Earl Watson remembers sitting in the den of UCLA coaching icon John Wooden. At the time, Watson was an 18-year-old prospect with big dreams of making his own legacy in Bruins blue and gold. Figuring he was about to absorb basketball brilliance, he paid rapt attention to the living legend.
Instead, Watson listened as the man some 70 years and hundreds of games his senior talked about anything but basketball. Wooden spoke about love, about how to express it, about how he did so in everyday life. Only after doing justice to this topic in general did he transition it to sports.
Wide-eyed and “in awe,” the young point guard asked the grey-haired coach a question.
“Coach, out of all those championships, what stuck out the most and was most consistent?” the student asked basketball’s teacher of teachers.
Watson says that Wooden smiled before imparting the words that left a permanent imprint.
“No one cared who got the credit,” Wooden revealed.
That was the first nugget in a gold mine of experiences for Watson, all of which he hopes to cash in as the interim head coach of the Phoenix Suns.
“Mentoring young players is instilling as much confidence in them as you can every day. You over-nurture them. You over-love them. Once you build that trust, then you can start to hold them more accountable in a more aggressive way. It’s a fine line. Every player is different. You have to understand that and communicate that.”
— Earl Watson
“Teaching that, bringing that, bringing passion and connecting to this city is the most important thing,” Watson said. “Building young men of character – because if you have young men of character, the ball will move on its own. Everything outside of basketball is the initial business. It will eventually bleed into basketball, become basketball, create a movement, create a family.”
“These guys owe that to these kids and the people in the community because we were once those kids,” Watson added.
It is not a message he thought he would impart as a head coach. Watson admitted to thinking his role with the Suns would be a fairly short one. It started expanding, he said, during his recruiting efforts during free agency.
Still, Watson was hesitant to take the interim coaching job when it became available. Upon receiving the invitation to interview for the position, he called the man who had just vacated the position – Jeff Hornacek – to ask what he should do. He felt it would be a disservice to simply go for it so soon after a friend – someone with whom he had built a relationship during his playing days in Utah – had been relieved of the job.
“Before I took that [interview], I called [Hornacek] to ask him, ‘What did you want me to do?’” Watson said. “He told me, ‘It’s hard to pass up a first opportunity if you get it. I could never tell you not to take it.’ He basically gave me his blessing. I love him and I respect him and it’s unfortunate.”
Love and respect are now the main messages from the Suns’ new coach. Play for everyone but yourself, he says, and you’ll get further than you ever could by yourself.
Watson learned this the hard way early in his career. He recalls the first time former Memphis head coach Hubie Brown held him accountable. He immediately went to then-general manager Jerry West to demand a trade. West, another legend of basketball lore, invited the young Grizzlies guard to his house for dinner. Like Wooden, he had his own wisdom to impart.
“We sit there,’ Watson recalled, “and what he told me was, ‘Coach Brown, the biggest sin he could commit was to let me slide and not have any type of accountability.’”
Watson has no intention of committing that sin with this team, one that has lost 19 of its last 21 games. More importantly, the effort the Suns hope to see regardless of the outcome has likewise been absent.
In his first shootaround as interim head coach, Watson and General Manager Ryan McDonough delivered a joint edict: play hard and play together. Or don’t play.
“We were pretty direct with them about what we expect from them going forward and their obligation to represent this organization, the fans and the community in a manner they can be proud of,” McDonough said. “I think the players have not responded as well as they should have over the last month, so they’ve been put on notice.”
“The communication is direct,” Watson elaborated. “They know their roles. They know their playing time. They know exactly when they’re going to get into the game. I’m big on visualizing, so I wanted to visualize their minutes.”
Earl Watson Introductory Press Conference
The renewed firmness, McDonough said, was conveyed at least partly by request. Several Suns players expressed a desire for renewed and consistent accountability. Watson, who had honest dealings in the past with players like Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Gordon Hayward, plans to deliver on that request.
He is also committed, however, to establishing the sense of family and trust he feels the team is missing. Most of the talent on the current Suns roster is young. Watson feels such youth must receive a healthy combination of expectations and encouragement.
“Mentoring young players is instilling as much confidence in them as you can every day,” Watson said. “You over-nurture them. You over-love them. Once you build that trust, then you can start to hold them more accountable in a more aggressive way. It’s a fine line. Every player is different. You have to understand that and communicate that.”
How he does so is not limited to one medium. Watson joked he would tweet players if he had to. His goal is to follow yet another gem of advice, this one delivered by current San Antonio Spurs owner R.C. Buford during his time within the Spurs organization last season.
“R.C. said you have to find the heartbeat of your team,” Watson said. “Once you find the heartbeat of your team, you have to make it in sync with one beat. Once we do that and they learn to be men of character, the effort is going to come.”