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.
Watson's mother is from Mexico, which is why he wonders when Latino Night at a Jazz game is going to happen and why he'll represent the country's team in the Pan-Am Games this summer. But he didn't grow up playing soccer.
Watson described his childhood environment as an all-African-American neighborhood in Kansas City's inner-city, where basketball dominated the spare-time scene. He grew up shooting balls, not kicking them, but he knew all about soccer.
"I'm half Latin, my mom's Mexican, so it's a natural sport that I always liked," Watson said. "But it was a sport that I just never played. I was never exposed to it."
The exception was when he'd visit his maternal grandma, whom Watson said lived in an all-Mexican neighborhood.
Being a basketball junkie, Watson would bring his basketball with him. Only problem?
"There wasn't no basketball hoops up," he said, laughing. "So, sometimes I'd bring it and they would take it from me — my cousins and the kids in the neighborhood — and they'd drop it and start playing soccer.
"I'm like, 'Hold on. You can't kick my ball,' " Watson recalled, explaining that basketballs get knots in them when kicked.
The other kids responded by saying, "We don't play basketball over here."
That's when Watson tried to strike a competitive compromise.
"I ended up playing like pick-up soccer. I sucked at it, so I would try to convince the kids to instead play kickball," he said. "That was my story growing up with two different ethnicities (Mexican and African-American) and neighborhoods."
Coincidentally, Rimando also has a mixed ethnic background, having parents of Filipino and Mexican descent. The two pros were also born on the same week in June of 1979 (the 12th for Watson; the 17th for Rimando). And they also share a bond of being proud parents. Watson has a young daughter, and Rimando has two small children.
"He's a guy that I've seen mature and grow," Watson said of Rimando. "I'm most proud of him of his family. I had a chance to sit with his family at a (RSL) game. It's a beautiful family and amazing support."
Rimando was impressed with how kindly Watson treated his family and others at the game. He wasn't surprised. The Jazz player, he said, has been "very down-to-earth" since college when he could've had a big head for playing Bruin basketball.
"He was a real cool cat," Rimando said. "Just like he was at UCLA."
But because Rimando is from the L.A. area, he can't be swayed to switch sides in the Jazz-Lakers rivalry despite his old schoolmate's position on the home team. (It helps him like the Lakers even more that another UCLA hoopster from their era, Matt Barnes, is on the team. P.S. Watson didn't openly admit it, but his bio reveals that he liked Magic Johnson growing up.)
Even Rimando's most ardent Real supporters haven't been able to convince — or razz — him enough to change his allegiance.
"I get grief from this all the time from the fans here how I'm not a Jazz fan," Rimando said, smiling. "I support the Jazz — just as long as they don't play my Lakers."
Rimando learned his lesson about wearing an L.A. purple-and-gold jersey — "I really got heckled bad," he laughed — so he won't sport a Bryant jersey, as Watson joked he might.2 comments on this story
But Rimando, whose seats are by the Jazz bench, likely will be the only guy in the arena cheering on a Utah player while wearing a pair of Kobe shoes.
And for the record, he has been forewarned about potential incoming basketballs.