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Charlotte, N.C. • It's an invisible line few NBA teams ever cross. Rookies and young players on one side, veterans on the other.
The line exists for a reason. It conveys status, prestige and respect. It separates the known from the unknown, the real from the temporary.
Live on one side and you're in a vet who understands The Association can be as much about points and wins as paychecks and cache. Live on the other and you're temporarily out a fresh-faced athlete who's spent half your life rising above cutthroat competition, then must spend your first few years as a professional proving not just that you can survive in an unforgiving league but that you're cool enough and real enough to hang with the best in the world.
Thirty-seven games into the 2011-12 season, the Jazz have already blurred the line and they're doing their best to erase it.
It's not just that longtimers such as Earl Watson, Raja Bell and Jamaal Tinsley constantly trade inside jokes with and playfully tease first- and second-year players Gordon Hayward, Jeremy Evans, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. It's that on and off the court, 30-plus-year-old men who've seen it all genuinely get a kick out of spending much of their waking time with 20-something young adults who've never enjoyed a winning NBA season.
The 32-year-old Watson has spent 11 years in the league, playing for seven franchises. He said nothing compares to this season with Utah. Before the Jazz played Minnesota on Feb. 22, Hayward and Evans invited the wise, fiery vet to the Mall of America. Their pitch: Come ride roller coasters with us. A lingering cold kept Watson off the rides. But he soon made up for his absence, teaming with Evans and Burks to hit a mall in Sacramento, Calif., before Utah faced the Kings on Feb. 28. Of course, Evans got lost along the way and the mall was a ghost town-like bust. But their bond only grew stronger.
"I'm probably closer to them than any group of players on the team, which is odd," Watson said.
Part of the relationship is practical. Watson leads a second unit that can feature four lottery picks from the 2010 and 2011 NBA Drafts now that Hayward's a reserve, with all four youngsters being 21 or less. By spending time together away from the hardwood, it makes it easier for Watson to bark orders on it.
But the friendships are also sincere. And Watson's fully aware he looks like a cool professor hanging with underclassmen on the weekend.
"I'm like the movie 'Old School' I went back to college," said Watson, referring to the 2003 comedy starring Will Ferrell.
Bell said it's easier to cross the line when players such as Hayward, Evans and Burks don't walk around like they're entitled to everything that comes their way. As much as egos and entourages can drag down vets, an inflated sense of self-worth often plagues modern young NBA players. Not in Jazzland, Bell said.
Hayward looks up to the 35-year-old shooting guard, who's spent 12 seasons carving out a unique identity in what can be a cookie-cutter profession. Bell reflects the admiration with everything from personal advice to fashion tips.
"You should be friends with your teammates, man. It makes for a better on-court chemistry," Bell said. "The fact that we get along with them speaks more to who they are as good, young people. We don't have those guys that came in with this air of arrogance and entitlement."
Hayward and his "improve every day" mantra rarely, if ever, smack of ego. He studies Watson during postgame interviews, listening to the vet break down the Jazz's success and struggles. He follows Bell's guidance, soaking up perspective from one of the fiercest competitors in the NBA.
"Everybody on the team is kind of cool with each other and there's no one that's distancing themselves," Hayward said.
The line keeps blurring.
Utah keeps growing.
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