Posted by: James Seaman on February 5th, 2012The author's views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of the Utah Jazz.
“The world is dark and the light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story.” – The Tale of Despereaux
Years from now, we as Jazz fans will tell stories to our children and grandchildren of players long since retired. Most of us—those old enough to remember—will regale our progeny with accounts of Stockton and Malone and their titanic struggles against Michael Jordan and the Bulls. I suspect even those too young to recall will fudge and add “I was there” to these hazy recollections. Others will reach even further back to dusty tales of Ricky Green and Darrell Griffith and Adrian Dantley in the Salt Palace. Then you’ll tell of Mehmet Okur’s 3-point barrages and Deron Williams’ crossover dribble and perhaps even a dramatic buzzer beater against Lebron James by a fellow called Sundiata Gaines. Now, with those players gone, another fable is growing all around us. One day, you will tell the bedtime story of the 2012 Utah Jazz and the legend of Earl Watson.
Watson went from collegiate standout at UCLA to second round draft pick to journeyman professional, landing in Utah prior to the 2010-11 season, his 10th in the NBA—hardly the stuff of legend. It seems strange that our Earl would even share a first name with mythical ballers like The Pearl Monroe and The Goat Manigault (look him up). Yet Earl Watson has become a cult hero in Jazzland. He speaks in wise and humble tones and is known to haunt the Park Café on 13th South. On the court, he adds something that numbers cannot capture. Watson’s clutch performance against Los Angeles Saturday night simply added to his growing lore. While he seemingly had no business playing against the Lakers after severely spraining his ankle on Wednesday, Watson took the court. With Raja Bell and Devin Harris also in uniform, it seemed one of those all-in moments: This is the Lakers game, rain or shine, healthy or hurt, everybody plays.
Watson demonstrated his durability last year, playing more games for the Jazz (80) than any player but Al Jefferson. Watson made just 13 starts though, winning only four of those and averaging 4.3 points and 3.5 assists. Yet anyone who paid attention last year appreciated Watson’s steady hand, his professionalism, and his leadership on a young team. In particular, Watson seemed to develop some sort of strange ESP with Jeremy Evans, connecting with the young high-flyer again and again on alley oops.
With the uncertainty of a long lockout, no one knew for sure whether Watson would return to Salt Lake for the 2011-12 season. When HoopsWorld reporter Alex Kennedy hinted in December that Watson might end up in Atlanta, Jazz fans took their case to Twitter with a “BringBackEarl” campaign. Watson stayed and has transcended the “reliable back-up” identity he assumed last year. Earl has become an extension of Ty Corbin, a coach on the floor and a mentor to the young players who will make or break this team long after Watson has gone out to pasture.
In the January 19th game against Dallas, it was Watson who stood up for Derrick Favors after Dirk Nowitzki slapped the ball from the young second-year player. After going toe-to-toe with the defending champs, Watson steadfastly refused the suggestion of a moral victory, saying, “You couldn’t pay me enough to be happy to lose.”
Despite standing just 6’ 1”, shorter than any of his teammates, Watson fears no man. He tied up Kobe Bryant in traffic on Saturday night and forced a jump ball that the Jazz managed to steal. And Watson always seems to know when to push, when to slow it down, and when to hit a big shot.
This was never more apparent than against the Lakers. With seven minutes remaining and the Jazz up nine, Enes Kanter cleared a rebound to Watson and the floor general sensed the kill. He shot up the court like a bat out of hell as the accompanying wingmen and defenders converged. Watson somehow communicated—again telepathically, I suppose—with CJ Miles, laying a lob up in front of the rim that Miles, coming from Watson’s right side, dunked home, sending the crowd into hysterics and forcing a Laker timeout. At that point I texted my buddy Jerry: “Earl Watson hasn’t scored a point and is owning this game.” The original message may have come with some expletives, but this is a family program. Watson then buried a 3-point shot (he’d hit just four of them all season) to put the Jazz up 13 and put the game seemingly out of reach.
When Kobe Bryant scored nine points in a little over a minute to help cut the margin to six, Watson stepped up again with a driving reverse lay-up to stop the bleeding. Another bomb from Watson with barely a minute left pushed the Jazz lead back to double digits and ended the threat for good. In a game where the Jazz found themselves tied against their bitterest rival entering the fourth quarter, Earl Waston decided to score all eight of his points and dish out six of his 11 assists in the final frame, delivering an emotional win to a rabid crowd.
As if Watson didn’t do enough on the court, he took to Twitter after the game to thank Jazz Nation for their support. Twitter has become the platform for Watson’s cult following. Unlike most other professional athletes, Watson tries to follow anyone who follows him. He gives constant love to Jazz fans who feed it right back. Perhaps most endearing, he seems genuinely pleased to be part of our community, something about which Jazz fans will always wonder and worry.
Earl Watson has become one of those players whose reputation among his fans far exceeds what any statistical averages can measure. We simply feel more secure with him in the line-up because, like a true catalyst, he makes the team better. It’s a special bond between a player and his fans, something we will talk about years down the road when we convey a story lost to those who would whittle the game down to a series of numbers. Those who have the privilege of believing what their eyes see in 2012 will smile with nostalgia when they remember and retell the legend of Earl Watson.
Follow me on Twitter @JSeaman34_31
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