Before Michael Jordan was making Bryon Russell fall with a killer crossover and draining the go ahead jumper to win his sixth NBA title with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan was a skinny, determined athlete dominating the competition at Laney High (Wilmington, N.C.).
Before Adrian Peterson was trucking opposing defenses and racking up 2,097 yards in a single season for the Minnesota Vikings he was shining bright under the Friday night lights at Palestine High (Palestine, Texas), averaging 12 yards a carry and scoring 32 touchdowns.
Before any athlete can become legendary they have to lay their foundation in the high school ranks.
Periodically I’ll chat with a high-profile athlete’s former coach, mentor, family member, etc., and reminisce about their high school playing days; everything from the greatest moment to the wackiest story.
I caught up with Portland Trailblazers point guard and 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard’s high school coach at Oakland (Oakland, Calif.) Orlando Watkins.
Jason Jordan: What’s your best memory of Damian on the court?
Orlando Watkins: (Laughs) Wow, there were a lot of them! We had a game at Oakland High his senior year against McClymonds (Oakland, Calif.) who was undefeated at the time. We were down about five points and Dame came down and shot an NBA three and missed. I mean it was a really bad shot. So coming back on defense he looks at me and he’s like, “I know, I know I’ll make it up to you.” A few minutes later we’re down three and he takes the exact same shot, only it’s further back. All nets. He comes down and gets a steal on the next play, drives and gets fouled about three times. No call. On the last foul the ball comes out of his hands and goes to his teammate but the teammate misses the layup. They go down and make a shot to win it. His whole attitude after the game was how we almost one. We just missed it. Just one shot. It was such a pleasure having him on the court. He wasn’t down on his teammate or anything because we were a family. He was a great leader.
JJ: When did you know he would be a pro?
OW: I knew in high school that he would get paid to play basketball. I knew in his freshman year of college that he’d get paid to play in the NBA.
JJ: What’s wackiest story you can remember from his recruitment?
OW: Well, Damian always wanted to play local so he could be around his family and so he wanted me to talk to California. I told him that wouldn’t be a good fit for him. Then he had a visit at Santa Clara and didn’t get a good vibe there. SMU wanted him, but he didn’t get a good vibe. Then he went to Saint Mary’s and I think he actually left that one early. He went to Weber State and the one thing that Coach Rahe sold him on was that if he came there and worked hard he’d get better. That resonated with him because that’s what he was used to.
JJ: Did it shock you that the high majors weren’t recruiting him very heavy?
OW: They were saying that they didn’t know if he could play point guard, but for his size he’s the perfect size for a point guard. But we had a team full of guards. Dame was our leading scorer and one of our leading rebounders and one of our leading assist guys. He definitely didn’t dominate the ball. Sometimes he’d play off the ball and sometimes he’d set the screen. They eventually saw him as a combo guard but by then they’d already had their top two targets on their lists and it was like, “Eh, we’ll let him go to a mid major.” But, obviously, they were wrong.
JJ: What was his personality like off the court back then?
OW: He’s hilarious! He’s just super funny. I was at his house last November and we were talking about Can’t Hardly Wait and how funny that was. I couldn’t believe he’d seen that movie. He’s just a fun-loving kid who will keep you laughing.
JJ: Best lesson you ever taught him?
OW: One summer we were headed to a summer league game and we had just pulled off and Dame yells up at me to tell me that he left his jersey and he asked if I could go back and get it since we were so close. I was like, “No.” And he was shocked. I told him, “You left your jersey; I didn’t. If you don’t have a jersey then you’ll sit and watch.” From then on he never left his jersey for any game on any level. It was a teaching moment and he learned from it.
JJ: Are you surprised at how fast he became a star in the NBA, not just on the court, but off the court as too?
OW: No, not at all. I’ve seen him do everything he’s doing now for years. He’s done that on every level. Am I surprised by how fast he’s ascended to the feats that he has? Maybe a little, but he’s also been prepared for it. His family did a great job with him, his AAU coach did a great job with him and we always taught him the right things. Rookie of the Year, two-time skill champ and commercials, I love seeing it because I know how much work he puts in. He’s so dedicated to his craft.
JJ: What’s his ceiling?
OW: This is a tough one because injuries can happen to anyone. I mean Derrick Rose has gone through it. Barring injuries the sky is the limit for him because he’s so determined. If you tell him he can’t do something, watch out. If someone says he can’t be a Hall of Famer, if I was a betting man I’d bet that he’d end up a Hall of Famer. He’s one of those guys that wants to be the best at what he does.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY