Q&A: Earl Watson on his Suns, ignoring John Wooden and more

Watson debuted as Suns coach on February 2, 2016. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Earl Watson, still just 37, has had an improbably fast transition from backup journeyman to the youngest head coach in the NBA -- until Luke Walton, who is 36, supplanted him. Earlier this week in Utah, Watson sat down with ESPN to talk about his young Phoenix Suns, becoming a coach, family tragedy, and much more.

You said before the season, pretty emphatically, that you wanted to make the playoffs. Is that still a goal now, at 6-14 [now 6-16]?

That's always my goal. There's a lot of time left. With a young team, anything is possible. Our veterans are who they are. The only room to go through is through the young guys. Their development is better than a trade. It can happen at any time. Dragan [Bender] is getting better. Marquese [Chriss] is getting better. Tyler Ulis -- we just have too many guys.

I like him. He's a smart player.

He's gonna be a head coach in this league. It's not even a question. And Devin Booker -- we forget how young he is. There is so much pressure on him. What he can do at age 20 is remarkable. I was teammates with Russ [Westbrook], with Kevin [Durant], with Dame [Lillard], C.J. McCollum. He's ahead of them in lots of ways. Defensively, he has to get what I call "grown-man strength." And you can't force that. It happens over time.

So to be clear: Is the postseason still a realistic goal?

Why not? We're like four games out.

You are in a tricky spot balancing young and old. Like, your numbers with all your vets on the court are actually decent, but you're starting Chriss and letting him learn on the fly. How do you balance development with winning -- and keeping guys like Tyson Chandler happy?

I have to kill my selfishness. As a coach, it's, "Let's win now."

You're cognizant of your record.

Yes. Wins and losses. But I asked my group this question two days ago: What's the most athletic position in the league today?

Hmm ... point guard or power forward?

It's the 4 [power forward].

It's definitely the deepest.

It's so dynamic, because all the 3s [small forwards] moved to the 4. We have two dynamic 4-5s who need to develop now in Marquese and Dragan in order for us to have a chance later in the season.

Bender is playing some small forward.

He plays 3, 4, and 5.

Can he really defend all those speedy guys? He's a 7-footer!

He can. What's unique for him is his size. We tell him, we don't want gravity sticking you to the guy. We want length. You don't realize -- if you do this [raises hand], it's hard for anyone to see the rim.

Can Eric Bledsoe, Booker and Brandon Knight all play together? The defense has been ugly so far ...

They played well together against Portland, because the Blazers are small. They can't against some matchups.

Here's a random one: You probably use Synergy Sports. According to their stuff, about 25 percent of your possessions end with the pick-and-roll ball handler doing something -- shooting, drawing a foul, turning it over. That's the biggest number in their database, ever.

I didn't know that!

And those plays tend to be lower efficiency than when you use the pick-and-roll as a vehicle for something else -- a kick-out 3, a pass to a cutter. Does that concern you?

It's not a concern, because I think we have two of the best young midrange shooters in the game in TJ Warren and Booker. And Bledsoe from the elbows last season was top-five in the league, I believe.

I'll have to check that. [Note: Bledsoe was indeed solid from the elbows last season].

Usually you don't have three players on the court who can score in the midrange. That's a lost art. I saw that article on ESPN about DeMar DeRozan, master of the midrange -- how he studied Kobe [Bryant]. You see how the game is evolving back to the midrange. The old becomes the new.

So ranking 25th in 3-point attempts doesn't worry you?

We want to shoot more, but we want 3-point shooters.

You have some! Chriss is shooting them. I feel like you usually have at least three guys on the floor who are credible.

We have some solid 3-point shooters. But we have to make them.

You recently weighed on Steve Kerr saying he used marijuana to relieve his back pain -- and you said coaches should be careful endorsing drug use. I thought that was interesting. You've been around the league forever. You must have seen players who use it, right?

That is just percentages of people using it, not just players. Doctors. Teachers.

Maybe coaches!

Maybe coaches. But my opinions come from my own life growing up in Kansas City, in a community that was very low economically. It's not a black or white thing, either. I have white friends who grew up in trailer parks. I have a preschool in Kansas City. I have 27 youth travel teams around L.A. I have to think beyond myself when I speak.

Growing up, I saw marijuana at parties. At school. I saw people sell it early in life. I never did it. I never smoked it, ever. In my life, those people who did it during middle school went on to selling hard-core drugs, or experimenting with other drugs. I just never saw it turn out good. A lot of my friends ended up dead or in jail. That's just my view from the inner city.

You're part African-American, and part Mexican. You coach largely black players. You do that in a red state. Is that a weird sensation? Have you guys talked as a group about the election?

We don't have sit-down talks about the election. What they talk about in the locker room, that's their conversation. I think there is more awareness with the younger generation than we realize.

I have a different take on a lot of things. My dad was one of the first African-Americans to integrate the U.S. Army, way back in 1954. I have a different take on the flag.

Which is?

Every face is a part of that flag's DNA. Of its fabric. So it's not just one ethnicity's flag. My dad loves that flag, and I love my dad. He sacrificed a lot going from segregation to integration, in the Army and in life. His Army outfit was always pressed. The flag always hung on the wall. I grew up playing basketball and thinking maybe I'd be in the Army.

I take it you would not burn the flag, then, as a form of protest.

No. Not even a question.

Is it true you doodled basketball plays on your math tests in high school?

Yeah, that's true.

But, like, in place of the answers -- even if you knew the answers?

Oh, I'd draw the plays around the borders of the paper. I'd do the answers, too. I'm odd in a lot of ways, but I'm not that odd. I just didn't want to forget my plays. I'd doodle around the answers, and my teachers were like, "Don't do that." I just had too much dead time.

What is your best memory of Baron Davis from UCLA? Was he always the cocky Baron Davis we love now?

I moved in with him in May of 1997, before my freshman year, and we lived in South Central in his garage. His grandmother took me in when I had nowhere to stay. He's like a brother. I stayed with him, and with different people on different couches, for like five months.

Right when you got to L.A.?

Yeah. We didn't get into the dorms until like September.

Do you like the Suns' gorilla mascot?

It just is. I know where you're going with it. It just is.

Have you tried Leandro Barbosa's horse medicine?

What? Horse medicine?

Holy cow, you don't know about this?

No. Tell me.

My friend Scott Cacciola wrote about it for The New York Times during the playoffs. He apparently drinks some green plant extract they normally feed to horses.

For what?

As a cleanser, I guess. Some Warriors tried it and said it was disgusting.

Oh man, I gotta ask him.

Ask him? Try it!

I don't know if I have to try it, but I'll ask.

Is it time for Tyson Chandler to trim his beard?

You know something funny? Baron and I used to pick up him when he was in eighth grade and take him to go eat.

No kidding.

I swear. Yeah, so he's been like a little brother.

I feel like you're dodging the beard question.

Hey, you gotta let little brother grow up and do his thing.

Did you think LaMarcus Aldridge was really coming two summers ago?

I think we had a chance. I know we did.

You obviously know him well from playing in Portland.

I knew both sides -- San Antonio's and ours. [Watson spent a year as an assistant coach for the Spurs' D-League team.]

The story goes you guys signed Tyson, and had him in the meeting room as a surprise for LaMarcus. Do you remember that? Did LaMarcus swing the door open and shout or something?

He was shocked. We had a realistic shot.

You became the head coach about two weeks before the trade deadline last season. Was it too late to salvage the Markieff Morris situation?

I came in too late, at the end. Everything happens for a reason. If he stays, maybe we don't have Marquese Chriss.

Do Knight's foot-on-the-line 2s annoy you?


Come on.

Well, foot on the line is not a good shot. That's true. We just want him to be aggressive.

Why can't you guys get Chandler on any of those lob dunks he always got in Dallas?

Good question. I think the way we play, and the dynamic of having younger guards -- the rhythm for it just isn't there.

It is tricky, in terms of timing and footwork.

I don't think it's that hard. We have to get better at it.

John Wooden once scolded you for throwing behind-the-back passes in college, right?

Yes. I'll never forget it. We were in Las Vegas at the Victor Awards, and he sat with me on the stage after for about two hours. He talked about my behind-the-back passes. He goes, "Earl, I like the way you play, but for me, you wouldn't have played."

That is cold.

I said, "Why?" He said, "Because you throw behind-the-back passes. But you'd be good sitting right next to me on the bench." He had this way of coming at you. It was never direct, or mean. It was beautiful.

Did you listen to him?

No. I threw an off-the-backboard pass to Baron.

You visited with Wooden often before he died. Did you talk about basketball? Or other things?

Never about basketball. A lot of the great coaches I had were like that. Hubie Brown. Jerry Sloan, he didn't talk much about anything. Just do your job. And all the guys in San Antonio. They reminded me of John Wooden in that way.

You went to college for four years, and now you coach all those teenagers. I'm curious: Should guys have to play college ball, or have a gap year? Should there be an age limit?

I'd say choose the right college. If you go to the right college, maybe you don't want to leave early. We went to UCLA because we really wanted to wear the jersey. And that can never change in you. You can't go to school to get to the NBA. You have to take pride in who you represent. If you don't, that mentality will translate here. You'll come to the NBA, and you won't care about being part of something great. You'll think about making money. You'll never be a winning player.

College was the most fun time in my life. I learned a lot about different people, from different ethnic groups and cultures. Because of college, I don't have to coach. I can do anything I want. My network is beyond basketball.

But bottom line: Do you believe in the age limit?

I don't know. I don't have a stance on that. But I'll say this: The NBA has changed in terms of coaching. When I got to the NBA, Gary Payton was my veteran, Nate McMillan was my head coach, and Dwane Casey was my assistant. If they said to run something, you just had to run it. If you didn't know, you just had to stand to the side. They might even cut you.

Now, we have to show you how, and teach you how. It's more like college now. You know why? We have to recruit, too. It's no longer, "Come to my team, I have the most money." Players are turning down historic franchises. You have to have relationships, with players and agents -- all their people. If you're not prepared for that, you're gonna miss out on all the top free agents.

Which is a big part of what you guys are trying to do in Phoenix.

No doubt.

You've said before Larry Bird put the coaching bug in your ear when you played for the Pacers. But what did he actually say to you?

He's a man of few words. It was my exit meeting in Indiana [in 2010]. Jim O'Brien [then the Pacers coach] was the first to talk to me about it, along with Dr. Jack Ramsay. Coach O'Brien told me that I had to start telling the media I wanted to coach. Speak it into existence.

It was simple with Larry: He wanted me to start coaching right then.

Like, quit immediately and join the Pacers staff?

Yeah. I called my agent, and he couldn't believe it. He was like, "Are you really ready to retire?" I couldn't do it. I had just turned 30! I wanted to hoop.

I used to cover crime and courts. I read the story about the man, Tremayne Quinn, who shot and killed your brother two years ago. Then I read later that he was sentenced only to probation, and that you forgave him during the sentencing hearing. I found that remarkable.

That's true.

I've seen scenes like that a hundred times, but I don't think I've ever seen immediate and public forgiveness -- especially when the sentencing doesn't go the way someone wants. How did you get to a place to do that?

It's why I'm not intimidated by our situation in Phoenix. It's why when you ask if we can make the playoffs, I say there's still a chance. If you listen to what the world says about you, you become someone you never wanted to be.

I had to write a letter to the judge the night before the NBA draft -- my first draft as a head coach. The letter was supposed to be about what I think should happen. But two people lost a son -- my mom lost her son. And [Quinn's] mom might lose her son, through jail. Was I upset and angry? Of course. But I knew I could never succeed if I let that attach to myself. I had to find a way to forgive, and it wasn't easy. And I knew if I could forgive, maybe my mom would, too. I didn't want this to cut anyone in my family's life short. Because it can kill you.

You mean, just holding on to the rage?

Yes. Holding that sadness, and anger, and pain. I mean, you're gonna be sad no matter what. I told the judge, "It doesn't matter how much time you give him. It will never be enough. We have to put our trust in you to do what is right. I am too emotional for it. You are the professional."

The judge asked me what I thought should happen. I said, "Whatever you want. We accept it as a family." And I told [Quinn], "We forgive you. And you owe us a new life for yourself." And my mom hugged him. Actually hugged him. The strength from my mom, from my family -- that gave us closure.