If you think about it, a coach is merely a helper. Their job is to make sure they put you in the best situation to succeed on the court.
This is a brutally honest story on how Earl Watson and a murder transformed Watson into being a helper that is well on his way to becoming an NBA head coach.
PHOENIX -- When you start a conversation with Portland Trail Blazers guard Earl Watson, you’ll quickly learn how grounded and personable he is. The guy has stories and personal experiences that will leave you breathless.
You wouldn’t ever think that this mild-mannered, calming influence of a human being has gone through much in his life besides being a basketball star at UCLA and then becoming a 13-year NBA veteran.
That is, until you hear his story.
“My little brother was murdered when I was 24 and he was 17,” Watson told CSNNW.com. “The murder is still unsolved. Someone ran him off the road. I believe it was probably a drunk driver. We found him in the middle of the street. It was like a surreal moment. A surreal situation.”
Eric was the name of his little brother and Earl was more like a dad to him. They slept in the same bed growing up. When Eric would get in trouble at school, the school would call Earl, who at this time was playing in the NBA.
“The schools my brother went to are all the schools I went to so the staff knew me,” he said. “I would inform family members of what happened but before that, I would tell them to put Eric on the phone so I could give him a talking to.”
But let’s take it back a little bit.
Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri wasn’t easy. It was downright “challenging,” in Watson’s words. The city today remains a place infested with crime, gangs and drugs. Watson’s parents had separated when he was a young kid, leaving his mother with the difficult task of raising six kids on a $13,000 yearly income.
A mother can only do so much to keep her kids away from all the bad elements of the streets. You can’t lock them in their room all day. An individual has to grow up and experience life. And even though he had four older brothers doing their best to keep him in line, they couldn’t prevent the heartache Watson would experience as a child.
“I buried four close friends between the 8th and 10th grade all through homicide,” Watson said. “I wouldn’t wish for anybody to have to grow up like that. I wasn’t completely isolated because if you grow up in a neighborhood like that, I feel like sometimes the atmosphere of the neighborhood chooses you if you don’t have someone in your corner pushing you in the opposite direction.”
Watson had one desire growing up: Making it to the league in order to give his family, and in particular his little brother, a better foundation to start life off with. It was an obsession he had, and he was in the process of making it a reality.
After a stellar four-year collegiate career at UCLA, the Seattle Supersonics selected Watson with the 39th overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. Finally, he was able to provide the necessary resources to get his family taken care of.
Everything’s good, right? A few years go by and Watson is playing for the Memphis Grizzlies, having his best professional playing years. Then he got the word. His little brother was found dead in his hometown of Kansas City.
“Words can’t express what I felt,” he said. “I felt like we were so far removed from the inner city, so far removed from all the sudden adolescent deaths that I experienced around my friends, you think you’re on the right path and then all of sudden life hits you again. And it hits you closer than you would have ever expected.
“Mentally, it took a toll on me and I could feel it affecting me more mentally. The pressure of trying to figure everything out was too much. I stayed away from Kansas City for a long time. I would just come and visit a week at a time because it was too much pain. That’s how I ended up staying in Los Angeles after college.”
After all the anguish and despair Watson dealt with from his hometown, it would have been more than understandable for him to wash his hands from the city. Instead, he did some soul searching. He started committing more time to his spirituality and life was finally being put into perspective.
His outlook had changed.
“I used to be 100 percent basketball,” Watson admitted. “Trying to pursue perfection as a basketball player. I really didn’t give a lot of time to balance my life through spirituality, through community or even spending enough time with my family. I was so focused on basketball. I was overly focused. I was in a box. I had tunnel vision on what I wanted to do in this league in order to give Eric a better opportunity financially. In a way, losing my brother kind of grounded me. It made me more balanced. It taught me to never take any moments for granted and focus on capturing every moment as much as I can.”
Watson began shifting his attention to the youth of his hometown. He of all people knows the challenges they face since much hasn’t changed. No too long after his brother’s death, Watson founded “Emagine,” a foundation committed to impacting the youth of Kansas City by helping fund athletic programs. He knows that if it wasn’t for athletics in his life, he could have easily ended up like some of his friends.
This past summer, Watson’s old elementary school Hazel Grove, named the school’s preschool building “The Earl Watson Early Childhood Center,” which serves 147 students.
Watson said in his wildest dreams he could have never imagined someone doing something like this for him. His community, in their own way, was showing him how much they appreciate what he has done and gone through.
The helper, being Watson, was now on the receiving end of getting help. And it was from his community. It was an emotional type of help.
“Man, after I lost my brother, the thing that I realized most is that the only thing that matters is relationships and memories in life,” he said. “Nothing else matters. Money doesn’t matter. What you accomplish really doesn’t matter. All that matters is the love of the family, love of friends and relationships you build throughout life. Because when somebody like that leaves you suddenly, memories are all you have left. I want to eliminate as much as I can, that happening to others.”
Watson has a tattoo of Eric sketched on his right forearm. He says that way, his brother will always be a part of him. So when you get the opportunity to chat with Watson, I guarantee you’ll leave that conversation in amazement.
At one time, he was single-minded, concerned only about his career and family. However, through some tough circumstances, Watson has become the ultimate helper.
There’s no wonder why Watson received votes over the last few years in the NBA’s Annual GM Survey category of active player that will make the best head coach someday. He has a passion for coaching because he has a passion for helping people.
Overcoming a loss such as a brother or sister is one of the most difficult things one can go through. But through it all, not only has Watson handled it with the utmost class, he has become stronger person because of it.
Eric helped him get to this point. The next point will be him roaming the sidelines of a NBA court.
“Spiritually I know he’s not with me, but I never want to forget him,” Watson said. “I have a daughter who never knew him, she came along probably six years after he passed away but she’s knows him now because of my tattoo. And because we visit his grave all the time. I talk about him, I keep his spirit alive through my family as far as the presence and impact he had on my life in a positive way. I want my daughter to know him and to respect that. Also, to just be aware of where I’m from.
“The sadness never goes away. Spirituality helped me. It takes time. The 10-year anniversary will be this upcoming May. It’s still unsolved so I learned immediately that no one is immune to the trials and tribulations of life. No matter what you’ve accomplished in life. You just pray about it. You just give it to God and let Him figure it out and you just trust it was meant to happen for His purpose and that everything else will just work itself out. As far as getting justice, He’ll take care of that. Whatever it may be.”