ANTHONY WATSON : SDSU Senior Has Ups and Downs but Leaves Home With a Record

Times Staff Writer

Anthony Watson's four-year basketball career at San Diego State is almost over. All that remains is a game (or maybe two or three) at the Western Athletic Conference Tournament this week at Wyoming.

Thus, it will end quietly, far away from home.

However, Watson will forever cherish the memory of that final home game 12 days ago against United States International University.

Watson scored a school-record 54 points and left to a standing ovation with 4:15 to play.

That was a moment to savor, and Watson used it to reflect on the good and bad times of his four-year career.

The good:

- Being a starter since nine games into his freshman season.

- Earning All-WAC honors as a junior.

- Winning the WAC postseason tournament and playing in the NCAA Tournament as a junior.

The bad:

- Missing the first part of his sophomore season because of an insufficient number of "quality points" toward graduation.

- Suffering through an injury-plagued senior season.

- Playing out of position at forward for much of his senior season, which started with seven straight losses.

Watson, 21, has said he would do it again if given a second chance. He does not regret bypassing a chance to attend the University of Michigan, near his hometown of Detroit, to move 2,000 miles west.

"I've seen a lot of people come and go, and I've seen a lot of changes," Watson said. "After four years, it all hits you. You ask yourself if it was or wasn't worth it. Through all the good and bad, I think it was worth it."

Watson's worth to SDSU is measured in the Aztec record book. He is the school's No. 2 career scorer behind Michael Cage with 1,689 points. He has the school record for career field goals (682). And he became the second Aztec to lead the WAC in scoring when he averaged 23.1 points in conference play this season.

Last summer, Watson had plenty to savor. He was coming off an All-WAC season, he had played in the NCAA Tournament and SDSU was making him the cover boy on its media guide, touting him as an All-American candidate.

However, things did not progress as well. Watson began suffering from tendinitis in his knees, an condition that ultimately slowed him down in preseason practice.

Ten days before the season, Watson cut the webbing between the index and middle fingers on his shooting hand. He didn't miss any games, but the tape on his hand bothered him so much that he tore it off at halftime of the season opener.

Once that injury healed, his ankle began to hurt. And most of all, his pride was wounded after SDSU set a school record by losing its first seven games.

This was the encore of his standout junior season?

"It seemed like I would get over one thing and something else would happen," Watson said. "Everything really had me down, especially the hand injury and the losing. It was like I had nowhere to go. I was depressed mentally and hurting physically. In this predicament, I was thankful for the Lord. I told myself that if I kept working hard, something good would happen."

Eventually, Watson was benched for the Dec. 29 Holiday Bowl tournament game against Fresno State because he had missed curfew the night before.

"I was really down on myself during the Holiday Bowl Classic," Watson said. "I was trying to break out of my frustration. Then, I was benched in the second game because of a mishap between the coach and I. I felt it was time to turn things around because I was really down on myself."

Watson, averaging 17.8 points before being benched, is averaging 24.9 since. His overall average is 22.5.

He made good on his commitment to turn things around.

When Watson was 12, he moved from Chicago to Detroit after his mother married a Baptist minister.

"My mother was the type of person who would look out for her young 'uns," Watson said. "She was always there looking over me. She was always on my side no matter what I did. She had enough trust in me."

Shirley Watson always trusted that Anthony was using his time well at a recreation center in Detroit. Her trust proved valid.

When Watson was a senior at Detroit's Cooley High School, he earned all-state honors by averaging 31 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists. Virtually everybody in the area figured Watson would attend Michigan with his high school teammate Roy Tarpley, but Watson thought twice.

"I didn't want to make a mistake," Watson said. "My priority was to go where I could play right away. At the time, Smokey Gaines seemed to be the only guy who was truthful in what he was saying to me. Plus, I really loved it here. It was like another world. When I came out here in February, it was 84 degrees. When I went back home, there was four feet of snow on the ground."

Shortly after Watson arrived at SDSU, he discovered Gaines was not giving him a snow job. Watson earned his first start in the season's ninth game and scored 26 points as SDSU beat Florida State, 89-85, in the Cabrillo tournament.

Watson started the last 20 games of his freshman season and averaged 11.4 points overall. He seemed to be on top of the world.

As a sophomore, he would learn about the inglorious side of being a student/athlete.

Before Watson's sophomore season, he was confronted with an academic snafu. Though his grade-point average was sufficient, he did not have enough quality points on a scale determining whether a student is on schedule to graduate with his class.

The result: Watson was ineligible until he caught up with his classmates. He took accelerated classes at Mesa College and regained eligibility in early December.

In the interim, Watson survived three months that were "like being in prison."

Since Watson was not on scholarship while attending Mesa, he worked part-time at a gas station, earning $4 an hour.

"Working and going to college took its toll on me," he said. "At first, I worked in the morning and went to school at night. I studied until 2 or 3 in the morning. It was probably the only time in my life I drank coffee. I didn't even play basketball. I figured if I played then, I probably would never get to play again after that. If I went out and shot, I probably would have neglected my studying. I used the little free time that I had for resting."

Watson worked at a gas station owned by Sal Freitas, an Aztec booster. Freitas said Watson did everything from pumping gas to cleaning the rest rooms.

When business slowed down in the evening, Watson had a little bit of time to himself. Freitas said he often saw Watson studying during breaks between customers.

One day, the predicament struck Watson. He was 2,000 miles from home, working or studying most of his waking hours, and he wasn't even getting to shoot a basketball.

He even contemplated returning to Detroit. However, his mother and Freitas talked him out of it.

"I talked to him more man-to-man than as an employee," Freitas said. "I said if he hung it up and went home, he would show he couldn't cope with the situation. I told him to prove himself to the academic department at San Diego State. He could prove that he wasn't a dummy, and that he could get the good grades to be a basketball player."

When Watson returned to basketball, his inactivity was evident. He didn't earn a starting berth until mid-January and averaged 10.5 points overall.

But his biggest conquest of the season had been in perseverance.

"That season got him ready for the future," Gaines said. "He probably saw the handwriting on the wall. You would have thought about going back to Detroit if you were going to school and working nights for a few bucks an hour. A lot of kids would have given up. He made the adjustment."

If Watson has his way, the next adjustment will be learning to play in the NBA. According to Gaines, Watson may be picked as early as the second round in the coming NBA draft.

A big question is whether he will play point guard or off guard. He may not handle the ball well enough to play point guard. At 6-feet 3-inches, he may not be big enough to defend other off guards.

Marty Blake, who directs an NBA scouting service, said the certainty is that Watson will at least be given an NBA tryout.

"It narrows down to the same thing," Blake said. "He'll be given an opportunity to make a team. After that, it depends on a player's ability."

Gaines said Watson could be a "steal" for an NBA team since he doesn't figure to be selected in the first round.

"Right now, I don't think I'm getting as much publicity as a lot of players around," Watson said. "It's just a matter of exposure. I'll be out to prove I can play against them."

It won't be as easy as scoring 54 points against USIU, which has the nation's worst defense. However, playing in the NBA would be a lot more pleasant than working at a gas station again.

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