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As his team finished its morning shootaround Wednesday in Salt Lake City, Earl Watson's gaze was drawn to the rafters and a banner commemorating Jerry Sloan's 1,223 wins as coach of the Utah Jazz.
"Coach Sloan, what he meant to basketball, what he meant to my career … is everything," Watson said.
Watson has ways to go to catch up to his mentor. The new coach of the Phoenix Suns has nine wins as an NBA head coach, taking over interim duties after the Suns fired Jeff Hornacek last season. But at age 37, and now with the security of a new three-year contract in Phoenix, Watson is looking to take his lessons from playing for Sloan and the relationships he made as a Jazzman to build something in the desert.
Former Jazz head coach Ty Corbin, who took over for Sloan after his resignation in 2011, was hired this summer as one of Watson's assistants. Mehmet Okur, one of Watson's teammates during his stint with the Jazz, was brought on as a part-time skills coach.
"One thing about playing here under Coach Sloan's regime is that it's family," Watson said. "When you leave, that family stays forever, those relationships are forever. Them coming with me, I just brought my family with me."
On Wednesday, Corbin was back at Vivint Arena, smiling as he worked out forward Jared Dudley. Okur, meanwhile, spent time working with big men Alex Len and Dragan Bender at the end of his team's shootaround. But he also worked with 6-foot-3 guard Brandon Knight.
"Whoever wants to get better, I'm here for them," said Okur.
The retired center had acted as a community ambassador for the Jazz in recent years, meeting with sponsors and season-ticket holders and hosting youth clinics, but he wanted more. When Watson called and inquired about his services, Okur jumped at the chance to join him.
"He's tough," Okur said. "He worked with Hubie [Brown] with Memphis and Jerry Sloan. He learned so much from them. … He's hungry and he's new at it and getting better every day."
The Suns are one of the NBA's youngest teams. During a shooting drill Wednesday, Watson divided his players into two groups, players who were older than 24 and players who were not. As it turned out, there were too many players younger than the cutoff; Watson had to drop the age split down to 22.
But Watson, whose press conferences and pep talks move seamlessly between the motivational and the philosophical "We can't ask our young guys to be great without first giving them the opportunity to fail," he said of letting 19-year-old Devin Booker become the team's No. 1 scoring option has won over his young locker room.
"When I was going through all the rookie struggles and not playing, he was telling me to be patient, your time will come," said Booker, whom Watson mentored closely even before the coaching change. "He was like a big brother for me."
That "family concept" is why Booker and his teammates rallied around Watson after Hornacek's firing and vouched for him when Suns management was deciding over the summer whether to make his position as head coach permanent.
"We realized once he took over, we weren't going to be able to move in no direction unless we were all together," Booker said. "Everything we do is as a family, as one. Spin class, yoga, everything we do is together. That's one of our biggest improvements."
It's a principle Watson hopes will help the Suns rebuild after a disappointing 23-win season, and a principle that was shaped in part by his time in Salt Lake City.
"Those are like my brothers and my mentors. … We've been together through battles. We come from a place that was special to us," Watson said of Corbin and Okur before Wednesday's preseason game against their old team.
Then the young coach harkened back to Sloan.
"The way he brought his presence to the game, the knowledge. He taught you how to be a man," Watson said. "It's everlasting. You feel it here still now when you walk into the building."