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Utah Jazz: Earl Watson pours his heart back into basketball
Jazz » Watson reaches out to young players from his hometown.

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

Someone who wanted out.

At a glance

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

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).

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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.

story continues below
story continues below

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.

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