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Sparks MVP? It’s elementary for Dr. Watson, team trainer

Head athletic trainer Courtney Watson tapes the ankle of a Sparks player.
(Courtesy of Sparks)

Courtney Watson is done with her doctorate degree, but Dr. Watson, as the Sparks are calling their head athletic trainer now, is not done with textbooks.

On the way to a recent practice, Sparks guard Seimone Augustus noticed how Watson was thumbing through a book on human anatomy. In her 12th year with the Sparks, Watson is always learning, always adapting.

She has never needed that quality more than now.

Watson is the team’s most important asset as she helps players and coaches navigate a global pandemic and a condensed 22-game season. For a woman whose grandmother and mother were both educators, this moment seems made for Watson.

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“This is just what I’m meant to do,” she said.

Sports medicine has been Watson’s passion since high school. She wanted to work in medicine, and she also was a multisport athlete, playing basketball and volleyball and running track at Westchester High. She connected the two when her friend injured his ankle and she took him to physical therapy at the West Coast Sports Medicine Foundation. A light suddenly came on in her head. She was volunteering there within a week.

Watson, who studied sociology at California and earned her master’s from California University of Pennsylvania, has worked in the WNBA and the NBA developmental league. She’s a fixture on the sideline at the Drew League. She was a trainer for Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Nothing prepared her to face the global pandemic hanging over the WNBA’s season. For that, she did what she’s always done: listen and learn.

While completing her doctorate in athletic training this summer during quarantine, Watson worked with doctors and experts to better understand the coronavirus. When the league still was imagining what its bubble season would look like, Watson already was prepping her players. Take vitamins to keep a strong immune system. Wear a mask while working out to prepare for the inevitable mandates in Florida. Stay hydrated. That tip is evergreen, she says.

Watson continues to be part of the team’s pandemic patrol in the bubble. During training, players said Watson would sometimes scold them for getting within six feet of each other off the court.

“Health and safety have been the No. 1 priority of mine and my Sparks players and our organization,” Watson said. “Every single day, there’s no time to really relax on that part.”

Clearing that first hurdle is just the beginning of what Watson calls a “24-hour job.”

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Sparks trainer Courtney Watson works with a player on her form during a training session.
Courtney Watson works with a Sparks player on her form during a training session.
(Courtesy of Sparks)

With many teams playing games less than 48 hours apart, athletic trainers are the key cog of the WNBA bubble. Efficient rest and recovery is more important than ever. Watson and her athletic training staff have set up shop at a villa in Bradenton.

Giant plastic tubs line the driveway as players sit in waist-high ice baths between games. Watson carefully pricks them with dry needles to promote blood flow. She applies suction cups to their sore shoulders and soothes the muscles in their tired legs with stainless steel instruments. Mental recuperation is as necessary as physical recovery, so there might be a puzzle to solve.

“Court’s Corner” serves as both a treatment room and living room, where players, away from their homes and isolated from some family members, can gather with Watson at the center of their new family.

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“She’s freaking amazing,” said first-year forward Reshanda Gray, a fellow L.A. native who had heard stories about Watson. “I just feel so much safer, I feel so much more well prepared for the next game after we just finished a game the night before because she’s just so on top of her things.”

Building trust with players is Watson’s first priority. The team added six new players this season, and with no in-person training camp before the season, the initial meetings didn’t happen until everyone arrived in Florida in July. But Watson already had been working with players from afar. She follows them on social media and was calling and texting them during the summer to understand their injury histories.

“They know I’ll sacrifice whatever it takes to make them feel the best they can,” Watson said, “and they know it’s not just because they play for the Sparks, it’s because I care about them as human beings and mothers and women that are in our world right now facing so much adversity. … Whatever it takes, they know they can call me.”

Between caring for the Sparks and monitoring the team’s pandemic response, Watson also mentors the next generation of athletic trainers through a sports medicine internship program aimed at high school or college students interested in working in the field. With Watson’s guidance, interns help at high schools like Westchester that don’t necessarily have resources for full athletic training staffs. She shows them the ropes at the Drew League. After hundreds of hours of training, interns, who have come from as far as Japan and Spain, can work with the Sparks. Terrance Gaines, the team’s massage therapist, is a former Court’s Corner intern.

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Due to the pandemic, in-person training opportunities were limited this year, but Watson still meets with the group virtually.

“I would have wanted to be in a program like this when I was coming up and I didn’t have that opportunity,” Watson said. “So to create it was a great joy.”

Although she’s internationally renowned for her work, Watson, who was a teacher and athletic trainer at Westchester for 13 years, still remembers working at an underserved high school. Supplies were short. Athletes couldn’t always afford surgeries. She learned the power of the community in those times when organizations like the West Coast Sports Medicine Foundation rallied for donations and fundraisers.

Her hometown’s strength was a reason why Watson, after starting her career in professional sports as a trainer for the Houston Comets, eagerly applied for the Sparks position when the Comets folded in 2009. Watson has been with the franchise through 10 playoff runs and cared for two most valuable players. She often thinks about the 2016 WNBA championship and what it would take to get that rush again.

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“It’s not just about one person, it’s really about a team,” Watson said. “I’m very prideful of my sports medicine team being just as great as the team as a whole.”

Those on the court might argue Watson’s work is even more significant than that of the team. Guard Sydney Wiese called her a “complete rock star.” Coach Derek Fisher designated Watson as the team’s MVP before the season started.

“I don’t think that’s changing anytime soon,” Fisher said with a smile.


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