Sam Mellinger

Earl Watson became NBA’s youngest head coach with help from John Wooden, Disney’s CEO and his late brother

Even after he retired as UCLA coach, John Wooden (left) was a resource to Bruins players like Earl Watson, who would spend hours with the Hall of Famer listening to guidance about life beyond basketball.
Even after he retired as UCLA coach, John Wooden (left) was a resource to Bruins players like Earl Watson, who would spend hours with the Hall of Famer listening to guidance about life beyond basketball. The Associated Press

Next month, the youngest head coach in the NBA will walk into a courtroom in Kansas City, Kan. He will wear a suit and he will sit with his parents and siblings for what they all hope is the final time.

The trial of the man accused of killing Earl Watson’s brother has been delayed long enough.

Watson buried his brother 18 months ago. The whole thing was a shock. An argument between one of Watson’s brothers and his stepdaughter turned into an altercation between the brother and another man. That confrontation ended in gunshots.

Dwayne Hooks, a retired police officer, was one of three people shot. He developed blood clots from treatment, and died three days later. Tremayne Quinn is charged with voluntary manslaughter and aggravated battery.

Hooks had been pushing Watson to go into coaching, but Watson had been resisting his brother. Retirement is difficult for any athlete. But two days after the funeral, Watson interviewed for the lowest coaching job in the NBA — as an assistant in its developmental league. When he walks into that courtroom to support his family, he will do so as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns — a move made official this week.

“If you lose a brother who passes away way before his time, it’s always on your mind,” Earl Watson says. “It’s random. You can’t control it. My greatest revenge has always been success. I want to do right and live right. That’s the best thing I can do as far as mourning my brother.”

Watson graduated in 1997 from Washington High. He is 36 years old, younger than a handful of players in the league, and not far removed from some of the men he will lead in the fall in his first official season as the Suns’ head coach.

He finished a 13-year professional playing career in 2014, and seems to be the only one who doesn’t think his rise — seldom-used reserve for Portland in 2014, assistant coach in the NBA Development League in 2015, and now a head coach in the NBA — has been particularly rapid.

“I knew I would be a head coach two to three years after I retired,” Watson says. “How did I know that? I don’t know. Maybe belief is stronger than reality.”

The Suns making Watson’s position official — he had been the interim coach since February — means two former Kansas City high school basketball stars are now NBA head coaches. Tyronn Lue, who graduated from Raytown High in 1995, took the Cleveland Cavaliers’ job this season.

Watson and Lue knew each other in Kansas City, and have since reminisced about the similarities in their paths. Lue was overshadowed by Derek Hood in high school. For Watson, it was JaRon Rush.

“I’m not surprised,” Earl Watson Sr. said. “I know my son. Once he goes after something, he’s going to get it.”

The younger Watson has been going after this far longer than two years. He knew he wanted to be a coach even as a teenager, when he was a high school star recruited by many of the nation’s biggest programs.

Teachers at Washington High used to roll their eyes while grading Watson’s homework. He was a decent enough student, but his grades surely could’ve been better. It’s just that many of his tests were turned in with basketball plays scribbled in the margins — diagrams on how to beat a 1-3-1 press crowding an English composition.

Earl, he heard more than once, stop drawing basketball players on your homework.

“I did not listen,” Watson said. “Thank God.”

He chose UCLA over Kansas and other colleges at least in part for the opportunity to learn from John Wooden, who after retirement had made himself available as a resource to all UCLA coaches and players.

Watson would spend hours at Wooden’s condo, with visits at least once a week, listening to guidance about life beyond basketball. They talked about everything from how to be a better man to Watson’s worries about what would be required after backcourt mate Baron Davis left early for the NBA.

Watson’s entire basketball life has been like this, equal parts serendipity and choice leading him to relationships with a remarkably diverse and accomplished list of basketball minds.

He was drafted by Seattle 39th overall in 2001, and quickly learned from Gary Payton that 45 minutes early isn't early enough to be at practice. Watson’s career created friendships and relationships with Larry Bird, R.C. Buford, George Karl, Bob Hill, Nate McMillan, and so many others.

Many of these came from conscious decisions Watson made to prepare himself for the job he just took. He signed with Memphis, for instance, to learn from Jerry West. Watson went to Utah because that meant playing for Jerry Sloan. Learn from the best, and implement that knowledge immediately. This is how Watson has lived.

Watson was a full-time starter for just two seasons, but those who worked with him could see his future. When he played a year with Indiana, then-Pacers coach Jim O’Brien encouraged Watson to make his ambitions known. Bird told him he would make a great coach someday.

“Larry Bird is not a man of much conversation,” Watson said. “But hearing that from someone like him is motivating and inspiring.”

There are people in the basketball world who thought it strange that Watson took a job as an assistant in the D-League. He made $1.4 million his last season as a player, and more than $40 million in his career. The job with the Austin Spurs required ditching chartered flights and five-star hotels for eight-hour bus rides and motels. The $30,000 salary was not enough to cover his expenses, and who among us goes out of pocket to work?

Well, here’s where an entirely serendipitous meeting changed Watson’s life. This was four or five years ago. Watson played for the Jazz then, and was in Los Angeles for a game. He was eating a sandwich on Hollywood Boulevard when a man who’d been staring for a while finally approached.

“Hey Earl, I went to UCLA with you,” Watson remembered hearing. “My boss is having a birthday party, and I’d love for you to come.”

“I’m sorry,” Watson said. “You can’t really rent me out for birthday parties, but tell your boss I said Happy Birthday.”

“You don’t understand,” the man said. “My boss is the CEO of Disney.”

Watson was skeptical, but it turned out to be legitimate. Watson showed up, and Bob Iger thanked him and said if there’s anything he could do, to let him know. Watson figured that meant Disney tickets or tours, but instead he asked the only question he cared about.

“Can you tell me something that will change my life?”

Iger said yes, actually, he could. Iger told Watson about starting at the bottom and making professional advancement the only criteria for his decisions. He took some new jobs for the same money, some with raises, and others with a paycut. But he only did it if it made sense for his career.

Too many people, Iger said, let short-term financial worries dictate their professional lives. Iger went the other way, and ended up as the CEO of Disney.

Watson had that chance meeting on his mind when the San Antonio Spurs asked him to interview for their lowest coaching job. So if it seemed strange that he would turn down a seven-figure salary as an NBA player for less than the starting salary of most college graduates, the Iger story helps explain.

As for why he pursued coaching so hard in the first place, don’t forget the brother he will honor by walking into that court room next month.

“Nothing I’ve done is by accident,” Watson said. “This has always been the plan.”

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