Ward in basketball state of mind in N.Y.

July 26, 1994|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Writer

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- Just more than a month before the start of the football season, the New York Giants are in the middle of a quarterback battle that's hardly raising an eyebrow in New York.

Kent Graham or Dave Brown to run your offense? Kind of like being forced to ask Don King or Dennis Rodman to recommend a barber.

Then imagine Charlie Ward's name thrown into the mix. Heisman Trophy winner and biggest impact quarterback in college football the past two seasons vs. two veteran but unproven talents.

Now, that's a quarterback battle.

But instead of wearing cleats and a football jersey, Ward has been donning sneakers and a New York Knicks practice uniform the past few weeks. Ignored by the NFL after he was named college football's top player, Ward was a first-round draft

pick of the Knicks (26th overall) after playing basketball part-time at Florida State.

Ward strives to be an explosive point guard like the Phoenix Suns' Kevin Johnson, but it's not clear how effective an NBA player he'll be. Ward, 6 feet 2, 190 pounds, took a step toward addressing some of the skeptics last week when he was named Most Valuable Player of the Doral Arrowwood Summer League.

The knock against Ward is his outside shooting, yet in the championship game against the Washington Bullets he hit five of eight three-pointers. He had 24 points, eight assists and only two turnovers in the victory, leaving several notable courtside observers impressed.

"From what I've seen, he looks better than what I thought," said Maurice Cheeks, a former All-Star point guard who is now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers. "He's got good poise. He's got a good jump shot."

That jumper also surprised Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, who caught Ward's act live for the first time at Wednesday's championship game.

"He showed he can penetrate, make the pass and make the open shot -- all the qualities you want from your point guard," Ramsay said. "He's an athlete. He should get better as he devotes more attention to the game of basketball.

"But you have to be careful about making judgments on summer league play, because they're playing against guys that really haven't done anything yet," Ramsay said. "If you're an established player, you're not here. But a lot of guys do come out of this environment and do well."

After meeting the New York media shortly after last month's NBA draft, Ward was about to pose for photographs when someone tossed him a football. Immediately, he posed Heisman-style, and the media loved it.

But Ward has been quick to distance himself from football. He doesn't like to talk about football -- "No football questions, because football is not an option for me," he said after the draft -- but the questions will keep coming, anyway.

"I can't wait until football season starts," Ward said. "I'm a sports fanatic, and I'll watch it on TV and cheer for all the guys I played with and played against.

"But football is out of my mind," he added. "I'm a basketball player."

He had to go that route after every team in the NFL bypassed him in the two-day draft in April.

Several coaches said Ward could have gone as high as the second round. After he wasn't drafted, team officials said they shied away from him because he would not commit to an NFL career exclusively and because he was too small to fit the NFL quarterback prototype.

The Canadian Football League, on the other hand, was very interested. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who owned CFL rights to Ward, sold those rights to the Las Vegas Posse for $100,000 a few weeks before the NBA draft. But once the Knicks picked Ward in the first round, it was clear he wouldn't be headed to the CFL.

At Florida State, football forced Ward to miss the beginning of the basketball season his sophomore through senior years. Still, he finished with a school-record 236 steals and averaged 10.5 points as a senior. His strengths were leadership, quickness and court vision, but he lacked consistency as a shooter (36.5 percent his senior season).

He worked to improve, playing well during two weeks this past spring in the U.S. Basketball League. Impressive showings during the pre-draft camps made him a projected first-round pick.

"I've been working on my shot since the [college] season's been over," Ward said. "It's just a matter of me continuing to work on it."

During last week's summer league, when teams left Ward alone, he drilled the three-point shot. But despite his MVP honor (Washington's Mitchell Butler and Philadelphia first-round pick Sharone Wright each had a better tournament), his game was not without flaws.

The night before his 24-point game against the Bullets, Ward scored only four points (all on free throws) in 30 minutes. And in an earlier game against Philadelphia, Ward was matched up against 76ers first-round pick B. J. Tyler, who repeatedly burned him.

"I thought he would be a better defender, coming from a football background," Ramsay said. "He'll need to work on that area."

Said Ward: "I'm going to go home and work on sharpening my defensive skills and try to come into training camp ready. The overall intensity is different, and you have to adjust. I'm still to the point where I haven't fully adjusted to it. I just have to go home and work hard, and hopefully I can pick it up."

In his final two college seasons, Ward played in 33 basketball games. If he focuses on one sport, it stands to reason that his game will improve.

"If you try to do something full-time and put your mind to it, you can accomplish whatever the Lord has set out for you," Ward said. "The Knicks took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity, and I want to take full advantage of it. I'm still learning, and I'll work hard."

What about giving professional football a shot in the future?

"I don't know," Ward said. "Right now, I'm thinking one sport, and that's basketball. And I'm having fun doing that."

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