For Suns coach Earl Watson, Mexico games are a return to roots

Earl Watson was retained as the Suns' head coach after serving as interim head coach for the latter half of the 2015-16 season. AP Photo/Matt York

Earl Watson attended the funeral of his brother on a Saturday in 2014. Two days later, he boarded a flight to San Antonio to interview for a coaching position with the Spurs' NBA Development League affiliate.

Watson is thankful to the Spurs organization for taking him in "at a time when I was very fragile in my life." But unknowingly, perhaps, Watson had already prepared for such a moment by steadfastly following the example set long ago by his grandparents, Jesus and Marcelina Ysles, who came to the United States as undocumented immigrants during the Mexican Revolution.

"I always tell my mom that my grandfather I think was a brave man because the migration and everything he had to do," said Watson, who at age 37 is in his first full season as the Phoenix Suns' head coach. "His vision was just so big. No matter what looked realistic, he always believed there was something more. He always strived for it. He pursued it, and he took it to other levels.

"I just wish he could see what his family has done. Not just me as being an NBA player or NBA coach, but just as a family. We all kind of took our own paths, our own dreams, and turned it into his reality of hope."

For Watson, that reality will manifest itself on the court in the country of his origins when his Suns face the Dallas Mavericks (10 p.m. ET Thursday) and San Antonio Spurs (6 p.m. ET Saturday) at Mexico City Arena. This is the first time the NBA will play two regular-season games in Mexico in the same season.

Watson considers Mexico the all-important starting point in "my generational story." His mother, Estella, is Mexican, while his father, Earl Sr., is African-American.

"I'm very grateful for my grandfather's belief," said Watson, the NBA's first full-time head coach of Hispanic heritage. "A lot had to happen for me to exist."

Watson's grandparents started off in Guadalajara, Mexico, before moving to Juarez and eventually north of the border to Austin, Texas, where they sought refuge from the fighting and bloodshed of the Mexican Revolution. Watson's mother was born in Austin along with 15 siblings before the family eventually settled in Kansas City, Kansas.

Watson considers the whole ordeal "probably basically the average Mexican story." His grandparents did what he called "field work, agricultural work" and other jobs as needed to make ends meet, and they eventually earned U.S. citizenship.

As the family struggled to survive, Watson's mother -- following the example set by her parents -- was already laying the foundation for her son's success by holding down multiple jobs as a high schooler.

Estella and Earl Sr. settled in Kansas, and Earl Jr. began to experience somewhat of a duality to his upbringing, living in a Hispanic household nestled in a black neighborhood. In the 1950s, Earl Sr. was among the first blacks to integrate the U.S. Army.

"I grew up in Mexican culture only in the house -- Mexican food, Mexican traditions, Mexican everything," Watson said. "I just grew up in a black neighborhood."

Once Watson stepped out into it, his black friends would ask whether Estella could make them burritos to snack on as they waited at the bus stop in the mornings before school.

Watson embraced both cultures as his grandmother, who spoke very little English, played a role in raising him. Watson never met his grandfather, who died when Watson's mother was 20.

"As I got into high school, everyone wanted to come to my house because it was, like, different food than what they were eating in the neighborhood," Watson said. "Then, when I went to my grandmother's house, it was really unique because she lived in an all-Hispanic neighborhood, and she spoke little English."

That didn't prevent Watson from absorbing all the lessons taught over the years by both sides of his family.

"We come from nothing. Let's be honest: I grew up in a lower class. I didn't grow up middle class or upper class," Watson said. "But what I did see that made sense to me and I learned pretty early is as a parent, as a father, as a mother, do the best you can do, no matter what that is.

"My mom drove buses. She made $14,000 a year. There were seven of us, so we had to make it work. My dad worked in the parks and rec, running gyms and opening up swimming pools in the summertime. Every day I saw my parents just work, work, work. They did the best they could. You could tell they wanted to do more financially, but the love was never missing. They just worked, worked, worked, and created this positive mindset of, 'If you work as hard as you can, good things are going to happen.'"

Watson took that example, applied it, and earned a scholarship to UCLA after a storied career at Kansas City's Washington High, where he averaged 23.4 points and 8.3 assists as a senior. The point guard would eventually become a second-round pick (40th overall) in the 2001 NBA draft and play 13 seasons for six franchises.

Watson approached the game with the same tenacity, hard work and determination that he saw prevalent throughout his family's journey.

"He was and is a hardworking individual," said Spurs center Pau Gasol, who played three seasons with Watson for the Memphis Grizzlies. "He was tough, a great defender, got into people, physical. He worked hard at his game. He wasn't the most talented player, but he brought some toughness and physicality to our team. I enjoyed playing with him."

Despite numerous stops around the NBA, Watson said he used some strategy in ordering his steps. That was not lost upon Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, who hired Watson to his first coaching position with the organization's D-League affiliate. At UCLA, Watson spent time around legendary coach John Wooden, and Watson's NBA coaches included Hubie Brown, Jerry Sloan, Terry Stotts and George Karl.

During Watson's lone season in Indiana (2009-10), Pacers president Larry Bird suggested Watson try his hand at coaching.

But Watson wasn't sure he wanted to end his playing career to become a coach, although his brother Dwayne Hooks expected that to become the next step in the progression. Hooks, Estella's son from a previous marriage and 13 years older than Watson, believed his sibling could become a great coach and constantly encouraged him to retire and focus on that endeavor.

But before Hooks' death, Watson never had the opportunity to tell his brother he was seriously considering making a move toward coaching.

"As you talked to him [during the interview process], you saw the purpose that he had approached things with in preparing to become a head coach," Buford explained. "The time that he had spent with the Jerry Sloans, Hubie Browns, there were more -- but the great coaches that he'd had the opportunity to play for, he had studied them not only to be a player for them, but to learn about the game. He learned from Jerry West. The library of resources that he had at his disposal, and that he purposely took advantage of them, I think, put him on the path that has helped with his quick rise."

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich agreed, adding that he could see traits in Watson as a player that could translate into him developing into a solid coach. Buford admitted Watson "had been a target for a while" before the Spurs organization hired him in 2014 to serve as an assistant coach with the Austin Spurs of the D-League because "probably anyone who had watched Earl play, you knew he was going to be a quality coaching candidate."

Watson has quickly validated the Spurs' assessment. After one year in Austin, he joined Jeff Hornacek's staff in Phoenix for the 2015-16 season. Hornacek was fired midseason, and Watson finished the campaign as interim head coach. The Suns liked what they saw and made him the permanent coach as they go through a rebuilding process.

"It's just sort of who he is. He's a tough nut. He's a competitive young man. He steps on the court, and he's there to do battle and to compete at the highest level to try to get a win," Popovich said. "As a coach, you can see the same characteristics in his eyes. In that sense, it's whether he's going to be consistent in practice, demanding in practice, fair, but hold that same standard of mental and physical toughness as he had as a player. He's done that so far as a coach.

"Along with that, he's got a mild manner about him. He's not overly authoritarian or demonstrative in that sense. He's willing to let players have their space, to have an opinion, that sort of thing. But they know full well that in the end, it's going to be done the way he's trying to teach them."

Some of what Watson is teaching was learned from living his family's journey and listening to countless stories from his grandmother Marcelina, who died in 2010, and his mother.

Watson's brother died three days after being shot in the legs during a domestic altercation on Aug. 27, 2014, in Kansas City. A 48-year-old former policeman, Hooks developed blood clots as a result of the gunshots and died from those injuries. Tremayne Quinn, the boyfriend of a relative, pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter for the shooting and last year received 36 months of probation and no jail time.

Two days after the funeral, Watson sat in front of Buford, Popovich and former Spurs assistant GM Scott Layden, who is now GM of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"I went to [my brother's] funeral on a Saturday, and came here to meet with the Spurs on Monday. Three days," Watson said. "I guess you could say I got lucky because I ended up in a place that wasn't about basketball. It was about family and love."

But for Watson, that's pretty much always been the case. Family and love are a big part of why he's back in Mexico, preparing to showcase his team on an international stage as part of the NBA's Global Games.

"My parents would always say that we might not be where we want to be financially. But hopefully, the hard work pays off, and you pick it up and you take it to another level," Watson said. "Then your kids take it to another level. It becomes a generational kind of growth. It's inspirational for me because I grew up in both cultures."