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WSU’s Watson took a long road to Pullman


COUGARS

A long, long post this evening. Mainly because we have a lengthy story on WSU power forward James Watson, his journey to Pullman and the illness he suffered last spring that almost ended his basketball career. Plus, we have some notes and more quotes. Read on.

••••••••••

• Before we get to the story on Watson, let’s take a quick look at Thursday’s opponent, Cal. The Bears (10-5 overall and 2-1 in Pac-10 play, their only loss in overtime to UCLA) were the preseason favorites along with UW. But Cal lost four times in nonconference play and seemed to lose some luster. I’m trying to figure out why. Look at those losses. The first was against 15-1 Syracuse, ranked fifth. The 95-73 beatdown came in Madison Square Garden, a place Syracuse plays quite a bit. The next loss came the next night, 76-70 to a then-healthy and 15th-ranked Ohio State. A couple weeks later came an 86-78 defeat at New Mexico, a team that was ranked as high as 15th at one point. Finally, there was the loss at then-No. 1 Kansas, 84-69, a game that was close until about the final few minutes. The first three of those defeats came without Theo Robertson, who averages nearly 15 points a game. Even without valuable post player Harper Kamp, out for the season, or backup point guard Jorge Gutierrez, who missed last weekend’s games and will not play this week, this is a good team. Maybe the best the Pac-10 has to offer. … We’ll post our keys for the Cougars prior to tomorrow’s 7 p.m. start, but there is one key we’ll put up now. WSU will have to play its best defensive game of the season.

•••

• OK, here’s our feature on James Watson …

PULLMAN – James Watson can divide his life roughly into thirds.

The first seven years are heartache, spent mainly in Tulsa, Okla., tethered to his biological mother. Those years are mostly a shadow now, coming to an end when Oklahoma’s Child Protective Services took James and his three siblings from her and put them into foster care.

The next seven were a blur, shuttled from foster home to foster home. Too many, James admits, to count, but none really counting.

Only in the past five years has James Watson’s life come into focus.

Saved by the love of a small-town couple, James was nurtured, tested, encouraged, pushed.

It’s those years James truly became James Watson.

•••

Watson is 6-foot-7, 213 pounds. Washington State University’s redshirt freshman takes that power-forward’s body up and down the court with the athleticism of a guard. It’s a rare combination of strength and agility. And it was almost laid low by a microscopic particle.

Last April, Watson was going through a typical offseason basketball workout, like hundreds he’s done since taking up the game in junior high. But this one felt different. His chest hurt. He had trouble breathing.

He told trainer Nick Gallotto. Alarm bells went off. And they triggered a five-month search for a cure.

Everyone was already aware Watson has a sickle cell trait, a genetic disposition to a possibly debilitating disease. But this was different, unrelated. And worrisome.

Watson went through a series of tests. Chest x-rays, CT scans, echocardiograms, MRIs, heart catheters, treadmills. He feared his college basketball days, still in their infancy, were over.

“At first they said you probably won’t be able to play basketball again,” Watson said.

“When we first started this process, things did not look very well for James just because of everything that was up against him,” Gallotto said.

But there was good news. After all the tests, monitored by team doctor Dennis Garcia, couldn’t find anything structurally wrong with his heart.

The diagnosis, Gallotto said, was a viral infection.

Rest and medicine followed. Finally, in late August, another test in Spokane with cardiologist Dr. Janice Christensen showed the output of Watson’s heart was back to normal. He was cleared to play.

“Hallelujah,” was Watson’s response.

•••

The hallelujah chorus is easy to understand if you know James’ history.

His biological mother, Kathryn Nash, struggled with drugs, James said, getting clean once after CPS took her children, but relapsing and losing them for good.

He talked with his biological father, Lamont Adams, about three years ago but doesn’t keep in touch.

Watson will tell you he didn’t really start living until Annette Watson, just looking to help someone, anyone, walked into an adoption party when he was 14.

“The only way I know to describe it is, we just heard from God,” Annette said. “We just knew that was him.”

James didn’t. He had been to these parties before. Nothing happened. He played it cool.

“I was having too much fun playing with my friend,” he said, “I didn’t pay them any mind.”

But Annette knew. The cool was a veneer. Underneath was a kid looking for a home.

“I was kind of bad, to be honest,” James said. “I was the kind of person that, if you said something I didn’t like, I would snap on you. I had so much anger, I didn’t feel like I could control myself.

“In foster care, they treated me pretty good, but not like their own children. When I got adopted, I felt like family the first time I met them.”

James’ life changed. Not only did he get a family and a new last name, he moved to Atoka, Okla., closer to Dallas than anywhere else known to the rest of the country.

And there were challenges related to James’ race.

“We live in a small, rural area,” said Annette, who is white. “James was the only black kid at his school. … Our families were not prepared for a black kid. We had to endure a lot of just being ostracized.”

But James, carrying the baggage of so many lonely years, was welcomed into a close family.

Ronnie, James’ dad, and Annette’s birth children were older, with daughter Kayla then playing basketball at Southwestern Oklahoma State while Matt, just a bit older than James, in high school. Though he bonded quickly with both, it was Matt who introduced James to his future.

“I sucked,” James said of his basketball ability. “I was clumsy.”

And he had yet to sprout. That would come when he was in high school, 7 miles up U.S. 69 in Stringtown. But before then, the Watsons’ life was struck by tragedy.

Kayla was killed in an automobile accident Sept. 4, 2005, a date – and name – tattooed on Watson’s left arm. The accident changed James’ life again.

Irv Roland had attended Southwestern Oklahoma with Kayla. He worked for the New Orleans Hornets. He attended Kayla’s funeral, where he and James talked. Later, he started working with James and soon the awkward kid from the one-stop-sign town had blossomed and was hooked into the AAU system, playing basketball around the country.

It was at a spring tournament in Denton, Texas that WSU assistant Ron Sanchez first approached the Watsons. Within weeks, then coach Tony Bennett and Sanchez were in Atoka and Watson was headed for Pullman – to the shock of many of his classmates.

“I want to do good because I had so many haters who said I wouldn’t make it this far,” Watson said of his high school days. “I just had a lot of people put me down. I want to go as far as I can to prove everybody wrong.”

•••

Watson knows he’s on the right path. He also knows he wouldn’t be without the Watsons’ help.

Asked where he thought he would be if Annette hadn’t walked through that door, James didn’t hesitate.

“I would probably be on the streets or in jail,” he said.

Instead, during Christmas break, he found himself at the movies with his mom. They sat through the Sandra Bullock vehicle, “The Blind Side,” a story of black Baltimore Ravens’ offensive tackle Michael Oher and the white family that adopted him.

“My mom, she started crying,” James said. “Everything that woman tried to do for that football player, she did the same thing.”

And for the same reason.

“I thought, when I went to adopt, I could help him,” said Annette, who has also adopted a 5-year-old daughter, Charisma. “I never could imagine I could love him the same way I do my birth children. But I do. There’s no difference.”

•••

And here’s our look at the weekend ahead …

WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS

RECORD: 2-2 Pac-10, 12-4 overall

COMING UP: Thursday vs. California, 7 p.m.; Saturday vs. Stanford, 2 p.m.

OUTLOOK: Cal’s Bears (10-5 overall, 2-1 in the Pac-10) invade Beasley Coliseum to open WSU’s Pacific 10 Conference weekend, led by three senior guards – Jerome Randle (19.1 points per game), Patrick Christopher (15.4) and Theo Robertson (14.9) – who are among the conference’s top scorers. Randle and Christopher were first-team All-Pac-10 last season, with the 5-foot-10 Randle leading the conference in assists and finishing second in scoring. Stanford (8-7, 2-1) might be the Pac-10’s surprise team after sweeping the LA schools at home. Landry Fields paces the Cardinal with a 22.1 scoring average, while guard Jeremy Green is sixth (17.6).

•••

• That’s it for tonight. We’ll be back in the morning with links. Until then …


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