all love, but it was very competitive, that area; competition (was born).”
Jermaine Small, the men’s basketball coach at the University of Lethbridge, grew up with Charles and said his competitiveness had faded. He remembers how Charles would get friends to ride their bikes to the other end of town to play other basketball talents.
“He was very competitive,” said Small. “He’s the kind of guy who wants to be the best. He doesn’t settle for second, third, or anything like that. If he does something, he wants to be the best at it.”
Charles will accept any assignment — setting up the court, washing and rebounding, helping players practice, scouting, cutting the tape and watching assistant coaches — no questions asked. His work did not go unnoticed. The head coach at the time, Fred Williams, brought him in as a basketball operations assistant for the next year.
Their relationship blossomed to the point where Williams accepted a head coaching job with the Tulsa Shock after he left her at Atlanta, and offered Charles a job as a video coordinator. In the next few years, Charles tasted just about every job as Tulsa’s WNBA team moved to Dallas in 2016. He was director of basketball logistics for a few seasons, and even an assistant coach for part of a year.
This came as no surprise to Kareem Griffin, a close friend of W Toronto women’s basketball champion, When he heard that Charles was looking to move into the management side and get more involved in the decision-making process.
Griffin visited Charles when he was an apprentice in Atlanta, and he remembers how he always envisioned managing a team.
“Fred Williams gave him the opportunity and he never looked back,” said Griffin. “He’s living his dream, and words can’t even describe the feeling. This is my brother.”
In 2019, Charles continued to rise in the Wings organization, becoming Director of Basketball Operations. Two years later, he was promoted to senior manager, and this past August was named vice president of basketball operations and assistant general manager.
Charles helps manage free agency decisions and hires – including the Wings’ new head coach Latricia Trammell.
He also attends league meetings, as he’s not the only Canadian in the room. He’s one of only a handful of black executives in the WNBA – though that number is growing. The league received an A for its racial and gender practices in 2022, according to the annual report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. The number of blacks in positions from vice president upwards rose 5.2 percentage points to 22.4 percent in 2022.
The largely unknown basketball mind from Scarborough has kept quite a low profile during his basketball journey, but he no longer thinks this is necessary. Charles now feels a sense of responsibility to show others that what he has accomplished is possible.
He has plans to start a scholarship with Paris Media Group in Toronto, which does community outreach work, to help young people trying out for basketball in the United States. He also hopes to do some motivational speaking.
“Trust me when I say this: If I can do it, anyone can do it… You just have to try to have a dream, have a vision, and then follow through.”
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