Former Harlem Globetrotter Choo Smith excels as leader in post-career transition
Baltimore native and HBCU product is now chairman of the National Basketball Retired Players Association
It’s an early morning breakfast in a ballroom at the The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, and the group gathered — including Dave Bing, Shawn Marion, Detlef Schrempf, Renee Montgomery and Ticha Penicheiro — would be impressive to any basketball aficionado.
Early in the program, the leader of the National Basketball Retired Players Association steps up to the podium to address the group, and he’s neither a former big-time basketball star nor a former NBA player.
The name he goes by: Choo.
Wait … Choo who?
Meet Charles “Choo” Smith, a former guard with the Harlem Globetrotters and chairman of the NBRPA. Smith, an active member of the NBRPA and a member of the group’s Governor’s Committee since 2016, is the first Globetrotter to serve as chairman for the organization of retired players. He assumed the role from Johnny Davis, a former NBA veteran and coach.
Smith was named chairman of the NBRPA at the Legends brunch during February’s NBA All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City.
“When someone mentioned I’d be the next chair after Johnny resigned, I laughed,” Smith said. “I wasn’t in the NBA, so I just thought no one would ever approve of it.”
But there was one quality about Smith that made him the right person for the position.
“His passion,” said Scott Rochelle, president and CEO of the NBRPA. “Choo sees every perspective and understands everyone’s empathy. And when that passion comes out there are times where you have to take a step back and say, ‘is he upset, or is he really into this?’
“Most times he’s really into it. He just wants you to feel it.”
While he’s made a career connected with basketball, Smith is a fervent fan of his hometown Baltimore Orioles and his favorite player, Eddie Murray. One of his first acts of passion was connected to baseball. Smith’s love of the sport was so intense that he decided at an early age to carve out a baseball diamond in the Forest Park section of Baltimore where he lived.
“I measured the field, I put up the bases and I built it as a place where people could get together,” Smith said. “I wanted the kids in the neighborhood to have a place where they could play baseball and have fun.”
Baseball was the sport Smith thought he’d make a career of entering Baltimore City College high school. But the shift to basketball, which was just his hobby during his first two years of high school, came about when his skills were questioned during a summer league game.
“I was playing in a game with Devin Boyd [Towson University’s career scoring leader] and Andre Boyd [Robert Morris University Hall of Famer] and one of the guys in the game said, ‘Choo, you a scrub,’ ” Smith recalled. “Those guys playing were legends and basketball was my sport, but I ain’t nobody’s scrub. That’s when I started to take it seriously.”
Smith said he excelled in winning a church league championship later that year while competing against a collection of local legends. While his baseball coach encouraged him to skip basketball as a junior, Smith played on the City College team as a senior with his play attracting the attention of a few Division II and Division III programs.
After playing at Bowie State as a freshman, Smith transferred to the University of the District of Columbia. Smith made an impact in those three seasons in Washington, finishing his career as the school’s all-time leader in steals and assists.
As Smith was attempting to keep his basketball career going by playing in a few semipro leagues, he landed on the radar of a talent scout whose job was to find potential players for the Globetrotters and their opponent that travels with them, the Washington Generals.
“He told me that if I could come in and ball as a General that I one day could be a Globetrotter,” Smith said. “I blew them away because I was creating excitement in the games, and that’s how I became a Trotter.”
A requirement to join the team was learning the history of the iconic franchise. He discovered that Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton left the Globetrotters to become one of the NBA’s first Black players, and that Connie Hawkins and Wilt Chamberlain played with the team before launching their NBA careers.
“A lot of history that I just didn’t know,” Smith said. “It was important for me to understand in becoming an ambassador.”
The importance of that role, to Smith, was realized after an encounter with a young boy. Smith can’t remember the city, but he does recall it was a game in 2001 and the boy was hanging out with the team before and during the game and seemed magnetically attached to him.
As members of the team were taking photos with fans during halftime, Smith was shocked when the boy sat in his lap and wrapped his arms around him.
“His mother told me that he had stage four cancer, and he didn’t have much time,” Smith said, becoming emotional. “Here I thought at first this boy was being too clingy, and what he was going through put it all in perspective.
“You never know what people are going through. That’s the moment I fully understood my purpose in life.”
It’s a gorgeous Monday night in Baltimore, and driving through Catonsville it’s clear many of the local kids are kicking it with friends and enjoying the comfortable weather outside.
But inside Goals Baltimore, a sports complex just off the Baltimore Beltway, about 20 teens are focused on the sound of Smith’s voice.
“Stop, stop,” Smith barks, while putting the kids through a modified suicide drill. “Make sure you touch all the lines, make sure you do this right.”
Watching Smith, it’s clear that this is his purpose: helping develop the skill set — both mentally and physically — of the kids in his hometown.
It’s been in him his entire life, from the time he built that baseball field for his friends to play.
“I’ve had opportunities with coaching, chances to go into partnerships with businessmen who like the way I relate to people,” Smith said. “I’ve traveled to countries around the world and to all 50 states, but everything I’ve done in life has led me back to Baltimore.”
Smith’s accomplishments as a trainer and in running his Team Choo AAU program are evident by a quick glance at his social media platforms, where he often boasts about the destinations of his athletes. His kids have received college offers from schools ranging from Penn State University to Mount St. Mary’s to Vassar College, with many of the parents expressing their appreciation of his efforts.
A rising star currently under Smith’s tutelage: Autumn Fleary. She’s the only girl training under Smith at Goals on this Monday, but of the 20 kids she’s the most accomplished.
In April, Fleary was named the Baltimore Sun All-Metro girls basketball Player of the Year following her freshman season, and enters her sophomore year of high school with scholarship offers from major schools including Syracuse, Texas Christian and Virginia.
She’s trained with Smith since the third grade.
“There’s a lot I learn from him, especially ballhandling techniques,” Fleary said. “But the most important thing he’s told me is to remain humble and take nothing for granted. Coming from Baltimore the opportunities are rare, so he always tells me to bring it and work hard every time I step on the court.”
Besides training players and his AAU program, Smith always runs a camp each summer at Coppin State University. That camp is still in the recovery phase after being shut down for a year by the coronavirus pandemic, but on a recent Friday more than 40 kids were on Coppin’s main floor for a slate of games.
“Coppin knew what we were doing with our camp, and when they opened the new gym they asked us to bring it here,” Smith said. “The kids love coming here because it’s a great environment.”
Smith has bigger visions for youth development in his hometown. He’s worked out an agreement with the city of Baltimore to acquire a nearly 20-acre site where he boldly envisions athletic and educational centers as well as retail and housing in a place dubbed Arise. Details of the deal are still being worked out.
“I have an opportunity to provide something special, and I want to capitalize on that opportunity,” Smith said. “With the city embracing me on this project, we can really create some change.”
Joining the Globetrotters gave Smith an opportunity to meet some basketball legends and one of those greats, Curly Neal, pulled him aside after he joined the team and offered some advice.
“ ‘It’s your time,’ ” Smith recalled Neal telling him. “ ‘You love the work. Take this brand and continue to build it.’ ”
That advice could easily apply to his current role with the NRBPA, where Smith as chairman is helping continue to grow a long established brand.
“I got involved with the [NRBPA] years ago, and I remember someone saying that we need to get younger and we need to have programs that’s going to really help in the second phase of their life after basketball,” Smith said. “That was really intriguing to me.”
That led him to his current place within the organization as chairman, addressing a group of athletes at the recent breakfast in Las Vegas.
Some of them were legends who thought enough of Smith to be confident in his ability to lead.
“We’ve got a lot of work done, and there’s a lot of work to do,” Smith said. “I think I’ve proven to them I can handle it.”