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

‘They will remember this for a lifetime’: Gonzaga player Anton Watson shoots hoops with students at Willard Elementary

If Gonzaga basketball player Anton Watson can’t hear during this weekend’s Kraziness in the Kennel, blame Willard Elementary School’s fourth- and fifth-graders.

The Gonzaga graduate student who hails from the Spokane area visited the school Tuesday to play ball with some students and staff. Two mobs of kids 40-strong could hardly contain themselves, howling and chanting at nearly every step Watson took.

It was all a haze of excitement for fifth-grader Gavin Millikin, who was dazzled by the presence of the Spokane celebrity.

“It was insanely loud,” Gavin said. “We were kind of just cheering a lot. There was a lot happening at the moment.”

Watson played pick-up games with students and staff members, bumped fists, gave hugs and signed autographs for a lucky few.

When he has time, he said he visits elementary schools to play with starstruck students.

“It’s super fun coming back, especially to an elementary school where kids just love to look up to me because I’m tall and because I play basketball,” the 6-foot-8 Zags star said. Watson’s height was a popular observation among the students.

Heath and fitness teacher Leslie Andersen and aide Chauncy Welliver arranged Watson’s visit. In the past, the pair brought Gonzaga guard Rasir Bolton and other athletes to play with the kids.

“It’s just a great way to motivate kids, give them a picture of goals they can set for themselves and just bring the community in,” said Willard principal Maile Aden. “We’re pretty excited that we have some great staff members that really bring wonderful opportunities to our kids here at Willard.”

“They will remember this for a lifetime,” Aden said.

Fifth-grader Aubree Smith was almost at a loss for words watching Watson dunk over her peers.

“He’s so tall, and he probably thinks that ball is like a baby to him,” she said. “Just boing-boing-boing.”

“He just walks around the court and he’s like ‘dur-dur-dur’ and we’re just running as fast as we can; it’s just, like, so impressive,” Aubree said, pearls of sweat dotting the bridge of her nose like freckles.

Aubree is no stranger to running. The fifth-grader recently finished second in a track meet in the mile race. She has been playing basketball since she was 3, a blur on the court as she skillfully wove through the 14 of her classmates embroiled in a pickup game with Watson.

Though she admits she can get a little overly competitive, she loves the teamwork in sports. Basketball can be cathartic for Aubree, an outlet for her pent-up rage.

“Sometimes I’ll get a little upset and it’s just something to make me not as angry,” she said, fidgeting with the shoelaces of her pink high-top Adidas, though she’d rather be wearing Nike Air Jordan sneakers.

Fourth-grader Major Tschabold is a sort of Willard celebrity, known around the playground as a budding basketball star.

Andersen said Major is the best basketball player she’s seen in her 32 years teaching. He’s been playing basketball in some form his entire life, all 9 years. He’s used to playing with friends, his mom, teenage brother – whoever dares to challenge him.

“It’s a competition; it’s okay if you lose or win,” Major said. “It’s just fun.”

He eyes playing for Gonzaga one day, and he’s already showing potential, with moves that caught Watson by surprise. In a one-on-one Major v. Watson, the forward easily deflected the fourth-grader’s attempts to score with his height and sweeping wingspan. In one fateful moment, Major landed a 3-pointer. The crowd of 40-some 9-year-olds erupted into eardrum-threatening screams that ricocheted off the gym walls.

“Ma-jor, Ma-jor,” the horde chanted.

“I let my guard down,” Watson said, shaking his head. “Usually I don’t let people score on me like that.”

Like a reflex, Major showed no hesitation when asked about his career goals: “A NBA player,” he said. Ideally, he’d join the ranks of the Golden State Warriors or Los Angeles Lakers like his idol LeBron James.

“First, when I was, like, 4 or 5, I saw (Northwestern University) playing basketball and I saw my first crossover,” Major said. “I want to get better and better to go to the NBA.”

After beating them in basketball, Watson signed autographs for a few kids who lingered in the gym while their classmates filtered out.

Fifth-grader Leticia Mincitar pleaded with Watson to sign the band of her glittery purple Crocs. He doesn’t sign clothing, he said, imagining parents’ reactions to their child coming home with Sharpie scribbles on their clothes. Leticia settled for Watson’s autograph on a sheet of notebook paper, now one of her most prized possessions she plans to frame.

“This is one of my first, like, actual things,” she said. “I can’t lose this.”

Gavin, another recipient of Watson’s John Hancock, planned for his mom to laminate and duct tape his paper to his wall. Though not enough to warrant a change in career path, Watson’s visit was inspirational for the young student.

“I want to be a paleontologist,” Gavin said, “But now that I’ve met Anton, I’m going to start playing basketball a lot more.”