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Professional coaches aren’t known for their candor, but the Suns’ Earl Watson isn’t like a lot of coaches.

As a shy kid raised in Kansas City, Kansas, some of his biggest struggles came in commanding a crowd in a high school classroom.

Watson’s hard work there prepared him for a scholarship at UCLA where Watson embarked on a long friendship with legendary coach John Wooden– who was more than 20 years retired by the time Watson stepped foot in Westwood.

But nothing- not even Watson’s 13-year stint as an NBA guard- could have prepared him for this Suns season: Watson opened the year with visions of the playoffs and thought he could build a more cohesive team in the process. Then Suns management shut down a cadre of the team’s top players and left Watson at a loss.

“That was like a right hook I didn’t see coming,” Watson said. “But I got back up. “

As one of the worst season’s in franchise history drew to a close, Watson allowed azcentral’s Doug Haller inside access to learn more about Watson’s past and his outlook for the future.

“I don’t have all the answers at all, and I don’t try to (act like) I do,” Watson said.

Like we said, he’s not like a lot of coaches.

Earl Watson talks about Suns tanking

“I don’t have all the answers.”

The pregame shootaround is winding down and Suns coach Earl Watson leans against the scorer’s table at Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena.

“I don’t have all the answers at all, and I don’t try to (act like) I do,” Watson continues. “But I do feel like what helps me is you come to a better understanding if you realize you don’t know.”

The Suns are out of playoff contention. Their season is winding down. And their second-year coach – at 37, the second-youngest in the NBA — still is trying to figure out how to best deal with management’s decision to shut down three key players over the season’s second half. He understands the importance of the big picture, it just clashes with his competitive side, one he molded over 13 years as an NBA point guard.

“If it’s up to me, everyone would play,” Watson says. “They’d still be out there with our entire group, building.”

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Throughout Phoenix’s recent six-game trip, Watson talked with azcentral sports about his past and his methods, how it shaped the man he became and how it continues to shape the coach he will be.

In Miami, Watson discussed how he found his voice in high school and how it led to confidence off the court. In Brooklyn, he talked about his UCLA college days, his post-workout drives through Beverly Hills with teammate Baron Davis and his conversations with legendary coach John Wooden. In Atlanta, Watson shared how Gary Payton cussed him out as a rookie and how the Hall of Fame guard shaped a work ethic that remains in place today.

Each conversation shows a different side of Watson, a coach who may not know all the answers but is determined to find them.

In Miami, this reminds Watson of a story.

“Man, in high school, I used to be really shy,” he says. “I didn’t really speak in school. I barely said three words out loud in grade school. When I got into high school (Washington High in Kansas City, Kansas), I kind of just stayed to myself with a group of friends. I didn’t really like a lot of attention. I was always aggressive on the basketball court, but when the game was over, I put on my hoodie and stayed to myself.”

A school counselor, Ruth Goheen, saw leadership potential in Watson. She suggested he take a marketing class. As it turned out, Watson was among the youngest in the class.

“The teacher’s name was Mr. Piper, and one of the first things we had to do was write a paragraph on who we would become in the future,” Watson says. “Career, character, mindset. We had to read it to the class. I was so nervous, the day I had to read mine I acted like I was sick. My mom fell for it and I stayed home.”

The plan, however, backfired.

Once Watson returned to school, he still had to read his paragraph. Only this time, Watson was the only one. He told Mr. Piper he didn’t want to do it. Mr. Piper gave him a choice. Watson could read it facing the class or he could read it with his back turned.

“Which do you think I chose?” Watson says.

MORE ON WATSON: Earl Watson’s way set by Memphis years with Hubie Brown

He stood with his back turned, reading from his paper which described how he wanted to one day play basketball at UCLA and in the NBA – things no one believed but him.

“And I’m sweating as if I just played a game,” Watson says. “It was only like six sentences but it felt like an entire chapter. That taught me how to face my fear.”

Mr. Piper taught Watson one other thing, and this is the point Watson is trying to make. He told him: A smart man knows where to find the answer. Mr. Piper repeated this more than once, and one day during a test Watson challenged his teacher.

“You always told us a smart man knows where to find the answer,” he said.

“That’s correct,” Mr. Piper said.

“So can I open up my book for the test?”

The teacher laughed. Watson laughed.

“That’s something I’ve never forgotten,” Watson says.

Over the summer, Watson might put Mr. Piper’s lesson in motion, contacting one of his mentors, someone such as former Memphis coach Hubie Brown, asking how he would’ve handled a situation such as this, trying to win in the short-term while management positions for the long-term. He’s done this in the past, evaluating his performance, then asking others for input.

For now, however, Watson prefers to learn in the moment, leaning on assistants Jay Triano and Tyrone Corbin, two coaches with NBA head-coaching experience.

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“They’ve seen it all before,” Watson says. “They understand the bigger picture. They understand this happens. With me, I came into coaching, I didn’t have enough time to play this out in my mind because it happened so quick. I was like, ‘I want to play this way. I want to win. I want to get in the playoffs.’ I never thought about players sitting or the other side of the game. That was like a right hook I didn’t see coming. But I got back up. And I think our young guys have responded well.”

Oh, s–t! It’s Earl!

Earl Watson met John Wooden the first day he stepped on UCLA’s campus. He walked into the basketball office to see the coaching staff and there was Wooden, 85 at the time, the legendary coach with 10 national titles.

“I was in awe of his presence,” Watson says. “It’s hard to describe. His presence was inviting, but at the same time powerful. Sometimes people with a powerful presence, it’s kind of overwhelming, but with him it was different. He had this charm about him that made you feel comfortable.”

From that point on, whenever the legendary coach talked or signed books on campus, Watson made sure to attend. The Suns coach would listen, absorbing every word, and then approach Wooden when it was over, just to say hi or give the retired coach a hug.

Not much later, Wooden gave Watson his home telephone number.

“And that’s when I started seeking him out,” Watson says. “I’d call him up and ask if I could come over. We’d choose a date and I’d get a ride to his house – I didn’t have a car at the time – and then we’d spend time in the den of his condo.”

The Suns are out of playoff contention. Their fans are focused on the NBA draft, but there still is much to learn about the team, especially their second-year coach. During Phoenix’s recent six-game trip, azcentral sports had a chance to talk extensively with Watson. The first conversation in Miami focused on how he dealt with management’s decision to shut down key players.

The second in Brooklyn focused on Watson’s relationship with Wooden.

“We’d talk about life, love – the love he had for his wife, the love he had for his team and his players – and then every time he’d mix in his great affection for Bill Walton,” Watson says as the Suns finished their morning shootaround at the Barclays Center. “There was always a funny story. He said Bill drove him crazy.”

Much of Watson’s relationship with Wooden is known simply because Watson never shies from an opportunity to share it. He’s appreciative of the time he got to spend with the UCLA legend. And as the NBA’s second-youngest coach, he has tried to apply what he learned.

A point guard out of Kansas City, Kansas, Watson played for Steve Lavin in Westwood. He was there from 1997 to 2001, teaming with Baron Davis in the Bruins’ backcourt. Unlike many college students, Watson wasn’t much into the party scene. When he did go out, he said his teammates usually responded with, “Oh, s–t! It’s Earl!”

Instead, Watson and Davis spent most of their Friday nights in the gym, getting up shots or playing one-on-one. Afterward, they would hop in Davis’ Ford Explorer and drive through Beverly Hills and Bel Air, looking at the million-dollar mansions, hoping one day they would be in position to afford one for their families.

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“We’d go pick up pizza and just drive,” Watson says.

On Saturdays, Watson went to see Wooden. One thing he always noticed on those visits was the coach’s books. Wooden had bookshelves in nearly every room. Today, Watson is building his own collection.

“I read because of him,” he says.

Watson, 37, is a deep thinker, someone who embraces basketball analytics but not until he understands the mathematics behind them. During the season, he tries to find “pockets of time” to read, usually books on leadership and how to plan for success.

Example: “Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior.”

“The first question I ever asked Coach Wooden was, ‘What’s the common denominator in each of your championship teams?’ ” Watson says. “He said the only thing that was the same was that no one cared who got the credit.”

Another Wooden lesson: A coach has to know his personnel. He can’t force them to be something they’re not. He has to create around their strengths and weaknesses.

“And that takes me back to ‘Power vs. Force,’ ” Watson says of the book written by David Hawkins. “Power is the ability to create that allows (rookie forward) Derrick Jones to be Derrick Jones. Not to run pin-down plays for him and expect him to hit pin-down jump shots, but put him in position to feel good about himself and be successful, to pick up Russell Westbrook full court and be a defensive-minded player. And by doing that, he will eventually become a 3-point shooter out of the corner, a better pull-up shooter because he starts to feel good about himself.

“Same with (rookie forward) Marquese Chriss. Now that he’s blocking shots, it’s not a coincidence that he’s hitting 3s because he’s feeling good about himself. It all ties into together.”

After his college days, Watson was drafted in the second round of the 2001 NBA draft. During his first season, he bought his parents a house. It was in Kansas City, not Beverly Hills, but it was something, and it meant a lot to him.

“I don’t think (the real-estate agent) took me seriously,” Watson says. “I was 22. I had no clue how to buy a house, but that was a great moment. We didn’t have enough furniture, though. I didn’t have money like that, so it took a while for me to fill it up.”

Ten years into his career, a friend contacted Watson. Wooden wasn’t doing so well and she wanted to take Watson to see the old coach, perhaps for the final time. Watson couldn’t do it. That would be too hard.

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Wooden died June 4, 2010, at age 99.

“I loved Coach Wooden,” he says.

Watson still thinks about him.

“I wish he was still here,” Watson says in Brooklyn, his team on a losing streak that won’t end anytime soon, “because there are so many questions I would love to ask.”

Watson’s goals: Suns championships. With an ‘S’

The morning after Devin Booker scored a franchise-record 70 points in Boston, Earl Watson awoke early and went to the airport to catch a 6 a.m. flight home. An uncle had died from cancer and the Suns coach wanted to be in Kansas City to comfort his dad at the funeral.

It wasn’t until Watson boarded the flight back to Charlotte that Booker’s performance started to register. “That really happened?” Watson thought. “Did Book really just score 70?’’

Watson, 37, doesn’t offer predictions on how good Booker can be. Whenever asked about the second-year guard, the coach constantly points out Booker’s age. He’s only 20. He’s just beginning. Truth is, Watson believes it’s up to Booker and how hard he works. That’s how good players become great.

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During his playing days, mostly as a backup point guard, Watson never had Booker’s talent. In 878 games covering 13 NBA seasons, he never scored more than 28 points in a game. Still, he found a way to survive. Every player has his process, and during a recent Suns’ road trip, in a series of conversations, the second-year Suns coach explained his to azcentral sports.

It started on his first day as a professional. A second-round draft pick of the Seattle SuperSonics, Watson arrived to training camp about 45 minutes early. Gary Payton, a future Hall of Famer, let Watson know that wasn’t acceptable.

“Gary was sitting in the weight room, talking, and I walked in,” Watson says. “I don’t even think he knew my name, but he cussed me out and told me basically that that s—t could never happen again. He said, ‘You need to be in here before I’m here.’ From that point on, I got to practice an hour-and-a-half early, just to beat him.”

Watson applied the same approach to games. Instead of taking the team bus to the arena, he took a taxi. If the team was scheduled to leave at 4:30 p.m., he left at 4.

“Just to be the first one on the court,” says Watson, adding that the first time he took a team bus to the arena was as a coach, not a player. “I needed the court to myself because I knew the only way for me to stay in the league was to outwork people with more talent.”

Watson wanted to operate at 95 to 100 percent all game because he knew at some point, even those with more talent would tire and their performance would dip. They wouldn’t be as sharp with their decisions. That’s when Watson knew he had an edge.

“I think that’s how I got 13 years,” he says during a pregame shooting session in Atlanta. “It became so much a part of me, it just became my identity. Over time, I realized the greatest players I’ve played with, the superstars, the Hall of Famers, they had the same work ethic, but they also had talent. Those were the ones I couldn’t touch. I was like, ‘Damn, it’s going to be a rough night for me.’’’

Over the years, Watson became more like Payton, a mentor to younger players. During his final season in Portland, he would gather up C.J. McCollum, Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, Will Barton and Allen Crabbe and head to the arena early. There, along with assistants David Vanterpool and Nate Tibbetts, they would play 4-on-4 on the main court hours before tip-off.

Afterward, Watson brought them together.

“I’d tell them, ‘Hey, the game doesn’t start when the game starts. The other team saw this and we’re already kicking their ass mentally. One day, as young players your time is going to come and you’re going to be so ready you’re going to be like a buzz saw.’”

Watson admits: Those experiences prepared him for where he is today, coaching a team that recently sent out the youngest starting five in NBA history.

The first part is grinding; the second is vision.

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Even as a coach, Watson writes down goals. He separates them into categories of personal, fatherhood and professional and puts a box next to each so he can check it off once he accomplishes it. Watson then signs the list, dates it and tapes it to his bathroom mirror, so he can see it every morning and night when he brushes his teeth.

  • Hike Camelback Mountain. (“When I first moved to Phoenix, I had never been hiking in my life,” Watson says.) Check.
  • Start a school. (“I wrote that down when I was 25 and it didn’t happen until I was 33, but it happened,” he says.) Check.
  • Build a church in his hometown. Not yet, Watson says, “but it’s going to happen.”

“Win championships, win divisions, win a certain amount of games,” he continues. “You have to be exact, so it says ‘Phoenix Suns championships.’ I have a number up there. It just always reminds you that no matter what happens, you have a destination. I wrote it, I signed it so it’s ownership. It’s real to me. You’re not just going to stumble into something.”

This is how Watson survived as a player. It’s how he plans to excel as a coach. He can’t make his players work like he did, but he can share the vision and hope that over time that same hunger becomes a part of their process.

“We will get there,” Watson says. “But you have to start somewhere.”


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