PHOENIX – In May 1997, Kansas native Earl Watson packed up his duffel bag and headed to Los Angeles with $400 his mother gave him. He moved into a garage in South Central he shared with future UCLA teammate Baron Davis.
Watson didn’t have a lot, but he had a plan.
“I had to make that work, make that stretch, find a job, just wait until we could roll and I could start getting per diem from school or a scholarship fund,” Watson said. “I’m just very lucky.”
While he had a lot more going for him than just luck, good fortune certainly didn’t hurt Watson’s chances. On his first day on the UCLA campus, he was invited into the office of UCLA’s legendary former coach, John Wooden. A life-changing relationship for Watson was formed.
“He immediately captured my attention. He captured my heart,” Watson said of Wooden. “And the rest was just me trying to be a student of anything he spoke about.”
Fast-forward 20 years and Watson is now the teacher rather than the student, as head coach of the Phoenix Suns.
Watson joined the Suns as an assistant coach in the summer of 2015, after a 13-year career as an NBA point guard that included stops in Seattle, Utah and Portland, among others.
Watson says Wooden, who won 10 NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, helped console him in times of doubt and inspired him to become a coach later in his career.
Yet, he says Wooden rarely talked about basketball, instead sharing stories about love, relationships and character.
That was especially appealing to Watson.
Watson’s mother is Mexican-American and his grandparents are from Mexico. He is the NBA’s first Hispanic head coach. The 37-year-old attributes his unique coaching style to his family’s culture.
“We emphasize family and togetherness,” Watson said of his upbringing. “So our family was always together, we did everything together. We kind of carry that theme and our motto into basketball.”
Veteran shooting guard Leandro Barbosa said Watson’s approach is similar to what he has experienced in Brazil, where he grew up.
“I think the family thing that he’s bringing in is really important,” Barbosa said. “If we want that playoff goal, chemistry is very important on and off the court.
“Family brings championships.”
Few know more about bringing championships than Wooden did during his days in Westwood.
“I’m just very honored to represent UCLA all the time,” Watson said. “And Coach Wooden and everything he spoke, how he took the time to mentor me, is the way to make my school proud because without that in my life, the UCLA family, I wouldn’t exist.”
One memory of Wooden stands out in Watson’s mind. During one practice, the team sat in a circle and listened to the former coach share words of wisdom during a tough stretch.
Watson said that everything Wooden spoke about that day were things the Bruins were struggling with on the court.
“And it clicked in my mind immediately how to change our basketball team on the court,” Watson said. “And, I was like, ‘How did he do that?’ He winked at me and he knew I got it.”
Like Wooden, Watson doesn’t talk to his team about basketball. Rather, he mentors players to be involved in the community and participate in yoga, which he believes helps players become more mindful about each other, society and people of other races and ethnicities.
“We talk about being the best person we can be off the court,” Watson said. “Because we when you come on the court, you’re going to make the right plays.”
As Watson enters his first full year as head coach, he’ll look to combine his years of advice from Wooden and background to lead the Suns to a successful start. The team finished the 2015-16 season with the second-worst record (23-59) in franchise history, going 9-24 under Watson’s interim reign.
Until then, Watson bears a whistle around his neck that brings a smile to his face from ear-to-ear.
“They told me I had a Coach Wooden whistle,” Watson said. “I didn’t even notice, it’s the funniest thing.”