A Look into the Basketball Past of AJA’s Boys Basketball Head Coach
After a Saturday night win last year, a friend of boys basketball head coach Lamont Watkins came into the locker room. After briefly addressing the team, the visitor praised his old teammate, calling him one of the best basketball players he had seen play. The players had little experience to judge the claim; Coach Watkins seldom participates in practice — it seems he has only once, his first year at AJA, when only three players were able to make it to practice. When asked about why he doesn’t shoot around in practice, the coach laughed and simply said, “I just don’t anymore.”
Nevertheless, Coach Watkins’s friend appears to be on solid footing. Jokingly, Coach Watkins described himself as “Steph Curry before Steph Curry,” recalling when he beat then-NBA player Trent Tucker in a shoot-out during high school. (Tucker was a career 41% 3-point shooter in the NBA over 11 seasons.) His alma mater would also agree; Coach Watkins was inducted into the Salem International University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016.
Growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, Coach Watkins’ first love was surprisingly baseball. But, he said, “everyone gravitates to basketball” in New York since you can play basketball indoors year-round, so he dropped baseball.
Coach Watkins played his first three years of high school basketball at Mount Vernon High School before transferring to nearby New Rochelle High School for his senior year. Throughout his basketball career, he played point and shooting guard. At the collegiate level, he averaged 19 points and more than 4 assists per game at Salem International, which put him at fourth and sixth in school history, respectively, at the time of his graduation.
After a brief stint in the NBA Summer League with the Los Angeles Clippers, Coach Watkins took his talents to Japan, where he played professionally for a year and a half. He explained that as part of his one-year contract, he could also work another job for six months of the year. During the second six-month period, he worked as an English teacher in addition to playing basketball; after his basketball contract was up, he finished up his year teaching.
Coach Watkins shared a funny story about his very first night in Japan. He described sitting in a hotel room with some friends on the 31st floor of a high-rise building when they felt the buildings starting to sway. It turned out Japan experienced an earthquake, and they were instructed over the hotel intercom to take cover in their bathtub.
When he returned stateside, Coach Watkins got into coaching almost immediately. On his second day back, a friend who served as recreation director at a children’s home offered him a basketball coaching gig, which he accepted. From there, he coached at a few schools in Yonkers, Brooklyn, and his own high school in New Rochelle before moving down to Atlanta, where he coached at the Weber School and now at AJA. He has also coached AAU travel ball teams.
“At the collegiate level, [Coach Watkins] averaged 19 points and more than 4 assists per game at Salem International, which put him at fourth and sixth in school history, respectively, at the time of his graduation.”
Throughout his playing career, Coach Watkins played under coaches who impacted him and now influence his coaching style. In eighth grade, Coach Watkins said, Coach Grabiano taught him the fundamentals of basketball: how to shoot a layup, how to square up for a shot. Coach Watkins confessed, “That’s how I fell in love with [basketball].” Coach Tony Forentino, his high school coach for three years, similarly taught discipline. “If you were in practice, and you wasn’t (sic) ready to practice,” Coach Watkins remembered, “he would just [throw] you out.” Coach Watkins added that Coach Forentino helped him embark on “the regimen of always being ready.”
Coach Watkins’ next high school coach, Jim Bostic, approached the game differently. Already steeped in the mantra of hard work and fundamentals, Coach Watkins benefited from who he described as a “player’s coach.” He explained that with a “player’s coach,” a player can “just sit and have a conversation” with their coach, even outside of practice. Although his head coach in college acted more like Coach Forentino, he called Assistant Coach Andy Sorine “the ultimate player’s coach.”
As a coach, Coach Watkins has tried to pull from the best of both worlds. While he has tried to instill discipline — for example, a player tardy to practice runs laps until Coach tells him to stop, if at all — he sees himself as a player’s coach. He said as much, using his relationship with his players to elaborate on what it means to him to be a player’s coach: “Like how you guys come talk to me all the time… [How] sometimes I joke with y’all on the bench — that’s a player’s coach,” he remarked.
Coach Watkins said that one of his favorite parts of being a coach is the “opportunity to help kids grow” and see them mature. Now in his fourth year at AJA, this year’s seniors (the author included) started with Coach Watkins in their freshmen year, which was also his first at the school. Looking at this year’s batch, he said that he has seen the “process [of them] as [people] just continuing to get better.” He explained that it “is always rewarding to see that your work, you know, isn’t in vain,” when he looks at his graduating players every year.
A large part of Coach Watkins’ contribution to players’ development comes from his connection to the players and how he embodies his role as a “player’s coach” — even beyond basketball. He views attributes like patience, accountability, responsibility, and dedication to help student-athletes both on the court and in life. Just like “you can’t always just go at one speed” on the court, he taught, the same applies in life; similarly, a person owes his employer or employees accountability and mutual respect, and “you got to be dedicated to your craft” — regardless of what it is. For that reason, he said, “Basketball is nothing more than a tool — that’s it — for whatever you aspire to be in life.” Coach Watkins wants his players to have the attitude of, “You know what, forget about basketball. I just like talking to Coach. I like learning something about life from Coach.”
This attitude seems to have trickled down to the team in the way the players relate to their coach. Players know that a boneheaded mistake will likely result in a quick hook — Coach Watkins recalled calling a timeout to remove Oron Porat (AJA ‘19) from the game after a poorly-shot wide-open layup — but as long as they show effort, they will soon return to the game.
“A large part of Coach Watkins’ contribution to players’ development comes from his connection to the players and how he embodies his role as a “player’s coach” — even beyond basketball.”
In a signal of a strong connection, the team seems to have adopted many of Coach Watkins’ distinct mannerisms and sayings and taken to some of his more creative nicknames. Junior Yered Wittenberg has proudly adopted the “road dog” moniker he earned from Coach Watkins during the lengthy drives to the Cooper Yeshiva High School Invitational Tournament in Memphis, and the dribbling antics of Gabi Gadelov (AJA ‘20) became widely recognized as the “Gabi Show.”
Beyond that, the team group chat for the last four years has borne the name “9 TIMES OUT OF 10” after Coach Watkins’ oft-used expression that if a player commits a certain mistake or successfully executes, then a certain result will follow “nine times out of ten.” After each drill, Coach Watkins selects a player from the victorious squad to shoot a free throw to “validate” the drill; if he makes the free throw, then the other team has to run a down-and-back, but if he misses, then his otherwise-winning team receives the punishment. In the latter case, players know that they will be greeted by a “you won, but you lost.”
This dynamic plays out in post-practice and post-game team meetings. Coach Watkins names all of his seniors captains and allows them to speak to the team after he does. This year, senior Noah Chen has often fallen into the pattern of reinforcing Coach Watkins’ mantras. The senior captain has urged the team to “invest in a jump rope” to improve their cardio stamina, instructed them to make “aggressive mistakes” because “you can’t coach effort,” and plead with them to avoid “burning the midnight oil.” Noah cautioned players that it is better to ask if they don’t know a play instead of making a fool of themselves in a game that would require Coach Watkins’ characteristic quick substitution.
“In a signal of a strong connection, the team seems to have adopted many of Coach Watkins’ distinct mannerisms and sayings and taken to some of his more creative nicknames.”
Besides being removed from the game, making a mistake from not knowing the playbook well enough or displaying a lack of a basketball IQ brings an even more dreaded punishment. After a particularly freshmanic mistake, Coach Watkins will walk over to a player, look at them with a sigh, and simply ask, “What grade you in?” Then, he will look over to the rest of the team with an exasperated smile and, like he is telling an inside joke, will ask them the same question about their teammate — just one part of Coach Watkins’ close relationship with his team as a “player’s coach.”