It has never been easy for Walter Watts. Oh, there was the natural athletic ability and that incredible, God-given size - that much was easy - but there was so much more to overcome.
Watts arrived at the University of Utah four years ago a Size XX-Large package of problems. There were the constant weight troubles. There was a young family to support. There was a summer job playing baseball to worry about. School was a continual struggle. If all that weren't enough, Watts was backward, shy and quiet. It was no wonder that his intensity wandered on the basketball court."How many problems can one man overcome?" Coach Rick Majerus said once while musing on the subject of Watts. This was shortly after Majerus had taken over the Ute basketball program, and he was trying to solve the riddle of Watts. "There's only so much you can do for him. I just don't know . . ."
It's been two years since then, and Watts, now a senior, has grown up before our eyes. His story isn't finished, but for now he's on pace to graduate in a year. Interviews no longer frighten him. The extra pounds are gone. And he's playing the best basketball of his life for a team that has advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
When the Utes play No. 1-ranked Nevada-Las Vegas Thurday night in Seattle, Watts will be one of the game's key figures, going up against UNLV's big, athletic frontline.
After sitting out his freshman year, after two erratic years on the court, Watts is finally reaching the level of play that has long been expected of him. He banked on it. Last fall Watts flew to Indianapolis to train for 10 days with former pro star Mel Daniels to whip himself into shape. He also sent his wife and son to live with his in-laws in San Jose, Calif., to cut down on distractions during the school year.
This season Watts has averaged 10 points and 7 rebounds per game and earned second-team all-conference honors and invitations to a couple of post-season all-star games and pro camps. In 15 of his last 16 games, he has scored in double figures, and in last week's two NCAA tournament games he totaled 28 points and 21 rebounds.
Even Majerus, always Watts' toughest critic, has become a fan, although that could change any minute. "If I had to name a captain today, it would be Walt, because of how hard he's played," says the coach. This is the same man who benched Watts two years ago and said, "I don't know if I'll ever start him again. I don't know if he'll make it. I'm not high on him at all and he knows it."
That was about the time Majerus began to make Watts a personal project. "When I first got here, he weighed 319 pounds, and he was getting all Fs," says the coach. Majerus also was amazed to discover that Watts had made almost no progress toward graduation during his freshman season.
"What Walt was was lazy," says Majerus. "He was not a self starter. He'd come to practice not ready to practice. He was kind of moody. He had many things on his mind."
Indeed, at the time Watts attended class and practice daily, then rushed home to tend Walter III while his wife went to work. That left him little time to study or rest.
"I was gone a lot to school and practice," says Watts. "I'd come home and take care of my son. Coach is going crazy. The baby is sick with a cold. My wife is working. It was hard."
Majerus went to work. He arranged for tutors and academic advisors to work with Watts. A 300-pounder himself at the time, he also delivered an ultimatum to Watts: cut the weight to 260 pounds or don't play. Watts was so overweight and out of shape that during his sophomore season he could play no more than three minutes at a time, and then had to be benched to catch his breath. When Watts finally made weight last season, Majerus made him wear a 30-pound lead vest in practice just to show him what he'd been packing around. His point was made. "I was glad to get it off," said Watts.
The coach credits the university for Watts' progress, and rightfully so. The Utes provided a large support network for Watts. They arranged for tutors to work personally with him on his class planning and his writing, speaking and reading skills. "He was kind of a staff project," says Majerus, whose assistant coaches worked individually with Watts on his diet, his strength program and his game.
"As far as Walt has come on the basketball court," Majerus says, "I'm more pleased with how far he's come as a person. He's alert, he's happy with himself, he can look you in the eye and talk to you. All those things are more important than basketball."
Says Watts, "Before Coach Majerus came along, I missed class. I wasn't into it like I should have been. It comes easy now to go to class. I should graduate some time next winter. I'd like to help police, be a parole officer, go house to house talking to kids."
These days, Watts, a sociology major, is pulling a 2.5 grade point average - "The only bad grade he's gotten in the past year and a half was in a dance class," says Majerus - but not without considerable persistence. To improve his reading skills, which were on an upper grade school level, Watts read children's books to his son nightly. To improve his communication skills, he put his thoughts on a tape recorder first, rather than on paper.
"There were plenty of times when I said it was too hard," says Watts.
"When Walter came in he had a high level of intelligence, but a low level of academic skills," says Linda Lowe, one of Watts' long-time tutors. "He had a very low level of confidence in academics, and it was well founded. I'll tell you what, there is a bunch of other kids here who are in the same situation."
Lowe thinks Watts' case has broader implications. "A lot of (athletes) come in thinking that they don't have good academic skills and aren't prepared to compete in the class," she says. "Because of their athletic ability, they are kept in a narrow scope of experiences and in learning what their abilities are in other areas. They have genuis athletic ability. They have bright minds, too. They are genuiuses at processing information physically, but they believe physical and mental abilities are two different things. They're not."
The question now is how will Watts fare without Majerus, Lowe, Bauman - Team Watts - to encourage, badger and direct him. It's a fair question. After the basketball season ended last year, for instance, Watts' weight ballooned to 275 pounds. His coaches put him on a fitness program - of walking. Why not a running program? "He couldn't run!" says Majerus.
Watts will need more personal discipline if he is to play professionally someday. Aside from that, though, he would seem to have all the tools to play pro sports - any of them.
The first thing you notice about Watts, of course, is the size. There are plenty of big men on the basketball court these days, but Watts is another kind of big. He's both tall (6-foot-7) and heavy. The feet are so big (size 17) that he must have shoes specially made (fortunately for Watts, the Utah Jazz's Thurl Bailey gives him his old street shoes). But Watts' most arresting features are the shoulders, which are thick and broad and reach out straight from his neck so that in street clothes he appears to be wearing shoulder pads.
Watts, who requires a 52-54 sport coat and Size XX-Large tall shirts, is so large that when he first reported to the Minnesota Twins' Class A team out of high school, he had to wait two weeks before he could play simply because the team didn't have a uniform to fit him (they had to have one custom made).
"You have the biggest shoulders in the conference," coaches tell him. "Nobody should be able to block you out.
The remarkable thing about Watts' size is that he is still an athlete. Ask a Utah coach to name the Utes' best athletes, and one of the first names is Watts'. Not only can he hurl his 260 pounds through the air for high rebounds, but he can control it, too - to wit: his twisting, flying reverse layups - and he is one of the team's fastest players.
Teammate Josh Grant recalls the first time he recognized Watts' potential. Watts was playing in a pickup game, going up against former Ute Pace Mannion, an NBA veteran and a superb defensive player. Watts faked one way and went the other, leaving Mannion standing flat-footed while he drove the baseline for a dunk. "I knew right then what kind of player he was he was," says Grant.
But then no one has ever questioned Watts' athleticism. He can play all the sports. He was recruited by USC to play football and drafted by Minnesota to play pro baseball. He played professional baseball for single-A Elizabeth, Tenn., during the summers following his freshman and sophomore years. In his first pro at-bat, he hit a home run. In his second at-bat he beat out a dribbler back to the pitcher. A pitcher/designated hitter/first baseman, his fastball has been clocked at 90 miles per hour.
The Twins finally traded Watts to Cleveland when he refused their request to quit school and play baseball full time. Watts has devoted himself to basketball since then, although last summer he took up a pro baseball scout's invitation to take batting practice with a minor league team in Sacramento. Despite a two-year layoff, he socked several home runs.
"I still have my eye and my power," says Watts.
But if pro basketball ambitions don't pan out, Watts isn't considering a return to baseball first. He says he might try to play football again, either for Utah or a pro team.
"I watched Walter play when he was a sophomore in high school," says Utah football coach Ron McBride. "He was a great three-sport guy. He could excel in any one of the three. He's a big-time athlete. We've talked about football, but I don't want to interfere with his basketball. Next year he could play. I'd love to have him play football."
Watts' future is uncertain, but whatever happens Lowe, for one, believes "He'll be all right. He's a survivor. He's a very strong, intelligent personality."