BY: ED COLE
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Suns majority owner Robert Sarver and general manager Ryan McDonough were up against the clock on Monday. They had to decide who their next head coach would be, after Jeff Hornacek was let go after two-plus seasons with the team.
It came down to interviews with their three assistant coaches – Nate Bjorkgren, Corey Gaines and Earl Watson – and a decision following those interviews. All three men are capable of leading the Suns through the tough stretch they’re currently in, but Watson ended up being the final choice.
McDonough says there was a process in choosing Watson. He says they didn’t do it backwards and start interviewing Bjorkgren, Gaines and Watson while Hornacek was still head coach. It wouldn’t be fair to Hornacek, so Sarver and McDonough steered clear of that kind of thinking.
So, what did Watson do to set himself apart from the others and become the 17th head coach in Suns history?
“I think Earl’s (Watson) charisma, his ability to inspire, and energize, and connect with the players stood out throughout the process,” McDonough said.
According to McDonough, one of the things that led to Hornacek’s firing was the fact that he essentially lost the locker room, as players stopped responding to him. The last thing the Suns needed in Hornacek’s replacement was a person who the players couldn’t relate to or respond to. Watson seems to be that guy that the players can easily gravitate toward, because he’s not too far removed from the NBA himself (he stepped away after the 2014 season), and he’s got a voice that commands respect.
“Earl’s (Watson) got a powerful voice, he’s positive, he’s enthusiastic, he’s encouraging, but he’s also not afraid to be direct, and hold players accountable, and tell them what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear,” McDonough said.
Gaining the respect of the players is the last of Watson’s worries right now. He could care less about that. In his early days back in Kansas City, Kan., he was on a traveling basketball team that was full of high-powered talent, and him being the least recruited player in the bunch. Watson had to work until the lights came on on the street corner just to earn their respect, which he did.
“High school players at that point were the same as now,” Watson said. “Players are players. They respect those who put in the work, and come and demand it. I don’t think I have a problem with leadership.”
What’s more important for the Suns at this point, than winning, is for Watson to get the locker room back together as a family again, because it’s fractured right now. Losing countless players to injuries, and losing 19 of 21 games heading into Monday night’s game with the Toronto Raptors, has the team in a major daze right now, and it’s up to Watson to begin the healing process.
“The first order of business, for us, is to build trust, (and) to build a program, not an organization, and also to build a family,” Watson said. “We want to play selfless, (and) we want to lose ourselves to each other. You don’t hear this a lot in NBA locker rooms, but we have to love, we have to nurture (and) we have to teach. None of us should be here trying to be coaches. We have to be teachers.”
“Bringing passion, (and) connecting to the city is the most important thing,” Watson said. “If you have young men of character, the ball will move on its own. Everything outside of basketball is the initial business. It will eventually bleed into basketball, (and) become basketball, (and) create a movement, (and) create a family, (and be) something that the kid who is playing in the inner city or (a) suburb in Phoenix can look and say, ‘I want to be that.’ These guys owe that to these kids, and to the people in the community, because we were once those kids.”
Watson and the Suns aren’t going to turn things around overnight, and contend for a world championship. It’s going to take a while, and there’s going to be a lot more rough nights ahead for the team, but if everyone can “love” and “embrace” the process, Watson says the organization will come out much better on the other side.
“(Former UCLA head) coach (John) Wooden taught me (that) belief is stronger than reality, and if we believe, and we create a movement, anything is possible,” Watson said. “I think creating a family environment helps guys realize that the more we realize our limitations, the further we can go. We all need each other. A family environment depends upon each other. Constant accountability cycles around, and it flows, and it can never break.”
Watson’s only 36-years-old (the youngest head coach in the NBA), and just two years removed from playing basketball himself. He can still relate to his players, even the younger ones, even if he has to use technology to do so.
“I’m still kind of young, so I can translate it. I told them, if I had to, I’ll tweet them. They understood that very clear,” Watson said. “You have to be creative. Sometimes you have to make feel good videos. Everyone is more visual now, so the verbal is important, and as you direct them, it’s important, but they’re on their phones now. If you can visualize good images, it kind of (embeds) into your brain and it translates.”
There’s no guarantee that Watson will be kept on as the permanent head coach of the Phoenix Suns. Nobody knows what will happen from second to second with this team, let alone if Watson’s job is secure after this season. All Watson can control is what he can control, and that’s getting his players ready each and every night for tough NBA competition. At the end of the day, that’s all he can do.
“I’m coaching as an opportunity,” Watson said. “I’m not worried about the summer, or the process, or what happens next. Who knows? You never know what could happen. (I’m) more optimistic than anything.”