He’s a Ball

University of Missouri-Kansas City basketball is as foreign to most area residents as the school’s kangaroo mascot is to the streets of Kansas City. The ‘Roos’ average attendance last season was 3,549 inside downtown’s Municipal Auditorium, which can hold nearly three times that many people. This means that a lot of area basketball fans have yet to see Michael Watson, the state’s best college player, do his thing.

Watson’s thing is an array of deadly skills that reminds me of Tyronn Lue, the former Raytown High School star who is now playing alongside Michael Jordan in the NBA. Watson is stronger than Lue and has a prettier jumper.

Watson is a kid from the inner city who went unnoticed by most college recruiters. Bob Sundvold, the former UMKC basketball coach, saw what Norm Stewart and Roy Williams missed and signed Watson in 1998, before the start of his senior season at Central High School. What Sundvold saw was a player who would lead the Mid-Continent Conference in scoring while averaging 22 points a game as a sophomore last season.

As a youngster, Watson was a star shortstop and pitcher on the baseball diamond. “I played baseball every day while I was growing up,” Watson recalls. His mother sent him to Lincoln Prep High School for his freshman and sophomore years because she liked the school’s emphasis on academics. “I was working at the twelfth-grade level in the ninth grade at Lincoln Prep,” Watson says. “When I got to Central my junior year, I was a little more advanced than some of the other guys.”

At Central, Watson learned to play basketball under the school’s legendary coach, Jack Bush. “Coach Bush taught me how to become a leader,” Watson says. “He taught me how to play with poise.”

Rich Zvosec, the ‘Roos’ current head man, was happy to find Watson on UMKC’s roster as a red-shirt freshman when he arrived as an assistant to Dean Demopolis in 1999. “Without a doubt, he’s the best guard I’ve ever coached,” Zvosec says. “He combines great athleticism with a tremendous amount of on-court intelligence.”

Watson, a 6-foot-1-inch junior point guard, knows how good he is. “I can play anywhere in the nation, no question in my mind,” he says, confident but not cocky. “I chose to come here for what I can do for this university.” Watson claims he doesn’t dream about playing in sold-out arenas in Lawrence or Columbia. But hasn’t he ever been tempted to transfer to a more prestigious school? Watson smiles broadly.

“I get people — from my friends, to my family, to other coaches in Division I — telling me every day that I should be playing somewhere else,” Watson says. “I learned loyalty a long time ago … from my mother. I’m loyal to this university and to this city. That’s why I chose to stay here in the first place. But yeah, there have been offers to leave.”

Basketball fans in Kansas City are lucky to be able to watch Watson play, says Scott Drew, head coach of defending conference champion Valparaiso University. “Michael is going to be making a lot of money in the NBA someday. We just wish we didn’t have to face him two or three times a year.”

“No question in my mind I will play in the NBA,” Watson says. “I think I have the drive and the work ethic. If you could be inside my head and inside my heart and see my passion for the game, it would bleed out over my heart.”

For now, Watson enjoys life on the ‘Roos’ picturesque campus adjacent to the Plaza. “I love it here. I love being a college student,” he says. “I want to get my degree and focus on that, but my dream and my goal in life is to play in the NBA. Now, will it be after this year or my senior year? I don’t know.”

All the more reason to button up your overcoat and brave the dark, dank streets of downtown Kansas City this winter to take in some ‘Roos games.

Categories: A&E