Kansas City may be known more as a college basketball town these days, but two NBA head coaches with Kansas City ties, Cleveland’s Tyronn Lue and Phoenix’s Earl Watson, will make history when their teams face each other on Sunday.
Last June, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship and set off a celebration in that city. At the same time, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, a graduate of Raytown High School, couldn’t pry himself from the bench. He sat with his face buried in his hands.
“I’ve always been tough and never cried,” says in the post-game news conference. “My brother’s here and he says, ‘I’ve never seen you cry before.’ A lot of emotions built up.”
Before his sophomore year at Raytown, Lue grew up in Mexico, Missouri. On national TV, he singled out his hometown after he collected himself. “I’m happy for the city of Cleveland, the state of Ohio, the Cleveland Cavaliers organization and Mexico, Missouri. We in the house, baby!”
The trophy presentation followed on a temporary stage at center court where NBA commissioner Adam Silver present the 2016 NBA championship trophy. Behind the stage stood Cavs assistant coach Larry Drew, the first Kansas City metro high school basketball player to become a head coach in the NBA. Drew, from Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas, sought out Lue to soak up the moment.
“I saw him on one end and I was on the other. We just stared at each other,” recalled Drew. “I started walking toward him and he got so emotional. I got emotional. We just grabbed and hugged each other. We just cried together man. It was so, so special.”
With less fanfare, Earl Watson, a graduate of Washington High School product also in Kansas City, Kansas, was named interim head coach of the Phoenix Suns last February and then had the interim tag taken away this season. Watson recalled his first impressions of Tyronn Lue, “When T. Lue first moved to Kansas City, I’m two grades under him, two years under. So when T. Lue first came, I was automatically his biggest fan.”
Watson watched how Lue played the game on every level—high school, college at Nebraska and with the Los Angeles Lakers where Lue was part of two championships as a player. While playing college ball at UCLA, Watson got even closer to Lue.
“I would spend time with him, go to his condo,” says Watson. “He’d leave me tickets to the (Lakers) game. We were always together.”
Lue reciprocated those feelings about watching Watson develop, starting from their days in Kansas City.
“Just seeing him around and how he developed into a great player, then going to UCLA, then having a 12 or 13-year career in the NBA. It means a lot,” says Lue. “Now going through the next stage of our career, both being head coaches, it’s a big thing for Kansas City.”
When the Suns and Cavs face each other, it will be the first time two Kansas City area high school graduates will be on opposite benches as head coaches. Suns beat writer Paul Coro, formerly with The Kansas City Star, looked forward to that game.
“As a former K.C. guy, I think it’s the coolest thing in the world to see those guys on opposite sidelines. To see where those guys came from in K.C., these guys weren’t the blue blood stars that had everything paid for them. They both grinded out of their neighborhood schools.”
After the championship last summer, Lue returned to his hometown of Mexico, where he was honored with a parade. But even though most of Lue’s boyhood years were spent in central Missouri, he says his high school years in Kansas City were memorable.
“Kansas City gave me a lot of great years to really make me a man, take that next step of seeing what the city life was about and getting me ready to go to L.A. from out of college at Nebraska.” says Lue. “Kansas City meant a lot to me and (I) met a lot of great friends there. The competition itself really got me where I wanted to get to as a basketball player.”
Watson returned to Kansas City, Kansas last summer, but under tragic circumstances. He attended the sentencing of a man who shot his older brother, a former policeman.
Larry Drew, Lue’s assistant coach, perhaps offered the best perspective on what it means to have Kansas City coaching ties in the NBA, “Absolutely it’s a big deal. For both guys to have accomplished what they have accomplished as far as their NBA careers, having been players and now they’re coaches. Now they’re head coaches. It’s a phenomenal feat.”
Experts predict the Cavs will return to the NBA Finals this season. The Suns are rebuilding, so Watson will need to persevere. But when Lue and Watson are on the same court in Phoenix, the two coaches and Kansas City will have something to celebrate.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter.