Slick Watts: How A Tryout Created A Sports Icon

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(Photo by George Long/Sports Illustrated)

 

The city of Seattle has had its fair share of iconic basketball players. From home grown talent like Doug Christie and Jamal Crawford, to legendary players like Payton and Kemp, Bird and Jackson and Plum and Osahor. Before any of them there was Slick Watts. The first true icon of Seattle sports. A trend setter who changed street culture, helped usher in a new style of play and signaled a changing of the guard that reverberates to this day. The story of how Watts came to be a Seattle icon has seldom been told. It involves setback, intense training, overcoming self doubt and what might be the most important car wash in Seattle history.

In the spring of 1973 Watts was in Louisiana having just finished three standout seasons at Xavier in Louisiana under legendary coach Bob Hopkins. Watts, like any other successful college player was eagerly waiting to find out where he would be drafted.

“I thought they drafted alphabetically,” Watts recalled with a smile. “So I was waiting for the whole draft to hear my name thinking it was going to be near the end anyway.”

While the NBA draft was very different than it is today, featuring 20 rounds and a total of 211 picks, it was definitely not done in alphabetical order. When the final pick was made, Watts’ name was not called. Before Slick could even process this seemingly huge setback, his college coach spoke to him.

“Coach Hopkins told me ‘be prepared, I’m going to get you a tryout’ and I trusted Coach completely. 

Coach Hopkins quickly delivered on his promise to the young guard.

Bill Russell Coaching His First Sonics’ Home Game

“I got a call from Bill Russell,” Watts explained “He asked ‘boy can you play?I’m gonna send you a ticket and I’m looking forward to seeing what you can do!’”

Russell was the new head coach of the Seattle Supersonics. A team that wasn’t even a decade old at the time and still searching for an identity. In Russell the Sonics had a recognizable face with an unmatched pedigree as a winner both as a player and coach with the Boston Celtics. In Slick, Russell was eyeing one of several options to help the Sonics backcourt adapt to a changing style of play in the NBA.

“The game was starting to change,” Remembers Sonics’ legend Fred Brown who was already establishing himself as a top guard in the NBA when Slick arrived.  “Small guards who could change the pace of the game like the Washington Bullets Kevin Porter and Tiny Archibald of Kansas City were the reason. Russell saw that Slick was the ideal player to do that for us.”

Watts knew if he were to have any chance of making the opening night roster he would have to come in ready to show his skills.

“After I got the call from Russell, I went straight to the gym for about three weeks.” Slick said of his initial preparation, “I played ABA all-star Jimmy Jones one on one every day. Sometimes for hours at a time.” After around a week, Jones told Watts how he felt about the little guards game.
“Jones told me ‘Little Watts you’re pretty good! You’re gonna make it! It gave me a lot of hope him saying that. It got me inspired to get on the plane and get to Seattle.”

Walking into the gym at what was then Seattle Pacific College (now University) Slick surveyed his competition of between 50-100 other players from around the country.

“I was a little nervous at first.” Watts openly admits, “When I first walked in that gym everyone was big and tall and strong. Bigger than anybody I had seen in my life.”

As many young adults faced with a real challenge, Slick was instantly filled with doubts.
“I called my dad and said ‘I’m coming home’” Watts recalled. His dad would have none of it. “He said ‘Nope. You’re not coming home! You can do it!’”
Spurred on by the faith his father had in him, Slick went to work and quickly had a realization that he could bring something nobody else in the tryout was willing to bring.

“The thing I noticed was everybody was shooting but nobody was excited about defense.” Watts remembered with a chuckle, “So I made a point to be as intense as possible. I’d run and find my man, get into him and irritate him. They’d yell ‘I ain’t got the ball man! get off of me!’ No! My intention is to not let you get the ball!’”

Watts’ tenacity on the defensive end quickly made an impression on Coach Russell.

“Russell used to laugh some times.” recalled Watts, “I would get so excited about playing defense he’d say ‘boy you’re like KC Jones! Always going after everyone!”

His play also stood out to Fred Brown. 

Fred Brown circa 1978

“I can’t say enough about the wonderful job Slick did. He pushed the ball up the floor and played hard nosed defense. He was ideal for what Russell was looking for. He had the drive to do well.”

Brown, who had played against Watts while in college, gave Slick some of the best advice anyone could give the young aspiring guard.

“I told him to just keep his mouth shut.” States Brown, “We had these veteran guards who had been around a while so he couldn’t be talking a lot of stuff.”

Instead of talking trash, Watts let his effort and game speak for him.

“I came in in twice as good condition as anybody.” Watts said of how prepared he was physically for the tryout, “I knew that coming in I was the underdog and I couldn’t afford to take a play off.”

Brown’s own account mirrors Slick’s.

“Slick was just a hard worker. He worked hard everyday trying to do what his skills allowed him at the time. He was a hard worker on defense. He was a hard worker on offense and he would always push the ball.”
Several days into the tryout came a pivotal moment that may or may not have played a major part in Slick making it through the open tryout period.

“One day, I was out washing Coach Russell’s car,” Slick says with a chuckle, “and when I came back in the gym nearly everyone was gone. I asked one of the players what had happened and he said he and nearly everybody else had been cut. The rumor was Coach had played a bad round of golf and was in a bad mood so he chose that particular day to cut everyone. Then I see Russell and he looks at me and says ‘Boy! You are lucky you were washing my car! If you’d have been in here you might have been cut too!”

It’s not clear how serious that statement by Russell was, but Slick still chuckles about it close to 50 years later.

“I’m always thankful I was outside washing his car when that went down.” Slick says with a laugh, “If I had been in that gym my career might never have happened.”

Having proven himself in the tryout and having survived the purge of players by Russell, Slick was invited to training camp.

“Slick went to the veteran camp and made it through.” Recalls Brown, “He played sparingly because Russell still had other guys under contract, but he always performed once he got in because he always went 100 miles an hour. He could really go.”

Brown’s assessment is backed up by Slick’s stats. After playing very limited minutes the first 9 games, Watts finally got his chance to show what he could really do. On December 1st in a game against Atlanta, Watts would torch the Hawks for 21 points in just 17 minutes. The next game would be his true coming out party as he lit up Kevin Porter and the Bullets for 24 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists. Both games were on the road.
“By the time we got back to Seattle the fans were yelling ‘PUT SLICK IN! PUT SLICK IN!’ Recalls Watts. “It meant a lot to me but I didn’t let it go to my head because if I made a couple bad plays in a row they started yelling ‘TAKE SLICK OUT! GET HIM OUT OF HERE!’”
Watts would score in double figures in 20 of the 62 games he played as a rookie including four were he reached a double double.

In his third season in the NBA, Watts became the first player in the league’s history to lead the league in assists and steals in the same season. By the time his career ended Watts had played 437 games over six seasons. He averaged double figures in scoring twice, over eight assists per game twice, over two steals three times and finished with career averages of 8.9 points, 6.1 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. An iconic NBA career made possible by preparation, hard work and a car wash that has led Watts to become a pillar of the Seattle community. Since retiring her has spent decades as a PE teacher, basketball coach and community leader. After everything he achieved, Watts says he has one pice of advice able all others.

“Always be prepared to outwork everybody. You can’t control how big you are or how gifted you are, but you can control how hard you work and how you approach your work. If you give it everything you have, then you’ll wind up exactly where you should be.”

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