It’s early Friday morning at the Doolittle Community Center, and a very tall man is leading 145 kids through calisthenics on one of the center’s two basketball courts.
“C.J.!” the tall man shouts into a wireless microphone at regular intervals.
“Watson!” the kids shout back in unison.
The tall man shouts into the microphone again.
“What are we gonna play?”
“DEE-FENSE!” the kids shout back again.
“How we gonna play it?”
The kids get low to the floor and slap it with their palms. They make a heck of a racket for this early in the morning.
The tall man is Jerome Williams — the Junkyard Dog, as he was nicknamed by Rick Mahorn when they played for the Detroit Pistons.
JYD tells the kids that when he played, he had a better per-minute rebounding average than Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley and Kevin Garnett.
This may or may not be true. But you can tell from the collective sparkle in the kids’ eyes that they believe it to be true.
Jerome Williams had stopped by the Doolittle Center to give C.J. Watson a hand at the annual Hoops for Hope basketball clinic and parent workshop sponsored by the Quiet Storm Foundation, Quiet Storm being C.J. Watson’s nickname.
This was the 12th year of the clinic founded by C.J.’s mother, Cathy, a City of Las Vegas youth program director (and former sprinter at Tennessee State); and his father, Charles Sr., who owns a janitorial business.
Hoops for Hope over the years has served 2,600 kids and their parents, and it has served them and fed them Raising Cane’s chicken for absolutely free. Which is a lot less than it cost Cathy and Charles Watson to send their oldest son to Michael Jordan’s basketball camp in Santa Barbara, Calif., when C.J. was in junior high.
“That one wasn’t free,” said Watson, who is coming off a nice season, his seventh in the NBA, as Indiana Pacers backup point guard. “My mom and dad had to scrape just to get me there.”
But he remembers what a thrill it was to meet M.J. and to shake his hand.
So when the Hoops for Hope kids put photos up on Twitter showing them posing with Watson, C.J. often reposts them on his own Twitter account. And when people stop by to chat about the clinic or his foundation, or have him on the radio to talk about the Black History essay contest, or Quiet Storm’s Out of School program focusing on nutrition, education, health, fitness and leadership, he’ll put out a Twitter post saying “thanks.”
You don’t get that with Michael Jordan too often.
It’s hard to believe C.J. Watson is 30 years old. It seems he was just shooting baskets at Bishop Gorman, and then at Tennessee for crazy Bruce Pearl. After going undrafted, Watson played in the D-League and in Italy, and, after those dues were paid, he played for Golden State, Chicago, Brooklyn and now Indiana.
He has a year left on his contract with the Pacers. He’d like to sign one more NBA deal, for multiple seasons, preferably in Indiana, because the fans back there sure love their basketball, C.J. says. But if not for the Pacers, then for somebody else.
He can still sink a jump shot with a hand in his face, still give you lots of valuable minutes off the bench when he’s healthy. But C.J. Watson admits he is thinking about retirement, and after that he’s thinking about becoming a general manager.
He says he’ll go back to the D-League if he has to, because that’s where his first basketball dream started. That is, if you don’t count the Doolittle Community Center at 1950 J Street just before Las Vegas turns into North Las Vegas, a couple of miles from where C.J. and his brother, Kashif, lived with their parents in an apartment near Cashman Field.
“I grew up in this neighborhood, always came here to play basketball,” Watson tells a visitor. “I went to the swimming pool here, summer camp. I was here a lot.”
The swimming pool was just a concrete box with some water in it. Now there’s a serpentine water slide and a separate pool with brightly colored fountains that shoot streams of water everywhere.
“It’s a lot nicer now,” Watson says of the swimming pool, and of the community center that played such a vital role in his upbringing.
“Welcome to Doolittle Center,” it says on the big sign next to the door. “Your One Stop for Classes, Activities, Leagues, Events and Everything in Between.”
Doolittle seemed a lot more hardscrabble when C.J. Watson was a kid. But the soft-spoken NBA veteran said the community center with the cement box for a swimming pool helped keep him out of trouble. It was sanctuary, and there were lots of baskets at which to shoot.
He said if he was going to do a free clinic for kids, it should be there.
And that’s why early on a Friday morning when Jerome Williams shouts “C.J.!” into a wireless microphone, 145 kids shout back “Watson!” in unison.
It’s also why these kids follow C.J. Watson around as if he was the pied piper, if the pied piper could sink a jump shot with a hand in his face.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski