Earl Watson's Pyramid of Success

When Ms. Blinn asked one of the smallest students in her first-grade class what he wanted to be when he grew up, Earl Watson said, “a basketball player.” She asked him to come up with a Plan B, telling him to pick something more realistic, but Watson refused. The 5-year-old who constantly drew plays in the margins of his homework said that he wasn’t going to fail.

“It worked out,” he said. “They renamed the school the Earl Watson Early Childhood Center.”

Plan A lasted for 13 years as a point guard in the NBA. Watson, 35, played with seven teams before he retired at the end of the 2013-14 season.

Watson discovered his Plan B as a freshman in college, sitting in the den of legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.

Almost every Sunday, the 18-year-old from Kansas City would show up at the 77-year-old retired coach’s condo in Encino. They sometimes talked about basketball, but the conversation would usually veer toward loyalty, friendships or relationships.

“I knew then that I wanted to be one of the best coaches ever,” said Watson, in his first season as an assistant with the Austin Spurs. “That’s my dream and my goal.”

A conversation with Watson is like listening to the audiobook of “Wooden on Leadership.” If players haven’t previously read Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success,” the coach’s 15 building blocks of virtues for success on and off the court, Watson has recited it to them.

Watson said he loves to speak in quotations that could work either on the court, in a business meeting or even in church.

“Coaching is about building men of integrity, character, confidence and resilience,” Watson said. “Throughout that, the game will take care of itself.”

Wooden was Watson’s first mentor. The mentors who followed through Watson’s playing career include some basketball royalty. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Gary Payton. Hubie Brown. Jerry West. Jerry Sloan.

“I’ve had the cheat code to basketball,” Watson said. “That’s why I think it’s my destiny to pass down everything I’ve learned.”

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Watson’s first student in Austin was Bryce Cotton, a 6-foot-1 point guard just like him.

They weren’t in Wooden’s den, but the lessons have been the same. Watson might start off talking about music or something on social media, and then find a way to relate everything to sports.

Cotton, who was undrafted out of Providence, was picked up by the Utah Jazz last month and signed a multi-year contract with the Jazz last week.

 “Conversations with Earl may start off basketball-related,” Cotton said. “But they’ll always drift to a life scenario or life situation. He doesn’t break things down like a typical coach. He translates life to basketball and basketball to life.”

Growing up in Kansas City, Watson’s home of Wyandotte County also was called “Crimedotte” or “Killa City.” When Watson was 24 and playing in Memphis, his 17-year-old brother Eric was killed in a car accident back home.

Watson only talks about challenges growing up in Kansas City as a way to raise support for his youth teams and basketball camps back home, or to relate to another player. He calls his story of making it to the NBA from a tough neighborhood “almost too cliché these days.”

Instead, Watson focuses on how everything changed for him at UCLA.

On Watson’s first day on campus, he arrived at Pauley Pavilion to see Magic Johnson playing in a pick-up game. Magic told Watson, “We play at 10 a.m. Don’t be late.”

He was almost always on Magic’s team, and Watson said it was Magic who emphasized that the key to longevity in the NBA would be Watson’s defense and his ability to make teammates better.

Watson arrived at UCLA in 1997, where he and Baron Davis were the first set of freshmen to start at guard for UCLA since the 1979-80 season.

Watson started all four seasons, and still holds UCLA career records for steals (235) and minutes played (4,371).

“You could see it with Earl even then, that he was a coach on the floor and in the locker room,” Baron Davis said. “He exudes leadership. We were around the best basketball minds, and we were soaking everything up.”

When Watson wasn’t getting pointers from coach Steve Lavin, he was looking to Wooden’s seat in Section 103B.

Watson said nobody “captured my soul” the way Wooden did, and it has changed his life ever since. Wooden talked to Watson mostly about relationships, whether it was his relationship with his wife or his relationship with Bill Walton.

“A Coach Wooden conversation starts as a blank canvas,” Watson said. “As he speaks, he’s finding what moves you, and he’s painting a masterpiece with his words. He was the best artist I’ve ever known.”

From UCLA, Watson went on to the Seattle Supersonics in 2001-02, where their starting point guard Gary Payton mentored him through his rookie season.

He signed with Memphis next, where Laker great Jerry West had just become general manager and Hubie Brown was named coach eight games into the 2002-03 season.

Watson said there were times early on when he and Brown clashed, but they grew close in three seasons at Memphis. They’ve kept in close contact ever since.

“Earl to me is a top professional on a daily basis,” Brown said. “He’s a sponge for the game. He knew his position as a point guard as well as the other four positions. His passion for the game and the fact that he commands respect will work to his benefit.”

Next for Watson it was a season in Denver under George Karl, then four seasons at Seattle/Oklahoma City where he played for P.J. Carlisemo. Then there was a season at Indiana with team president Larry Bird, three seasons in Utah that included Jerry Sloan’s final games, and Watson’s final NBA season in Portland.

By the end of his playing career, his focus shifted to watching every game next to assistant coaches on the bench and mentoring rising stars such as Gordon Hayward in Utah and Damian Lillard in Portland. 

“I can relate to every aspect of life as a professional basketball player,” Watson said.  “I’ve done inner-city and I’ve made it to upper-class. I’ve been a starter, a backup and someone who barely played. Basketball has always been a fluid puzzle to me that’s constantly changing throughout.”

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At the end of the 2013-14 season, Watson’s named was brought up as a candidate for Utah’s head coach.

That job went to Quin Snyder, who coached the Austin Toros from 2007-10. Snyder’s lead assistant, Brad Jones, coached the Toros for two seasons and led the team to the 2011-12 NBA D-League Championship.

So Watson took an offer to come to Austin and gain coaching experience. Working with head coach Ken McDonald, the Austin Spurs have sent three players – JaMychal Green, Bryce Cotton and Jarell Eddie – to the NBA this season while posting a 31-14 record to lead the Southwest Division.

For Watson, it’s the first step of what he hopes is a long career. And not a bad option for Plan B, considering how well Plan A worked out.

Watson hopes that maybe one day, when he’s long retired, an aspiring player will knock on his door to talk about life.

“I’ve always been the smallest player, and for me to last 13 seasons in the NBA, I had to be a coach on the court,” Watson said. “I wasn’t going to outplay or outshoot other guys, so I had to outthink them. That’s been my game since the second grade, and that’s what I’ll teach.”