SALT LAKE CITY — Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak has a pretty good vantage point. From his office window in the Huntsman Center, he's been able to watch scores of graduates pose for photographs next to a big red block "U" adjacent to the arena.
Each snapshot, Krystkowiak notes, has a story chronicling a student's journey to graduation day.
Pictures, it's been said, can paint a thousand words. However, not every story can be told with the same brush. And besides, there are different strokes for different folks.
Case in point, the path taken by former Utah basketball player Josh "Jiggy" Watkins. Despite being dismissed from the team in January for violating unspecified rules, the 22-year-old from New York City participated in commencement exercises on Friday — earning recognition for a bachelor's degree in sociology.
Before taking his spot in the graduation procession, Watkins and his mother, Lisa Watkins, visited with Krystkowiak and had pictures taken.
"I think it speaks real highly of Jiggy, his mom and Larry," said Utah athletics director Chris Hill. "They never lost sight of what was very, very important and that's to get his degree. So it does help a very difficult situation."
Watkins, who was leading the Utes with 15.6 points and 4.8 assists per game at the time of his dismissal, harbors no bitterness. In fact, he says the situation helped him grow as a man.
"I've been playing basketball since I was 4. So when I got that taken away from me it was hard," Watkins said. "You appreciate things when you don't have it anymore and I really appreciate things."
Although Watkins declined to discuss specifics that led to his dismissal from the team, he insists he was never "a bad kid or anything." Nor, Watkins added, did it involve anything disrespectful.
"It was just something that happened. Coach didn't want to make that decision but he was forced to," Watkins said. "He had a set of rules that he had, and it was just a miscommunication between both sides. So it's really no hard feelings because I still think he's a great coach."
Krystkowiak readily acknowledges that kicking Watkins off the team was one of the toughest things he's ever had to do. As a coach, Krystkowiak noted, he has an impact on other people's lives and that decisions he makes can have far-reaching implications.
As such, Krystkowiak spent a couple of days sorting things out. He suspended Watkins for one game earlier in the season, but had zero tolerance for any additional violation of team rules — eventually announcing an unwillingness to sacrifice the integrity of the program for one individual.
"I think what spoke to me the loudest was as a coach is you try to be a teacher, you try to do the right thing," Krystkowiak said.
It wasn't easy, especially after Watkins pleaded with him to not take away the most important thing in his life.
That, however, resonated with Krystkowiak. He hoped Watkins would learn his lesson, change his behavior and be better equipped when the next "most important thing in his life" developed — whether it be two, eight or 20 years down the road.
"Hopefully he would be able to look back on this situation and say 'You know what, I can't screw that up,' " Krystkowiak said, while expressing hope that in the future Watkins will be on time, take care of all of his business and not put himself in position to jeopardize situations.
Graduating from the University of Utah, he added, is an obvious step in the right direction. Krystkowiak said Watkins seems to be ready for the next challenge.
"It's one of those situations where it just wasn't very much fun, dismissing him from the team," Krystkowiak said. "Then all you can do from that point is keep our fingers crossed that he stays with it and follows through with what really — at the end of the day — is the most important part of the equation and that is getting his degree."
Krystkowiak gives much of the credit to Randy Barruth, Utah basketball's director of player development and academic liason, for helping make that happen. He monitored the situation and facilitated Watkins' needs.
Watkins had a lot of other support as well.
"The people here were great to me. The fans were great to me. I've had good people behind me supporting," Watkins said. "Dr. Hill was tremendous to me, treating me well like one of his kids. I had a lot of support so it wasn't hard for me to make that decision to stay in school. It was easy."
Watkins' teammates were also there for him. He said their relationship stayed strong even though he was no longer on the court with them. They continued to hang out together.
"They understood that coach had to make that decision," Watkins said, while noting that his basketball family kept everything positive as he progressed toward graduation.
There were difficult times, however. Watkins remembers how he felt during Utah's first game without him — a loss at home to Arizona.
"It was sad because that was like my family playing out there without me and I had let them down," Watkins said. "It was really hard that day. I just had to get used to it and focus on school."
As hard as his dismissal was to accept, Watkins believes that everything happens for a reason.
"I had to live with it and it helped me grow as a young man," Watkins said. "So I wish the best of luck to them. I had a great two years out here at Utah."
Although his basketball career came to a premature end, Watkins wasn't about to waste getting a good education. Basketball didn't work out, he explained, but he still had school and he was determined to finish it.
"I know that a lot of people probably doubted me, saying that I would go home. But that's not my character. I'm not going to give up. I don't give up," Watkins said. "So for me to go home and not finish school would be foolish. I did three years before this, why not finish the last one?"
As his mother quickly discovered, there was never any doubt about it.
"My mother was a big help," Watkins said. "As soon as I found out I got kicked off the team I called her, told her, and she kept everything cool with me — helped me out and kept the support coming."
What transpired has made Lisa Watkins extremely proud of her son.
"I told him this is going to show your character. This is going to show your manhood. This is going to show who you are, who you represent," she said of their initial conversation after the dismissal. "You stay there and you get your degree."
Jiggy's response made it clear that her son had evolved into a man.
"He said: 'Ma, you didn't have to tell me that. I'm going to get my degree. I'm going to stay here and I'm going to get my degree," Lisa recalled. "When he said those words to me, it felt like a spear went through my heart. I was like, that's my boy."
Just thinking about it, she continued, brings tears to her eyes.
"I'm so proud that he has stayed. I'm so proud because he didn't give up and made everybody proud. I can't even describe the feeling."
Before walking the aisle for graduation, Jiggy acknowledged how special it was to be there.
"Basketball can be taken away from you any day but the degree can't," he said. "I'm glad I've got my degree right now."
Mom, understandably, was beaming.
"He's good, he's talented and he's my son," she said. "I'm proud of that."
Armed with his degree, Watkins plans to resume his basketball career next season — most likely overseas.
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