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Utah Jazz, Real Salt Lake: Friendship began at UCLA for Earl Watson, Nick Rimando

friendship began at ucla for jazz guard, RSL goalie

Published: Thursday, March 31 2011 8:59 p.m. MDT

Nick Rimando of Real Salt Lake (right) will be in the stands to cheer on Earl Watson — but not the Jazz. (Rimando is a Lakers fan.)

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Earl Watson arrived in Utah last fall to play for the Jazz, a soccer-loving Los Angeles Lakers fan couldn't have been happier.

He even tracked down Watson's phone number and gave him a warm welcome to the Beehive State.

Fast forward six months, and that same guy — RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando — might want to pay extra close attention tonight when he attends the ESPN-televised showdown between the two most popular NBA teams in Utah.

Watson laughed while acknowledging his college pal's Laker loyalties.

"We'll see how good his goalie skills really are," the Jazz guard said. "If he walks past the court, I'll throw the ball at him real quick."

He was kidding. Mostly.

Even though Watson and Rimando don't exactly see eye-to-eye when it comes to their favorite professional basketball teams, the ol' Bruin buddies are enjoying how their career paths finally intersected to help them rekindle a friendship from their UCLA days over a decade ago.

"It's just amazing how people can go full circle and end up in the same place," Watson said. "When we was 17, 18 years old at UCLA, we never in our wildest dreams would've thought I'd be playing for the Jazz and he'd be playing for Real."

(Jazz fans can attest tonight that they aren't the only ones who ended up in Utah from SoCal.)

Watson has bounced all over the U.S. since his UCLA playing days ended in 2001, going from Seattle to Memphis, Denver, back to Seattle, then off to Oklahoma City and Indiana until settling down the street from Rio Tinto Stadium.

Rimando headed to Miami in 2000 for his first pro soccer gig after his junior year at UCLA, and he ventured to Washington, D.C., before ending up in Jazzland.

Ten-plus years after the Bruins' soccer and basketball squads struck up a mutual friendship, and two of their stars are back to playing sports in the same city again.

"I used to watch him and Baron Davis as freshmen play for UCLA," Rimando said. "They're still playing and now one of them is in the same state as me, so it's kind of cool. It's (come) full circle. Now we're not playing Division I, we're playing professional."

Watson eagerly accepted an offer to attend an RSL game — the first pro match he'd ever been to — on one of the Jazz's off-nights a few weeks ago. It was reminiscent of when the basketball standout got a kick out of going to Bruins' games along with his teammates, and vice-versa for Rimando and his soccer pals.

"We supported them more than we supported football," Watson said, speaking of American football, of course. "It was cool."

Added Rimando: "It was kind of cool to see the basketball (guys) get our backs and seeing them on the sidelines watching us play games against the Pac-10."

They lost touch as their sports careers took them to different parts of the country, but a friendship built on mutual respect and a common bond endured.

"It meant a lot to me he reached out to me, welcomed me to the city first," Watson said. "He wanted to come to some games, hang out. To me it was big because obviously I didn't know anyone here. I'd just met my teammates.

"We always say that UCLA always sticks together, no matter what, no matter what sport it is, no matter what the profession is. We try to always bond and make it a family."

Even if one cheers for the wrong team.

And even if neither can play the other's sport particularly well.

"I'm probably the worst basketball player in the world," Rimando, one of the best soccer players in the world, said with a chuckle.

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