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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The Idaho connection: Gonzaga’s Anton Watson reared in rural Idaho

INDIANAPOLIS – Anton Watson has an edge.

It’s often internal, but when his emotion does bubble to the surface, credit his mom, Anna Hegbloom, a spitfire from the Silver Valley of North Idaho.

Watson’s father, Deon Watson Sr., is as even-keeled today as he was as a four-year starter at the University of Idaho in the early 1990s.

Anton Watson, whose top-seeded Bulldogs (29-0) face No. 6 seed USC (25-7) in the Elite Eight on Tuesday at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, recently deferred to his mother’s resolve.

Late in the second half of Gonzaga’s 87-71 win over Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last week, point guard Jalen Suggs was intentionally fouled in the back by the Sooners’ Elijah Harkless.

Suggs went to the floor, and Watson went to Harkless before an official separated the players.

“That’s when I got a text from a friend,” said Hegbloom, a Spokane-based nurse who made the long trek to Indiana to watch her sophomore son vie for a national championship. “She said, ‘I saw the Hegbloom in him!’ ”

In the mining town of Mullan – population 800 – the name Hegbloom is often associated with toughness and hard work.

Five generations of Hegblooms have come through Mullan. They’ve been hard-hitting football players, deep underground miners, teachers and more.

Anton, who was born and raised in Coeur d’Alene and then moved to nearby Spokane his freshman year to attend Gonzaga Prep, made plenty of visits to his mother’s hometown along Interstate 90, and the community has embraced him as its own.

Four elderly women in Mullan get together for every Gonzaga game to watch Anton, who recently gifted them a series of autographed basketballs.

Several other groups of Hegbloom-related fans that span the Idaho Panhandle are tuned in, too, and host Anton watch parties.

“They were over the moon when he signed those basketballs,” Hegbloom said. “They are major superfans.”

Deon Sr., a Coeur d’Alene resident and distribution manager in Spokane, hails from Mississippi and made the trek to Moscow for college and hoops in 1990.

He met Hegbloom in college before playing professionally overseas. They married, had three children settled in the Coeur d’Alene early 2000s.

Deon and Hegbloom, who have been divorced for roughly six years but remain close friends, had their first son, Deon Watson Jr., just after college.

A former Coeur d’Alene High football and basketball star, the younger Deon, now 26, was a starting wide receiver at Idaho.

Haile Watson, a daughter who graduated from Lake City High School, played her college volleyball career at Fresno State.

“Between Anna and I, it must be something in the water,” the elder Deon said with a laugh. “The brown Mississippi water mixed with the lead in the Silver Valley water.”

Anton sprouted taller than his 6-foot-7 father and 6-foot-4 brother. But what his genetics didn’t provide, he cultivated.

Anton was a clutch figure on a Coeur d’Alene Little League team that reached the Little League World Series. From basketball to video games, he was constantly challenging his parents and siblings.

“Come on, guard me,” he’d say to anyone who walked past him, recalled his brother.

When he’d lose, he’d come back.

“He would have half-days at school when he was little, and he would literally spend time training to beat me in a video game,” brother Deon said. “So when I would get back from school, he would be eager to play and try and beat me.”

“When I beat him, I knew it bothered him, but he wouldn’t really show it,” he said. “Then he kept getting better.”

A standout player on the junior high AAU basketball circuit, the tall, springy Anton enrolled at Gonzaga Prep his freshman year to gain more college exposure.

“Washington high school basketball would be better for him than Idaho,” Anton’s father said.

“Everything with the Gonzaga Prep academics seemed very organized, too,” Anna added.

His arrival was a pleasant surprise for Gonzaga Prep coach Matty McIntyre.

“I get a call that this kid from Idaho is going to enroll, and then I saw him play,” McIntyre said. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is the kid? He is unreal. I didn’t know anything about him before then.”

Anton and his new school would win more than 100 games in his four seasons and back-to-back state championships. He was elevated to one of the top players in the country.

“He is an enigma in some ways, definitely marches to the beat of his own drum,” McIntyre said. “He never gets too high or too low.”

Even on the grandest stage in college basketball.

Anton has carved out a substantial role on a Gonzaga team expected to win its first national title.

His brother isn’t surprised.

“We’ve talked about this our whole life,” Deon Jr. said. “We knew when he got to Gonzaga, he might be playing for a national championship.”

His mother agreed.

“He’s been waiting his whole life for this moment,” Hegbloom said. “As parents, we want the best for our children, and to see him at this level, it’s been amazing.”