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Utah Jazz: Earl Watson pours his heart back into basketball

Published April 8, 2012 10:57 pm

Jazz • Watson reaches out to young players from his hometown.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Earl Watson had changed Ricky Randle's life. Now Randle was changing his.

After shootaround last Friday, Watson walked out of the Jazz's locker room alone. Draped in a hooded sweatshirt, wearing a Wr3ck Mob T-shirt. Quiet, small, at peace.

Checking his phone, the 11-year veteran point guard suddenly became charged. He'd received another message from Randle.

"Ricky just told me he was on the 'Today Show,' " said Watson, his 32-year-old smile looking like a kid's.

Randle on a national television program known worldwide? Watson's vision was coming to life.

Five years ago, Randle wanted out of Kansas City, Kan. He longed for Los Angeles, a university education, something more. He wanted to follow Watson's footsteps.

The fiery Utah backup had traded violence-plagued Wyandotte County — known as Crimedotte and Killa City, a troubled area tough Jazz guard Alec Burks avoided, despite growing up less than 15 minutes away in Grandview, Mo. — for a life of inspiration and meaning. UCLA to the NBA. The Association to a survivor, carving out an existence as one of the most respected reserve point guards in the league.

With Randle eyeing a new road, Watson blazed a path. He created a spot for Randle on the Kansas City 76ers, a talented summer travel team the Jazz guard sponsors and helps coach. Soon, Randle was seeing things he'd only imagined. Kansas City couldn't limit or define him. A better life was within reach.

Five years later, another one of Watson's basketball kids is an educated, hopeful young man. Randle expects to graduate from Loyola Marymount in May with a degree in communication studies and broadcasting. He recently served an internship with KTLA 5 in Los Angeles, interviewing everyone from the Lakers' Kobe Bryant to the Clippers' Blake Griffin. And Randle hopes his "Today Show" spot was the start of a career as a TV anchor.

"[Watson] showed me that whatever your dream is, you can reach it, no matter where you're from," Randle, 22, said.

The bridge Watson's building from Kansas City to the outside world has only just begun. His final goal: turn his hometown into a place that lives again.

"What I want to do back home is change the culture. I want to get kids to stop saying, 'I'm from Crimedotte' or 'I'm from Killa City.' Because I really believe you speak words into existence," Watson said. "If you're a little kid on the playground and everybody refers to your city as Crimedotte, you buy into it and you become it."

Running free

Watson could've become another victim.

He was close to both of his parents. His father was a drill sergeant. He had older brothers who protected him.

But Crimedotte was Crimedotte. No compromise. Few alternatives. Poster city for the "Just Say No" era. The worst of the 1980s.

"If you've got crime in your name, that's tough," Burks said. "But it made [Watson] the man he is today. … It's a tough place to grow up. But if you make it through, you're blessed."

Watson remembers being in sixth grade. Allowed to buy school lunch for the first time, he had $3 his mother gave him. He ignored cafeteria food, choosing cookies and nachos.

Watson also recalls the shots. Eight strong pops. Kids running and screaming. Gangs, drugs, prostitutes, robbers and rapists blocks away could no longer be ignored. Murder and violence couldn't be contained.

"I [saw] the deterioration of community," Watson said.

Watson also saw Maurice Greene running. When the future Jazz guard was in eighth grade, Greene — a two-time Olympic gold-medal winning sprinter — was in 12th. All Greene did was run. Around the oval. In the Kansas City summer heat.

"I thought, 'This dude is crazy,' " Watson said. "Who runs track in the Midwest?"

Someone who wanted out.

By high school, Watson understood. Greene had track. Watson had basketball. Amateur Athletic Union turned into the Kansas City 76ers. The Watson-era 76ers were stacked. One of the "best travel teams ever assembled," he said. The club that guided Randle to Los Angeles made Watson a Bruin.

"No matter what was going on in my school or my neighborhood or around my house, when I got into the game, nothing else mattered," Watson said.

He added: "That's how I fell in love with basketball. It saved my life."

The believer

Watson doesn't just love basketball. He believes in it. Heart and soul, body and mind.

Spend enough time around Watson, and the John Wooden stories pour out. Hubie Brown speeches. Jerry West reflections. Proud mentions of names such as Jerry Sloan and Kevin O'Connor.

The 76ers carried Watson to UCLA. Then Wooden showed him the way.

Initially, Los Angeles was dreamland to Watson. He lived in a small garage with close friend and teammate Baron Davis. Watson took the backseat while the future New York Knicks point guard drove on dates, smiling while Davis' girlfriend wondered about the third wheel with a Midwestern accent.

But Watson started to see light. He'd walk to Wooden's condominium and ask the guru about the game. Wooden would talk only about real life. Family, friends, day-to-day events. By the time Wooden was done speaking, though, Watson learned more than he'd ever known about everything from a full-court press to the difference between a winner and a true champion.

Brown was his next guide. Wise and gracious as an ESPN analyst, Brown was pure fire when he coached Memphis. He'd yell and scream and push and teach, ultimately uniting players and turning the 2003-04 Grizzlies into a playoff team.

Watson swears by Brown. And when the then-71-year-old stepped down just 12 games into the 2004-05 season, Watson remembers nothing but tears.

"He's going to give you his heart on a daily basis," Brown said.

The guide

Watson's heart was ripped out in 2004. Seventeen-year-old Eric Vargas was killed in a hit-and-run accident in Kansas City. Vargas had been adopted by Watson's family, and the Jazz guard calls Vargas his "little brother."

Having survived and moved on from Crimedotte, Watson vowed to give back.

"It inspired me even more to stay connected to younger people," Watson said. "Because in a unique way, I feel like I'm connected to him still."

Watson didn't just set up another foundation or write a check, though. He helped take over the 76ers. With the Kansas City travel team, Watson touched Randle's life, Jamal Branch's life — a St. John's point guard coached by Steve Lavin, who led the Bruins when Watson was at UCLA — and many others.

When the NBA locked its doors in 2011, Watson took the next step in his career. The player became a coach.

Some athletes went overseas during the work stoppage; others devoted themselves to endless workouts. Watson connected with the 76ers like never before. Kansas City won three championships last summer, including the Fab 48 in Las Vegas, and Watson barked commands from the sideline as an assistant.

In June, Watson flew the 76ers to his second home of Los Angeles. He put the kids in hotels, let them empty his personal closets of Jazz gear, and paid for everything — flights, meals, trips to Disneyland and Six Flags. The teacher's hidden agendas: building culture, teaching teamwork, reminding Kansas City's youths that life can be so much more.

"A lot of these kids don't have a male telling them that they love 'em," Watson said. "We use the word 'love' a lot in our organization."

The love was returned in a Facebook message.

When an unsolicited email from Randle recently popped up in Watson's inbox, Crimedotte took a major hit. The future Loyola Marymount grad opened up to his guide. Watson had inspired him. Shown him dreams can be real and kids from Kansas City can make their hometown proud.

For a brief moment, Watson's work was done.

"It's like a friendship. It's like a brotherhood. … Being involved with them is priceless — for me and for them," Watson said.

bsmith@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribjazz —

Earl Watson file

Position • Point guard | Year • 11 | Age • 32 Vitals • 6-foot-1, 199 pounds

2012 stats • 3.0 points, 4.4 assists, 2.4 steals

Career • 6.8 points, 4.5 assists, 2.3 steals

Draft • 2001, second round by Seattle | College • UCLA

Born • Kansas City, Kan.

Earl Watson on Kansas City • "What I want to do back home is change the culture. I want to get kids to stop saying, 'I'm from Crimedotte' or 'I'm from Killa City.' Because I really believe you speak words into existence. If you're a little kid on the playground and everybody refers to your city as Crimedotte, you buy into it and you become it." —

Jazz at Spurs

P At AT&T Center (San Antonio)

Tipoff • Sunday, 5 p.m.

TV • ROOT Sports

Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM

Records • Jazz 29-27, Spurs 39-14

Last meeting • Spurs, 106-102 (Feb. 20)

About the Jazz • Utah hosts San Antonio on Monday. The two-game run is the Jazz's only away-home back-to-back during the lockout-shortened season. … Paul Millsap's averaging 19.6 points on 56.1 percent shooting and 8 rebounds during his past five games.

About the Spurs • San Antonio has won 10 consecutive games and 13 of 14. The Spurs' last loss was March 17 at Dallas. … San Antonio ranks first out of 30 teams in average 3-point percentage (38.9), third in scoring (102.1), fifth in assists (22.8) and 10th in rebounds (42.7).