Utah basketball: Watkins takes on the weight of leadership
In the cold, dark hours after Utah lost to Montana State on Saturday, dropping the Utes to 1-2 and further into the depths of discouragement, Josh "Jiggy" Watkins checked his cellphone.
Like most players do after most games, and as Watkins does after every game, he confided in his mother.
"He said, 'Ma, we got some work to do,'" Lisa Watkins recalled.
In the eyes of most, that work falls to Watkins, the 5-foot-11 senior point guard from New York City, and the leading scorer for the Utes. A team with 13 new faces needs his Harlem toughness to carry it into its inaugural season in the Pac-12.
In the early season, Watkins has averaged 21.3 points, but more turnovers (5) than assists (4.7). He's still playing his way back into shape, after returning this summer at 232 pounds. He played last year at 200.
With senior center David Foster out indefinitely with a broken bone in his right foot and junior guard Chris Hines playing through multiple injuries, this is Watkins' team, which presumably increases the burden on the point guard.
"If it does affect him," Lisa Watkins said, "he would never let you know."
Nearly 2,000 miles from the Huntsman Center, in her home at 142nd Street and Crime Square what they call the strip between Lennox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard where Watkins and his two brothers were raised Lisa Watkins watches carefully and diagnoses the Utes' problems.
Her instructions to Jiggy, thus nicknamed as a toddler because he couldn't stop moving, echoed those of first-year coach Larry Krystkowiak. The Utes needed to follow their shots, and close out on defense.
She has always taken on roles beyond those of traditional mothering since Jiggy's father, Nathaniel Watkins, has been incarcerated at a federal prison in Otisville, N.Y., since Jiggy was 10 months old.
When basketball coaches looked at little Jiggy Watkins, they only saw a chubby boy with asthma who they feared to put in the game.
Watkins was born two months early in the summer of 1989, three pounds, 13 ounces. Asthma nearly killed him several times, including once when he was 10 and in a hospital bed.
But Jiggy was persistent and demanded he play basketball. Oftentimes he sat on the sideline, coaches seemingly scared off by Lisa's instructions on what to do in the event of an asthma attack.
"I was like, 'Oh, no, my kids don't sit on nobody's bench,'" she said.
So she started her own team, the Raw Dogs. Jiggy played point, Lisa coached.
That was where it really started for the face of the Utah basketball team, in the parks of Harlem, up there on 145th Street, the one they call Baby Rucker Park.
Salt Lake City is about as far as one can get from Crime Square, although Big Spring, Texas, where Watkins led Howard College to the national junior college championship, was close. Watkins said he had a bad attitude his first year there, and called himself "big-headed" and "stuck up."
"When I was little, nothing was given to me," he said, "by the time high school came, when I was one of the top players I felt I worked hard enough and I could stop working. But you never should stop working."
When eight Utah players left between last season, Watkins only briefly flirted with joining the exodus. He explains his decision to stay using words like "loyalty" and "family."
"The fans gave me their trust," he said.
In the summer, he went back to 142nd Street and Crime Square which he has commemorated with a tattoo on his right arm. He stayed a total of five weeks, and just stopped working out, he said.
And his mom is a fine cook.
"I cooked every day," Lisa Watkins said. "I cook chicken parmesan, I cook pepper steak. I cook Sunday through Thursday and on weekends we go out."
"Josh, he's kind of fat," Ute guard Cedric Martin said back in October, "but he can do things with his body that other fat people really can't do."
Watkins has since slimmed back down to 207 pounds and, against Montana State, he was slipping past defenders.
His chest once again sticks out farther than his stomach, puffed by pride and adrenaline. His snarl is a testament to his competitiveness as much as it is to the fact that he, Jiggy Watkins, is a point guard from New York Freaking City.
"The New York attitude I still carry today," Watkins said. "I'm going to be the best point guard in the gym, on the court, wherever."
The Utes need him to be.
Watkins by the numbers
Josh Watkins' season averages at Utah
Season • Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers
2010-11 • 14.5 2.5 3.5 3.4
2011 (3 games) • 21.3 3.3 4.7 5.0
Utah vs. Harvard, Thursday, Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament, Bahamas
About Josh "Jiggy" Watkins
Age • 22
Hometown • New York City
Previous schools • Howard College, Wadleigh High School
Accolades • All-Conference Mountain West honorable mention, 2011; All-Western Junior College Athletic Conference first team, 2010; Manhattan Player of the Year, 2007.
Quote • "I'm a Ute forever. I felt like it was my duty to come back. No other option."
Utah vs. Harvard
P Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament, Bahamas