SALT LAKE CITY — Tonight's Utah-UCLA basketball game carries more meaning to one particular Beehive State resident than most.
Utah Jazz point guard Earl Watson, a UCLA alumnus full of Bruin pride and John Wooden stories, has looked forward to this matchup since the Utes joined his school's conference
"It's a chance for me to catch Pac-12 games," Watson said. "I think the Pac is amazing. It's a great to school to add in Utah. I think it helps the conference."
Watson beams while recanting his UCLA days from 1997-2001 — even more than he does talking about hooking up with Jazz buddy Jeremy Evans on alley-oop plays.
"The best time of my life," Watson said.
Watson had so much enjoyment in college — from the rewarding education to chats with Wooden — the Kansas City kid even tried to extend his stay.
As a senior, Watson tore a ligament in his right pinkie after a tournament in New York. So Watson approached his coach, Steve Lavin, with an idea.
"Coach Lav, I'd like to redshirt," Watson said.
Lavin's response: "You're tough. You can play through it."
Watson: "I'm like, 'No, coach.' I really wanted to redshirt. … I wanted to stay a fifth year. It was so much fun."
Lavin denied the request, and Watson, now in his 10th NBA season, went on to lead the Bruins in assists (5.2 apg) and steals (1.9 spg) and was the Bruins' No. 2 scorer (14.7 ppg) that year.
What Watson, who ended his career with a school-record 129 starts, cherishes most from his UCLA days was developing a relationship with the Wizard of Westwood.
"Coach Wooden was priceless," Watson said.
Watson was recruited to UCLA by Jim Harrick and Levin coached him, but he hit it off with Wooden as a 17-year-old.
"Every chance I got, I would reach out to him," he said.
Watson even made a couple of special trips to Wooden's SoCal condo, and was impressed by the vast amount of literature and bookshelves the former English teacher had spread around his home.
They talked about basketball.
They talked about life.
Watson asked questions, and Wooden answered.
"He's a teacher first and a coach second," Watson recalled. "More importantly, he was like a father and he prepared everyone for life."
This, from a guy who didn't even play for Wooden.
Watson remembers the inventor or UCLA's famous high-post offense telling him that he only changed his offense twice — once for Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabaar), another time for Bill Walton.
"I had some of the biggest, best players (and) I put them right under the basket," Watson said Wooden told him. "You always have to know your personnel."
Watson, who wants to pursue a coaching career when his playing days are done, has kept that learn-then-adjust advice in mind.
He also asked Wooden, "What was the same ingredient for each championship team?"
"No one cared who got the credit. No one cared," Wooden responded, according to Watson. "Everyone sacrificed and everyone was for the team, and that's how we won so many championships."
Wooden also told his teams they were in better shape, better prepared, better on offense and defense. He always told the Bruins, "We are the best."
Then Wooden let Watson in on a secret.
"He said, 'Earl, I don't even know if that was true, but the fact that they believed it, it gave us our edge. It gave us our confidence in games because I said it so much they believed it."
That's the prevailing lesson Watson carries to this day.
"Belief," he said, "is stronger than reality."
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