Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Earl Watson Brings It Home

Watson Brings It Home
By Howard Richman
The Kansas City Star

DENVER — Earl Watson plans to come home someday and make Kansas City, Kan., the best it can possibly be. He already has a head start on that task.

Just ask Steven Griffin, a junior at Schlagle High School. He never has met Watson, a 26-year-old guard for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and a former star at Washington High School in KCK. Griffin, though, will benefit from Watson’s generosity.

“He’s been successful, and he is motivating us to do the same thing,” Griffin said.

Griffin is one of the charter members of Project EARL: Encouraging All to Reach for Learning.

Watson’s role? He has given $5,000 out of his pocket to each of the Kansas City, Kan., high schools — Schlagle, Washington, Sumner Academy, Wyandotte and Harmon — to pay for students in need that want to take the ACT examination plus the preparatory workshops that will help prepare them for the ACT.

Watson, who signed a five-year, $29 million contract with the Nuggets, already has been supplying his old high school with funds. Late last year he gave $25,000 for KCK schools to buy computers, TVs and sports equipment.

This isn’t simply lip service, either. The money Watson has pledged for the five schools is at work.

“It’s actually beginning to happen right now in the schools,” said Larry Englebrick, assistant superintendent for business services in the Kansas City, Kan., School District. “Earl is a celebrity, and still is a member of our community. The wonderful thing is that Earl wants this to go beyond just kids in athletics. Earl said he wants to help all the kids.”

Washington instructor Nancy Browne said students with a high enough grade-point average (3.0 or better) who might not be able to pay what she said is the $29 to take the ACT can gain from Watson’s aid.

“He’s kind of a hero to the kids,” said Browne, who so far has more than 20 students signed up to participate in Project EARL. “He’s very sincere about it.”

After a home game late last month, Watson talked to The Star about why he is so driven to help youths in the region where he was molded.

“I want to be very involved. I want to watch the kids grow and become successful in life. That’s the ultimate goal. I couldn’t care less about winning and losing games,” Watson said. “Kansas City, Kan., is important because it’s my foundation. It’s where I grew up as a young adult. It’s everything about me. It’s my city. I’m very proud of my city, and from being from Wyandotte County.”

Watson, whose 129 starts at UCLA are a school record, doesn’t know boundaries when it comes to giving.

During the holiday season in the Denver area, Watson was the host for a party for families who had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Watson also joined forces with the Magic Johnson Foundation to provide gifts and clothing to the needy.

None of this comes as a surprise to Denver coach George Karl, who might not be coaching Watson much longer.

Watson, who in his first seven starts helped the Nuggets go 7-0, has been involved in trade speculation, most recently in a published report this week that had him headed to the New York Knicks. Entering the Nuggets’ game tonight against Dallas, Watson is averaging 7.9 points and 3.6 assists.

“He’s a great human being. I’ve not seen many pros that have a focus about wanting to give back and wanting to serve the community with his contract,” Karl said. “He knows he’s blessed by the game of basketball, and I think he does a wonderful job of giving back.”

It won’t end anytime soon, Watson says. He is devoted to KCK. It’s where he first heard about legendary names like Wyandotte’s Lucius Allen. His immediate hero growing up was Vinson Smith, a basketball star at Schlagle.

“Vinson Smith lived right behind me. I remember Saturday mornings he would come out and play one-on-one with me in the back yard and just beat me,” said Watson, who didn’t mind the whippings. “I was a little kid. I went to every one of his games. I was a big fan.”

Watson wants the youths of KCK to know how it feels to have solid support, whether it be financially or morally. He learned during his previous stop at Memphis from Hall of Famer Jerry West. What better person to emulate, Watson said.

“He’s a logo (the NBA figure in its logo is modeled after West). Mr. Clutch,” Watson said with a big grin. “When I was 18, I worked out in LA with Magic. As a player, (former UCLA legendary coach) John Wooden sat behind the bench.

“I felt like I needed to utilize all the knowledge I had to not fail. There was no way I could see myself not making it to the NBA. I had too many people around me that knew the game. I want the kids back home to feel that kind of support that I got.”

Watson has big plans for the future in KCK. He wants to sponsor AAU basketball teams, focusing on education as much as hoops.

“We’re going to have fun, but we’re also going to learn,” Watson said.

There’s more on his agenda.

“At some point, I’d like to put together a crime-and-drug-prevention program back home,” he said. “A lot of my friends lived it. I want to try and tackle those issues in a positive way.”

James Cavender, a junior at Washington who says what Watson is doing will help him prepare for the ACT so it won’t be a “total shock,” doesn’t play basketball. But he fully understands what Watson means as an athlete but more importantly as an ally.

“He’s a big person. I think he’s a great person to come back and do this for us,” Cavender said. “I’d just like to say thank you to him.”

(reprinted with permission)


(photo credit:AP)


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