Every year for the past five or so, I’ve had to set my alarm on a Saturday morning so I could catch C.J. Watson at his Hoops for Hope basketball camp and life skills workshop.
I usually arrive at Doolittle Community Center around 9 a.m. C.J. usually is already there, giving something back to the neighborhood kids through his Quiet Storm Foundation.
As someone who has endured nine seasons in the NBA, mostly by working hard and contributing by coming off somebody’s bench, the former Bishop Gorman and Tennessee standout has earned to right to sleep in during the offseason, if that’s what he chooses.
When Hoops for Hope is in session, he chooses not to. He chooses to be a gym rat again, which is what he was at Doolittle when he was a youngster, when the rec center had a reputation for being on the hardscrabble side.
“It’s a lot nicer now,” he says.
When I arrived, his mom, Cathy, a longtime community program director for the City of Las Vegas, was giving out hugs in the foyer. She said C.J. was inside the gym with the kids — 199 signed up this year, she said of the free camp she and the Watson family started 14 years ago.
Her son was hanging around a scrum that had formed around other mentors and molders of youth. The scrum started chanting “QUIET!” and “STORM!” Watson broke into a bashful smile. A few minutes later, when the kids started shouting his foundation’s name again, the scrum coaxed him into the vortex.
His smile was more authentic than his assist-to-turnover ratio.
This is what is called giving back to the community, and sometimes it’s more about the time than the check.
“I’ve never been to a basketball camp,” 12-year-old Sakura Bradley said in the auxiliary gym. “Most (successful) people … don’t give back to the community. And sometimes when they do, it’s like, expensive. And then kids like us can’t afford it.”
It’s hard to believe that C.J. Watson is 32, that he has played in the NBA for nine seasons. That’s he’s starting to think about retirement. Last season he played in only 33 games for the Orlando Magic after developing a painful cyst on the back of his left knee.
“When I wake up, I think about basketball, when I go to sleep, I think about basketball. It’s still there,” Watson said about his passion for the game. But he has also learned the NBA is more of a business than a game.
He said he’d like to play until he is 36 or so — he still has two years to run on his Orlando contract — and then he’d like to get into somebody’s front office. Or perhaps somebody’s kitchen. Maybe he’ll get into the restaurant business, he said.
C.J. Watson said he would like to own an In-N-Out franchise, because everybody seems to love those burgers. Then he returned to the main gymnasium, to give a little more back to the neighborhood kids.
WHEN ZUCKER MET TUCKER
I came across a touching story about Jason Zucker, the Minnesota Wild ice hockey forward and Las Vegas native, and his 9-year-old pal Tucker Helstrom in Thursday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune written by Michael Russo.
It was about how Zucker met Tucker during one of those visits to the hospital many athletes do as a public service. Zucker and Tucker, who had just been diagnosed with bone cancer, became buddies after the photo op.
Zucker would cheer up Tucker, and Tucker would cheer up Zucker. Back check hard and shoot more, the little guy would say. When Zucker, who was having a tough season, would drop by the hospital for subsequent visits, Tucker told him to forget about the back check part.
Zucker shot more. The Wild signed him to a new contract.
When Tucker’s health took a turn for the worse on June 30, Zucker jumped on the first flight from Las Vegas to Minneapolis.
Tucker died two days later. Before they said goodbye, Tucker handed Zucker a trading card. It was of Tucker in a pee-wee hockey uniform. It was autographed — Tucker had learned to write his signature the same way Zucker writes his.
Three days later, Jason Zucker got a tattoo on his left wrist. It was of Tucker’s autograph, with an inscription to “Shoot More.”
FORE SCORE AT RNC
Natalie Gulbis, the pro golfer who still occasionally plays on the LPGA tour and makes her home at Lake Las Vegas, was invited to speak on Donald Trump’s behalf at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. She was on the undercard before cable news arrived, so you might have missed it.
I thought she did a real nice job — way better than Chachi and the former underwear-model-turned-soap-opera-actor whose claim to fame, I believe, is getting Maya from the movie “Sideways” pregnant.
Gulbis didn’t yell, and she made her point in 3 minutes, 33 seconds.
She said she had known Donald Trump for a long time, that he was a sneaky good putter, that he inspired her to pursue birdies and goals and dreams outside of golf. She said she followed his advice and was able to open her own Boys & Girls Club (at the Apache Pines Apartments clubhouse in Las Vegas).
Natalie Gulbis flashed a winsome smile and graciously said, “Thank you.” Not once did she pound her fist into the podium.
MAKING BASEBALL FUN AGAIN
If local slugger Bryce Harper truly is serious about making baseball fun again, he should start by checking out Dan (@MyKBO) on Twitter — something I do every year for a baseball fix during the All-Star break.
Among recent treasures, Dan has posted videos of a Korean baseball bunting contest, a Korean baseball pitching accuracy contest, and a slow-motion replay of a Korean ball girl displaying a good arm and short shorts.
Plus the usual array of awesome Korean baseball bat flips, narrated by the usual array of awesome Korean baseball announcers.
ICYMI: Doosan infielder Oh Jae-won won this year's Perfect Pitcher competition pic.twitter.com/cgOHd3IAjy
— Dan (@MyKBO) July 16, 2016
You can check them out here: http://tinyurl.com/zdc7wgh
KBO All-Star Festivities: Doosan's Heo Kyung-min is your 2016 KBO Bunt King! pic.twitter.com/7yx0Bvazfk
— Dan (@MyKBO) July 16, 2016
The news release announcing that UNLV and Duke would at long last renew their basketball rivalry at T-Mobile Arena on Dec. 10 pointed out that “ … over the past decade Las Vegas has become arguably the basketball capital of the world. The city now hosts USA Basketball, NBA Summer League, NBA preseason games, thousands of youth travel teams each summer, postseason tournaments for four college basketball conferences and a season-ending college basketball tournament …”
So it makes perfect sense we’re getting an NHL franchise.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski