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Former Nuggets guard Earl Watson still has Denver legacy

NBA veteran talks about strong connection with young cancer patient

Pictures of McKaila Steffes and former Nuggets guard Earl Watson remain part of the decor in the girl's bedroom six years after she died of cancer.
Courtesy of Sandie Steffes

An autographed jersey hangs on the bedroom wall, along with a poster-sized picture of McKaila Steffes’ favorite Nuggets player.

Included in the collection are smaller photographs and dozens of newspaper clippings – compete with box scores – that McKaila and her brother Wyatt carefully cut out during the 2005-06 NBA season.

Earl Watson spent less than five months playing for the Nuggets, but his legacy in the Steffes household will last a lifetime.

“One thing I will never forget about McKaila is her smile,” Watson said. “Her smile was so big and so genuine. No matter what she was going through, you would never know it was a struggle.”

Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when she was 2 years old, McKaila inspired Watson and countless others before she died at age 10 on Oct. 21, 2006.

McKaila was a huge Nuggets fan who also loved to play kickball. The fourth annual McKaila Ball will be held Saturday at South High School to benefit the McKaila J. Steffes Foundation.

The foundation provides financial assistance for pediatric cancer patients and their families at The Children’s Hospital, Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, and MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital in Houston.

Watson, currently playing for the Utah Jazz, won’t be able to attend the kickball tournament because he is recovering from knee surgery, but he will certainly be there in spirit.

Watson and McKaila became fast friends after Watson and Bryon Russell made a community appearance at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School during the 2005-06 season.

Before the visit, Watson went to the team store at Pepsi Center and bought Nuggets gear to distribute to the children. When he stepped into the classroom, he and McKaila instantly clicked.

“There was something special about her,” Watson said. “She was an amazing bright light.”

After learning more about McKaila’s battle with neurofibromatosis – a genetic illness that causes tumors in the nervous system – Watson donated his season tickets to the family.

“She was starting to (follow the Nuggets) but when he noticed her, it really took off,” McKaila’s mom Sandie Steffes said. “There’s Earl Watson stuff all over her room. It’s still in there.”

Even after being traded to Seattle on Feb. 23, 2006, Watson stayed in touch with McKaila and met her before and after the SuperSonics played in Denver a month later.

“I just remember he was so charming and nice to her after meeting her at school one day,” Sandie Steffes said. “He seemed to care about her a lot after a short meeting. It was overwhelming and lovely to see that.”

Because they both had light summer schedules, Watson and McKaila often talked on the phone as she was wagering her battle against cancer. They talked about Wyatt, baseball, and anything else that was on their minds.

“Just catching up,” Watson said. “The same things I would talk about with a younger sister or daughter. It’s small talk, but for children, you could talk about Disney characters and it’s the most amazing thing.”

Watson was preparing for the 2006-07 NBA season with Seattle when he received the news of McKaila’s death. He felt many of the same emotions from three years earlier when his 17-year-old brother Eric was killed in a car accident in Kansas City.

“It was very hard for me because we had gotten so close,” Watson said. “I took the loss very tough. That pain is a slow pain to get over. I’m very fortunately to have known her for the short time that I did.”

Watson paid for the flowers at McKaila’s funeral, and his bond with the family remains strong. He trades e-mails with Wyatt and visits with the family before and after each trip to Denver.

“He’s such a down-to-earth player,” Sandie Steffes. “He’s one of those players who gets it.”

Watson now has a 2-year-old daughter of his own. When she smiles, it reminds her of the tough, resilient girl that he first met in Denver.

“Some things you just can’t explain,” Watson said. “A young girl united, linked and meshed lives that will remain forever. It’s amazing.”